SDP’s John Tan remains disqualified from contesting elections after High Court dismisses application
SINGAPORE: Opposition politician John Tan remains disqualified from standing for election as a Member of Parliament (MP) after the High Court on Wednesday (Nov 6) dismissed his application for a declaration allowing him to do so.
John Tan Liang Joo, who was re-elected into the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP)’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) on Oct 31, had sought a declaration from the court that would allow him to contest the next General Election (GE).
He was fined S$5,000 in April this year after he was found guilty of contempt of court. The Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) had initiated the contempt case against him following a Facebook post supporting activist Jolovan Wham, who was also fined for contempt of court.
According to Singapore’s Constitution, a person is disqualified from standing as an MP if they have been convicted of an offence by a court of law in Singapore or Malaysia and sentenced to imprisonment for not less than a year or to a fine of not less than S$2,000 and have not been given a free pardon.
In October, Tan had applied to the High Court asking for a declaration that he was not disqualified, claiming that the term “offence” as referred to in the Constitution did not extend to criminal contempt.
He also referred to an incident in 1988, when the then-returning officer allowed an SDP candidate to contest the GE that year despite being fined for contempt.
In his judgment, Justice Aedit Abdullah said: “Despite counsel’s best efforts on behalf of the applicant (Tan), I am thus of the view that the declaration sought cannot be granted, and accordingly dismiss the application.”
FINED FOR CONTEMPT OF COURT
On Apr 29, 2019, Wham and Tan were fined S$5,000 each for contempt of court, after being found guilty in October last year.
In April 2018, Wham had published a Facebook post alleging that Malaysia’s judges were “more independent” that Singapore’s in cases with political implications.
The AGC initiated a contempt of court cases against him. Less than a month later,Tan wrote on Facebook that AGC’s actions confirmed the truth of Wham’s comment.
In sentencing, Justice Woo Bih Li rejected a custodial sentence for Tan, saying the politician was “responsible for the situation that he finds himself in”, adding that the political consequences of the fine were not relevant to the sentence.
He added that Tan’s taking down of the post after a sentencing hearing in March was not a reflection of remorse.
“It was an 11th-hour manoeuvre to try and persuade the court to accede to his request not to impose a fine,” Justice Woo had said.
APPLICATION TO STAND AS MP
The High Court was told in a hearing last month that Tan plans to stand in the next GE, which must be held before April 2021.
In his application, Tan pointed a case in 1988 involving SDP’s Jufrie Mahmood. The then-returning officer Ong Kok Min informed the Straits Times that Mr Jufrie's nomination papers would not be rejected if he attempted to stand for election.
The politician had earlier been fined S$3,000 for contempt of court. Tan claimed that meant the returning officer took the position that the disqualification - as mentioned in the Constitution - was only applied to criminal offences, and that the offence of contempt of court was not criminal in nature.
Mr Jufrie went on to stand as a candidate at the General Election in 1988 for the SDP in Aljunied GRC, where his team was defeated.
The court heard that the newspaper report only stated that Mr Ong allowed Mr Jufrie's nomination papers and not that the Constitution did not apply to criminal contempt.
The returning officer did not provide any details of his reasoning and there was no official record tendered, the court was told.
“Even if the position of the returning officer in 1988 were accurately reported and reflective of the actual legal position taken by the Government then, this does not mean that the Government remains bound by this position some 31 years later,” Justice Aedit wrote in his judgment.
He said the position taken by Mr Ong in 1988 “does not by itself show that a representation was made or that there was any settled practice”.
“There was also nothing to show that the applicant had relied on such a representation or settled practice when committing the offence of criminal contempt,” the judge wrote.
He added: “The fact that Mr Jufrie was treated differently, even if taken at face value, would mean that, based on the present arguments by the respondent (Attorney-General), it was done in error of law.
“The fact that the respondent in the present proceedings adopts a different position from the returning officer does not amount to deliberate and arbitrary discrimination against the applicant (Tan).”
In dismissing Tan’s application, Justice Aedit said he was satisfied the disqualification applies to convictions for a criminal conviction and that the position taken in respect of Mr Jufrie does not “bind the Government in any way”.
Responding to queries from CNA, Tan said on Thursday he was "utterly disappointed" by the ruling and that he was in discussion with his legal team about appealing the decision.
He also told CNA he would remain as SDP's vice-chairman.
"My colleagues do not see a reason or necessity to make any changes. In fact, they reaffirmed my position in the leadership after the ruling," he said.
This story has been updated to include John Tan's comments on the High Court ruling.