X-Raying 'Lawyers for Liberty': Another Malaysian Weapon Fired at Singapore?

You might be forgiven for thinking that the latest barrage of accusations against the Singapore's death penalty is just another fit thrown by a foreign NGO - as it has happened over many years. This time, however, it's a little bit different because the organization making these accusations is Malaysian - and what they claim suggests (without any evidence provided) that Singapore's laws have been breached, what prompted a sharp rebuke from the government.

While it may very well seem that 'Lawyers for Liberty' are merely another concerned group of self-righteous activists, vocally voicing their views, it is not so obvious when you take a closer look at it and the people involved.


LFL was founded in 2011. The founding members were all affiliated with Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), led by none other than Anwar Ibrahim. Two of them - Latheefa Koya and N Surendran - sat on PKR's Central Executive Committee for many years (N Surendran was appointed Vice-President of PKR in 2010) while Michelle Yasudas and Eric Paulsen worked as lawyers in various PKR-linked cases over the years. The current director of the organization, Melissa Sasidaran, was a member of Youth PKR and its executive committee in the past.

In other words, since its inception, the role of LFL was highly political and its main aim was to support PKR - and Malaysian opposition - in their fight to defeat Barisan Nasional and unseat Najib Razak from his post.

Their struggle for human rights and the rule of law was not some greater ideological crusade but was rather a tool in pushing for political change in Malaysia. In other words 'Lawyers for Liberty' are politicians first, activists second (if at all...).

Today PKR is the largest party in the Pakatan Harapan coalition which won elections in 2018. Once that happened there's no escaping the reality that the organization is now de facto an arm of the ruling party and current Malaysian government - so that N in the NGO should surely be dropped.

Lawyers for Hypocrisy

It's hard not to suspect that rapid ascent of organization's leaders since PH won the election is not entirely owed to their past activism or competences but, in no small part, is a reward for their submission to Mahathir (a fact that is doubly unsettling, since they joined politics as acolytes of Anwar who was Mahathir's most famous victim and the man who started push for reforms in late 1990s).

Today, the activists and lawyers who once fought for his freedom and in defense of civil liberties are siding with Mahathir and collecting perks for it.

All three - Surendran, Koya and Paulsen - switched sides a long while ago. After the historic election results in 2018 here's what Paulsen said about Dr. M:

“Mahathir was a tyrant but he did a lot of good things for Malaysia. At the time, the country was seen on par with South Korea.”. / E.Paulsen

Mahathir's Malaysia was, indeed, on par with South Korea - BEFORE he became the prime minister in 1981. That year the GDP per capita of both countries stood at about $1800. A decade later, in 1991, South Korea soared to $7500 while Malaysia lagged behind at paltry $2650. In 2003, when Mahathir finally stepped down, Malaysian GDP barely reached $4500, while South Korean pierced $14,000.

I'm not sure Mr. Paulsen compared Mahathir's Malaysia to the right Korea there. Both his methods and results are rather closer to the achievements of Pyongyang than Seoul.

Kind words, however, appear to have paid off as several months later, on 14th of January 2019, Eric Paulsen was nominated by Mahathir's government as Malaysia's Representative to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights for the subsequent 3 years.

In the meanwhile, Ms. Koya - a long time defender and lawyer of Anwar - launched an unprecedented assault against him over PKR's state leadership appointments in December 2018. Quite outwardly she accused Anwar of nepotism and cronyism in an incident that shook the party, prompted Nurul Izzah, Anwar's daughter, to step down from all party roles and resulted in disciplinary complaints fired at Koya in return by other party members.

Not that she would have to worry about them for much longer as she was appointed by Mahathir to head MACC - Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission - just six months later.

To take on that role she resigned from PKR and stepped down as the Executive Director of Lawyers for Liberty - a post she still held while representing the party.

Ironically, Latheefa complained about PKR's state appointments being arbitrary and lacking majority support - and yet herself ended up receiving the MACC post directly from Mahathir who had not consulted anybody before the announcement.

Somehow this did not seem to faze her and she gladly accepted the job.

In the meanwhile, N Surendran started warming to Mahathir back in 2016, defending the old PM when he was ejected as an advisor from Petronas and stripped of his police escort in the spring that year, Surendran came to his aid protesting the government's moves - even as Anwar was reportedly cautioning PKR members not to trust Mahathir. Turns out Mahathir's defection from UMNO was enough to wash away his sins in the eyes of these devout activists.

Despite long-standing position in the Central Executive Committee both Surendran and Koya have become known as members of "Azmin Cartel" - PKR members opposing Anwar's future leadership and siding with his younger rival - who also happens to be a personal favorite of Dr. Mahathir himself. It's no surprise then that it was Surendran who served as Azmin's lawyer during the gay sex-tape scandal that rattled Anwar's challenger last year.

It is pretty clear that for human rights activists, Lawyers for Liberty are all very much engaged in politics, while their alliance to Azmin Ali means they are close to Mahathir himself. This explains not only their accelerating ascent in the past two years but also the reason why they are now on a collision course with good doctor's favorite adversary - Singapore.

Leaving You Hanging

After Pakatan Harapan won the elections in May 2018 LFL found themselves in an unexpected position. Their role as a check on a rogue government had ended. Party they were affiliated with had become the largest in the parliament and a part of the government. Of course it didn't mean Malaysia had become problem-free overnight but people from their very own camp received the power to do what they promised.

It is no surprise, then that the last piece of commentary by LFL was published two days before the elections:

Since then the organization only releases statements - likely owing to being abandoned by its main figures, now engaged in other affairs. Paulsen and Koya are no longer with the organization after taking government appointments. LFL is officially led by Melissa Sasidaran but N Surendran appears to be a very active advisor - what, given his coziness with Azmin, means he can also serve the role of a liaison with Malaysia's top authorities.

So much for an "NGO" again, is it not?

Anyway, you may still think - "So what? They have campaigned for years in promotion of certain ideals - including abolition of death penalty and protection of Malaysian convicts - and now are simply using their position to make them happen. What's wrong with that?"

Well, let's take a look at how many statements defending Malaysian convicts on Singaporean death row the organization has released since its inception in 2010:

  • 2010: 7 - including 4 statements in August, on the case of 18 year old Vui Kong, which was turned into a political event for PKR members campaigning for clemency

  • 2011: none

  • 2012: none

  • 2013: none

  • 2014: none

  • 2015: none

  • 2016: none

  • 2017: none

  • 2018: none until October / three - after the announcement of New Foreign Policy Framework and intent to abolish death penalty in Malaysia

  • 2019: twelve (!)

  • 2020: four (so far)

Apart from their early support for teenager Vui Kong in 2010 - a case that was used by PKR to garner some support - Lawyers for Liberty remained unconcerned about the fate of Malaysian death row inmates in Singapore.

Execution of Kho Jabing in 2016 - despite the fact that it was controversial for its timing (initially suspended but later carried out in the afternoon - first such case in history) deserved no mention whatsoever. Prabagaran Srivijayan - executed in 2017 - fit only into a copy-pasted article from the Sun that LFL posted on their site.

The case of Prabu Pathmanathan was only raised by the organization in October 2018 - just as he was awaiting execution, carried out on Oct. 27. Similarly, Pannir Selvam was only brought to light in 2019. The name of N. Surendran does not appear in earlier years, despite the fact that the Malaysian convict was arrested in 2017.

For years Lawyers for Liberty demonstrated no care about death penalty in Singapore nor about Malaysian convicts awaiting execution. All changed in 2018, with the new government in charge.

Firstly, in the New Foreign Policy Framework Mahathir announced Malaysia would become a more engaged member of international community and speak up on important social matters, that it would “express its opinion and if necessary, its protestations, against injustices, oppressions and other crimes against humanity that are committed by any nations”.

Secondly, abolition of death penalty, announced in October 2018 - was welcomed by many countries and NGOs, even as the government later backtracked on it (but is now expected to introduce a bill early this year - let's see if it does).

These two elements defined the direction for Malaysia's renewed foreign efforts.

Due to Pakatan Harapan's win in May 2018 LFL turned into a vessel without a course and some use was needed to be found for it. While it continues to release statements on Malaysian affairs, it's clear that with Najib gone its role has now greatly diminished. So it was steered outwards - with Singapore being its main target.

It's hardly a surprise, as - on the surface - it fits within the mission that the organization claims to serve as well as Mahathir's intent to build some international goodwill by showing Malaysia as speaking up for the supposedly oppressed - all of that while shaming Singapore at the same time.

Lagging behind in every category - economy, safety, pollution, quality of life, healthcare, education, housing, public transit or infrastructure - Mahathir's new Malaysia can at least try to claim moral superiority over its neighbor.

But 'Lawyers for Liberty' appear to be playing a more insidious political role.

While they continued to lambaste the city-state for sentencing and executing Malaysians throughout 2019 it was all a build-up to the latest assault, in which the organization published claims of unlawful, illegal methods of execution in Changi prison.

It's one thing to protest against death penalty - what scores some points for Malaysia in the West but is hardly noticed in Singapore where vast majority of people support the use of the rope - and it's something entirely different to accuse Singapore's prison service of committing crimes, with the government possibly covering up the acts.

This, of course, triggered a reaction that was likely intended - Singapore's latest law devised to combat online falsehoods - POFMA.

Under its provisions ministers of the government can issue a correction notice to anybody peddling false information that would be considered harmful to the society. Offending publications are not removed entirely but have to carry a link with the notice, providing Singapore's official explanation of the facts.

It does not, however, mean that the offending party cannot provide evidence and seek the removal of the notice in court. The law simply reversed the responsibility - if you claim something you have to provide evidence and the onus of doing it cannot be on the accused.

So, dear Lawyers, wheel out your evidence instead of merely talking about it.

Shan On You

The delightful irony, however, is that Eric Paulsen - then executive director of LFL - praised Singaporean minister K. Shanmugam for how the proposed new law was being legislated, contrasting it with how badly the previous Malaysian parliament was proceeding with a similar proposal:

Although I am loath to cite Singapore as an example of legislating done right as after all, it remains one of the most restrictive countries in the world, however, one can note how the government has gone about tackling fake news. Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam announced the intention of the government as far back as June 2017, and in January 2018, tabled a 19-page Green Paper in Parliament. The paper titled ‘Deliberate Online Falsehoods: Challenges and Implications’ sets out how fake news had affected other countries in the world, the steps those countries were taking, and most importantly, why this concerned Singapore and the possible options on the table. This helped in setting the context for discussions in the future, and the next steps that were to come.

A week on, the Singaporean Parliament agreed to set up a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to study the government’s concerns highlighted in the Green Paper. The PSC then set 8 days of public hearings, with a total of 79 people, including representatives from media groups, civil society, academia, social media and tech companies, who were called to speak before the committee makes its recommendations to lawmakers.

There you are - LFL's Executive Director praising the process, the inclusion of various groups, the steady, measured pace with which the law in Singapore was being drafted.

Of course today, being a Malaysian organization LFL declined to comply with the order issued against it - in a likely another premeditated move, aimed at drumming up the narrative of how supposedly oppressive Singaporean government is. This was - of course - picked up by opposition voices in Singapore (like The Online Citizen) and activists (like Kirsten Han, also based in Malaysia).

Being effectively an arm of Mahathir's government, the organization attacks a foreign government with an obvious aim of influencing the upcoming General Election in Singapore.

For many years the hypocritical self-professed human rights activists from LFL couldn't give a damn about Malaysians being hanged in Singapore for drug trafficking or murder - and all of a sudden they have woken up when given access to considerable power and a role in nation's foreign policy. All in pursuit of questionable goals outlined by the current leader they once vehemently opposed themselves.

As hypocrisy and corruption of character go, Lawyers for Liberty and people the organization spawned are really scraping the bottom.

Their actions are quite obviously a continuation of Malaysian assaults on Singapore which started quickly after the new government was sworn in. The case of water deals, Malaysian intrusion into Singapore's territorial waters, wrestling over air space, food trade and so on.

We've seen the brutal kicks - but they were rejected on both sides of the border. Singaporeans united in support of the country and Malaysians demanded reforms instead of pointless bickering.

As a result Mahathir's Bersatu failed to impress in by-elections and BN is seeing a resurgence in popularity. So now the tactics have changed - with attempts to "stick it" to Singapore on moral grounds, smear its authorities, accuse them of butchering prisoners and censoring the media - and then shame them from a position of (imaginary) moral superiority - as if a corrupt, crime-ridden country that offers refuge to hate preachers, whose prime minister just officially met with the leader of Hamas and which is still employing racist, quasi-apartheid policies could ever make a claim to be a paragon of any sort of morality in this world.

So, sincerely, Lawyers for Liberty - considering that you've sold yourselves to the man that you claimed to oppose for many years, the one who set the stage for abuses of law, corruption and widespread cronyism that deprived millions of Malaysians of better lives, and that you yourselves have either accepted government positions from him or have become agents of his policies or collaborators of his people - it is clear that for all your supposed good will, you too have become infected by the disease you professed to fight.

While it is really heartbreaking to witness, please keep it on your side of the border.