Marathon debate over Bill defining contempt of court

Marathon debate over Bill defining contempt of court

While some MPs said it would cement public confidence in Singapore's judiciary, others expressed concern it would stem public discourse on matters of public interest.

SINGAPORE: Over the span of seven hours, a total 19 members of the House spoke on the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill raising issues or seeking clarifications, prompting Law Minister K Shanmugam to mount a staunch defence of the Bill on Monday (Aug 15).

Opposition Workers' Party (WP) MPs voiced strong objections to the Bill, which seeks to spell out what constitutes contempt of court. Said Aljunied GRC MP Sylvia Lim: "Are we not using a sledgehammer to kill an ant? It would be intimidating not just to persons on the receiving end of such investigations but to society at large. The upshot of reducing the role of the courts and investing draconian powers in the executive is to leave Singaporeans at the mercy of administrative discretion. We would be one step closer to being a police state."

She said MPs should reflect on the President's address in Parliament, setting up the Government's aim of Singapore being an exceptional nation. "Are we an exceptional nation when we say that our professionally trained judges need to be protected from public opinion? Are we an exceptional nation by making Government officials exempt from contempt laws? To me, these are matters we should be ashamed of. By all means, uphold respect for the administration of justice but laws which protect the ruling elites at the expense of ordinary Singaporeans have no place in this House."

Nominated MP Kuik Shiao Yin asked for a youth-centric interpretation of the Bill. "It is deeply frustrating to these youths that the Government seems to be insisting that they are the one and only trustworthy arbiter of what is public interest. What some of the angriest young people are asking is worth hearing and clarifying.

"Their questions sound like this: 'But what if the guy in Government gets it wrong?' Isn't there always a possibility that those in power will get what's in the public interest wrong some of the time? And if one of us regular guys can see it and wants to point it out to them, shouldn't we get a safe space to do so as well without fear of being labelled as the enemy of the courts or worse, the enemy of the state?

"Would it be so hard to believe I want the best for my country as much as they do?" she asked. "The trouble about public interest is that there never is just one public interest but many equally good competing public interests."

Another WP MP, Pritam Singh highlighted concerns about freedom of speech, pointing out that in the past, public debate in ongoing high-profile cases has led to a review of some procedures - and for the better. "For most lay Singaporeans, the reality is that criticising policies and facts central to a pending case will inevitably overlap to varying degrees. That is the very nature of public communication, and for the common man it is not always easy to neatly differentiate the two. Surely there is a place for fair comment and criticism of pending cases, and it does not necessarily follow that freedom of speech has to suffer as a result."


In response, Mr Shanmugam said accusations that the Bill places the Government above the courts were untrue. "I confirm for the record that the courts are the final arbiters. They have to be the final arbiters if the rule of law has got any meaning. Whatever a minister says, whatever a Government agency says, ultimately you apply, you look at the clause, and you see whether the statement comes within the clause. This was specifically discussed between us and the Supreme Court," he said.

Mr Shanmugam also pointed out that there are largely no changes to current contempt laws except to put them in statutory form. "The law tomorrow is the same as the law yesterday," he emphasised.

Responding to Ms Sylvia Lim's concerns about a "police state", Mr Shanmugam said: “Contempt has always been an offence. Contempt has always been investigated by the police with leave of the Attorney-General, and now that we are putting it into statute, who else but the police can investigate an offence?”

He also addressed what he said was an insinuation that the law was meant to protect him personally, as he has previously commented on cases before the courts.

“I think people who know me know that I am quite careful about what I say … I know exactly what I’m saying. And if I am guilty of contempt then, this law is not going to help me. If I am not guilty of contempt, this law is completely irrelevant. And if Ms Lim believes that I committed contempt, (you) don’t have to wait for the law – put up a complaint to the Attorney-General,” he said.

Mr Shanmugam also addressed concerns raised by Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Kok Heng Leun that social media posts may fall under “contempt of court”.

“You look at who is saying it, you look at the reach, you look at the possibility of influencing the court … in the broad types of cases that Mr Kok has mentioned, just ask yourself: ‘What’s the real risk of prejudicing the proceedings?’ And … the law is the same before, and tomorrow. So Mr Miyagi, Mr Brown, whatever they’ve said – have they been charged?” Mr Shanmugam asked.

He clarified that the Bill had been in the works for several years now, and feedback had been sought from stakeholders, with a number of amendments made before it was first introduced in Parliament last month.

Some MPs spoke in support of the Bill. MP Denise Phua said that while she respects the freedom of expression, “public discourse should not come at the expense of those who should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.”

“Regardless of our personal sentiments to those charged and the nature of their charges, the principle of according each defendant the right to remain innocent until proven guilty and a fair trial must be upheld,” she said, voicing her support of the Bill in defining sub judice as a primary contempt of court.

MP Tan Wu Meng too, supported the Bill. He said: "We must find a balance. On the one hand, freedom of expression - but we must always be mindful that it does not undermine the right of an accused person to a fair trial. Because when the courts are diminished, it weakens their ability to protect the weak and vulnerable."

MP Rahayu Mahzam added: "I do not agree that setting the law on contempt would inhibit robust discussion on matters of public interest. On the contrary, such laws would promote a more responsible discussion and reporting on matters before the court."

MP Christopher de Souza noted that Singapore's judiciary plays a key role in the stability the nation enjoys and if seeds of doubt in the judiciary are sowed, irreparable damage will be caused.

"The cumulative effect may lead to the last straw on the camel's back that shakes the public's confidence in our judiciary system," he said. "The point I'm making here is - we would never be able to predict what this last straw is, and when it will be placed on the camel's back. Just as little strokes fell great oaks, let us not allow cumulative small risks to cause the public's confidence in our courts to fall."

The Bill was passed with a vote of 72-9, after WP secretary-general Low Thia Khiang called for a division twice, in a rare move.

Source: CNA