SINGAPORE: The Attorney-General's Chamber (AGC) said on Monday (Feb 5) that it will take firm action against contempt of court, including the institution of committal proceedings in appropriate instances.
In a statement, the AGC said it has written to Mr Neo Aik Chau about a post he published on a Facebook group on Feb 2, which made reference to the widely publicised Feb 1 decision of the Court of Appeal ruling in favour of the accused people involved with City Harvest Church (CHC).
Speaking in Parliament earlier on Monday, Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam said that the AGC was looking into a piece of “fake news” relating to the CHC saga as a case of contempt by scandalising the courts.
After announcing the Government’s view of the sentences as “too low”, he was asked by Member of Parliament (MP) Gan Thiam Poh for his take on the public commenting how the CHC case was handled by a lawyer who is also an MP from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) - Mr Edwin Tong of Marine Parade.
In response, Mr Shanmugam gave an example of a public Facebook group which last week circulated a doctored front page image of local Chinese tabloid Lianhe Wanbao. The original, translated title of “Outdated law 'saved' the accused from harsher penalties” had been changed to “PAP lawyer 'saved' the accused from harsher penalties".
Mr Shanmugam said: “AGC takes the view that the suggestion from the fake title is that the PAP MP was responsible for an unfair, unjust outcome and the Courts have let off the defendants lightly because of him.
“The matter is with AGC and will be dealt with in accordance with the law.”
“This sort of attack based on deliberate faking is quite unacceptable,” he continued. “I cannot see how any reasonable person will justify such faking as a legitimate expression of free speech.”
Earlier, Mr Shanmugam also said that attacks on the CHC judges “ascribing improper ulterior motives to their decision” was “a clear case of abusing the anonymity of the Net”.
“People who abuse judges, challenge their integrity, will be prosecuted if a case for contempt can be made out. Courts should be free to decide in accordance with what they believe the law to be, and criminal cases must be tried in the court of law - not in the court of public opinion.”
He added: “We don’t want to end up like the United Kingdom, where the press freely attacks the judiciary. You get newspaper headlines labelling judges as enemies of the people, because the courts had the temerity to decide in a way the media did not like. If we are not careful we will easily go down that route.”
“I’ve asked the police to take a serious view of those who scandalise court - not only for this case, if there are other comments which cross the threshold and are in contempt of court, our approach is that action will be taken,” Mr Shanmugam noted.
“In coming to a decision whether to prosecute for scandalising the courts, the factors will include assessing who said it, how seriously is the statement likely to be taken, how wide was the publication, and other relevant factors.”
“SHAMEFUL” TO “HOUND” LAWYERS
Mr Shanmugam also emphasised that defendants were entitled to lawyers of their choice and lawyers “should not be made to feel they will be hounded online” should they take up certain cases.
“Rule of law, a civilised system of having trials in court, depend amongst other things, on lawyers being able to act for defendants, whatever offences the defendants are accused of,” he explained.
“Even a child rapist is entitled to his day in court, and to be defended. It doesn’t mean that we, or the lawyer defending the person, approves of child rape.”
Mr Shanmugam then shared a personal example from when he was a lawyer in practice.
“I am probably in the unique position, in Singapore, someone who has both acted for the three PMs of Singapore, and also of having acted against all three of them,” he said.
“In 1995, PM Goh (Chok Tong), SM Lee (Kuan Yew) and DPM Lee (Hsien Loong) as they were then, sued the International Herald Tribune (IHT) for libel. The IHT came to me. The conversation as to whether I will act for them took about two minutes. I told them they must know I was a PAP MP. Were they comfortable, that they will get the best possible advice from me, given my position?”
“They said it was ok with them, if it was ok with me. It was ok with me. I didn’t see any need to clear with the Party or anyone connected to the Party or Government. By taking on the case, I was simply doing my professional duty.”
“I didn’t need to take on the brief. I was very busy with other work. But I thought the IHT had a right to Counsel of its choice. They were faced, obviously, with particularly formidable plaintiffs and hoped to get Counsel of their choice. And so I should help the IHT,” said Mr Shanmugam.
“The import of my acting for the IHT, and it went to court, did not escape SM Lee Kuan Yew. In court, after his evidence was over, and before he stepped out of the witness box, he said he had to point out the situation. He said that I was close to the three of them, meaning the PM, SM and DPM. I was a PAP MP. The decision by the IHT, despite the situation, to instruct me was, I quote, the ‘highest tribute to the integrity of the Counsel’, and ‘possibly reflected also on the integrity of the Government’.”
“Over the years, I have also acted for various others whose conduct will not be approved of by the general public, and some of whom were impecunious and could not pay fees.”
Mr Shanmugam concluded: “The headline that I referred to earlier in the Facebook page, is part of a mob mentality to hound lawyers, to intimidate them into not acting in cases which the mob disapproves of. It is quite shameful.”
“Supposing no action is taken when public Facebook pages do this, then what is there to prevent the media itself from publishing such articles in the future?”
“We should not get there. It will be a sad day for Singapore, if we do get there.”