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Singapore: Law Society Faces Criticism From Online Community

Categories: East Asia, Singapore, Citizen Media, Law

Singapore's Law Society is in hot water on social media platforms after allegations were made that they had attempted to prevent human rights lawyer Madasamy Ravi from continuing to fight his cases in court.

On July 16, 2012, opposition politician Kenneth Jeyaretnam – who was in court with Mr Ravi and his client Mdm Vellama – tweeted:

@KenJeyaretnam [1]: Law Society attempting to have M. Ravi declared unfit to practise law and sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

He later followed it up by posting a copy of a letter Mr Ravi's psychiatrist had written to the Law Society. The post has since been removed, but has been picked up by other online outlets such as The Online Citizen [2].

Mr Ravi had been in court that morning for an open court hearing on the discretionary powers of the Prime Minister in calling a by-election. Mr Wong Siew Hong, who is on the council of the Law Society, then appeared in court, wanting to address the judge. Lawyer Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss describes [3] what she saw:

I sat in the public gallery, which was packed. Reporters were also present.  The Hearing started with M Ravi going first. The Judge asked M Ravi some probing legal questions.  M Ravi understood the Judge's questions, and replied them in a manner which the Judge seemed satisfied with.  The exchange between M Ravi and the Judge was pleasant, courteous and mutually respectful.

If M Ravi is under any mental illness, it was not apparent to me that morning. Justice Pillai did not look like he found M Ravi to be anything but mentally normal. When M Ravi had finished speaking, it was the Attorney-General lawyer's (whom I shall call “AG”) turn.

Andrew Loh and Richard Wan later interviewed [4] Mr Ravi, who said that the letter was “ridiculous”. It was also pointed out that the letter had been dated the day of the hearing, when the doctor had actually seen Mr Ravi two days prior:

Mr Ravi has worked on numerous high-profile cases in Singapore. He is an advocate for the abolishment of the death penalty and has represented several death row inmates. Recently, he has also been representing Ms Vellama Marie Muthu in her application [5] for the Supreme Court to determine the discretionary powers of the Prime Minister in calling for a by-election, as well as Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam in his application [6] to stop the government from pledging US$4 billion to the International Monetary Fund.

The Law Society later issued a statement clarifying that they had not made an application to prevent Mr Ravi from appearing in court, as reported in Temasek Review Emeritus [7].

The news of the psychiatrist's letter has led to much speculation and criticism online, as Singaporeans raise suspicions of efforts to silence or discredit a vocal lawyer.

Hendra Lee [8]: They are finding excuses to prevent him from practising. If I rem correctly, M Ravi pleaded guilty and was fined several times for causing trouble at the mosque and hindu temple and South Bridge Rd. But that doesn't mean he is not a brilliant lawyer.

Luo Han [9]: This is wanton victimization of the lone lawyer in Singapore who is brave enough to tell the State when laws are unjust or manifestly oppressive against the ordinary Singaporean. I know M.Ravi personally. He is the champion of the man or woman with no voice, of the marginalized and the disadvantaged. If the Law Society succeeds in this attempt to strip M.Ravi of his livelihood, it will be a sad day for the voiceless Singaporeans who have NO recourse or are unable to afford legal assistance especially in criminal matters. It will also be a sad day for the Law Society because it will lose its standing of respectability and any claim to a non-partisan reputation will be flushed down the toilet bowl.

Many also called out the psychiatrist, Dr Calvin Fones, for breaching doctor-patient confidentiality in writing to the Law Society without his patient's knowledge or consent.

Betty Teo [10]: Why would a psychiatrist write to the law society about his patient in the first place, unless he is ordered to do so?

Balaji Narashimhan [11]: I am hoping this leter is not true because if it is, this I absolutely disgusting. A flagrant and completely unethical breach of a doctor and patient's confidentiality. How can any person be safe with this doctor knowing that if he feels like it he can wantonly diagnose a person without a one to one interview or a thoroug review of his medical history with a mental illness or a relapse? He should be reported to the Singapore medical association and have his licence suspended. Bipolar people are NOT crazy and simply having bipolar disorder does not mean you're unfit for working.

On July 18, 2012, the Law Society released a statement [12] dismissing suspicions of a conspiracy and saying that Mr Wong Siew Hong had been acting of his own volition:

LSS believes that it is important that the public has confidence in LSS as an independent professional body which has always balanced the interests of the public and individual lawyers. Unsubstantiated criticism of LSS is unfair to its volunteers, and does the public a grave disservice. Any suggestion of a conspiracy involving the LSS is untrue and irresponsible.

Some bloggers have found the Law Society's statement unsatisfactory. Ng E-Jay questions [13] whether Mr Wong had really been acting “on his own”. Bertha Henson feels [14] that the Law Society should take care of its own operations before censuring others:

What kind of outfit is the LawSoc running when one  of its own can go running  to the courts armed with a letter to the LawSoc? Was the “representative” Wong Siew Hong really so silly as not to even keep any of the  LawSoc bosses informed that he was going to do so? Surely, there are procedures in place in the LawSoc before any lawyer can go running to the courts or come up with a statement on behalf of the LawSoc? So, I say Mr Wong Meng Meng: Go shoot your own messenger.