By Teo Soh Lung
It is not uncommon for Singapore’s parliament to enact laws that target individuals. In 1986, the Legal Profession Act was amended to remove the popularly elected Mr Francis Seow as President of the Law Society of Singapore. He was compelled by law to step down as its president. A few months earlier, the Law Society had issued a press release on the Newspaper and Printing Presses Amendment Bill which allowed the government to gazette foreign publications without the right to be heard.
In 1985, the amendment to the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore revoked the citizenship of Tan Wah Piow on the grounds that he had not returned to Singapore for 10 years. In 1989, the amendment to the Internal Security Act abolished judicial review in national security cases. It was aimed at ISA detainees who were then in prison. At about the same time, an amendment to the Constitution abolished appeals to the Privy Council.
So who is the target of the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill which is likely to become law in three days’ time, on Monday, 15 August 2016? Is this law meant to protect those who administer justice?
I suspect the law is targeted at activists and organisations both local and international which occasionally speak up against unjust prosecutions, the death penalty, defamation, caning, the lack of protection of foreign workers and various other issues. Fines of $100,000 and/or three years’ jail allowed by the new law will certainly discourage free speech and expression. The immediate target of the law is probably Amos Yee who is set to defend himself against the full force of the state on 17 August 2016. He is only 17 years of age, a child by definition, if we comply with international standards.
Will this Bill become law before the commencement of Amos Yee’s trial? It can be done as only the signature of the president is required after the bill sails through the second and third reading in parliament on Monday. Will the unexpected happen – a long drawn debate and violent objections from the opposition as well as the PAP backbenchers? Or will the minister voluntarily refer it to a parliamentary select committee for further consideration? What are the chances of such events taking place?
Imagine how Amos Yee’s trial will be reported if the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill does not become law. How will the prosecutor with his team of legally trained assistants be viewed by the public and the world when their combined strength is pitched against a child who has no legal training. This trial is every lawyer’s nightmare because he knows that an unrepresented accused person does not go by the rules and is capable of upsetting the orderliness of the trial. True Amos Yee has tasted the ugly side of our justice and penal system from State Court to the High Court. He has donned the prison garb with the word “INMATE” and “PRISONER” boldly printed on its back. He has been shackled from hands to feet. He has walked into court with clanging metal chains. And he has tasted Changi Prison as well as Woodbridge Mental Institution.
I suspect the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act is intended to stop online discussions of trials such as that of Amos Yee. It is easy to be caught in the wide definition of what constitutes contempt by scandalising the court. Just try and figure out section 3(1) which reads: “Any person who –
(a) scandalises the court by intentionally publishing any matter or doing any act that –
(i) Imputes improper motives to or impugns the integrity, propriety or impartiality of any court: and
(ii) Poses a risk that public confidence in the administration of justice would be undermined;
commits a contempt of court.”
What does it all mean? If I report on my facebook that the prosecutor asks too many irrelevant questions and the judge did not object, will I be in contempt of court? Will I shake public confidence in the administration of justice? I don’t know.
The Administration of Justice (Protection) Act forbids the publication of anything that prejudges an issue in a pending court proceeding or “otherwise prejudices, interferes with, or poses a real risk of prejudice to or interference with, the course of any court proceeding that is pending.” (Section 3(1)(b)(ii)). It is quite a mouthful and I don’t understand what all these words mean. There is however one important point that any commentator should take note of. In the past, we are free to comment as soon as the judgement or sentence is passed unless we are aware that an appeal has been lodged. The new law forbids such comments unless and until the period allowing such appeals has lapsed. So it may be 14 days or a month depending on which court the matter is tried. International human rights organisations may issue statements immediately after a sentence is passed and lobby for change. These statements may be in contempt of court by virtue of Section 11(2). If anyone in Singapore access or republishes such statements, he may be caught and prosecuted under the new law.
It is obvious that the purpose of the law is to ensure that Singaporeans live in blissful ignorance.
The Administration of Justice (Protection) Act is a bias piece of legislation. It favours the government. While government officials from ministers to clerks are permitted to comment while court proceedings are in progress, the public is not allowed to do so. I was once wisely advised by an ISD officer that the Chinese character for government depicts two mouths. This aptly describes the new law.
Contempt of court is an “ARRESTABLE OFFENCE”. By now, all activists are aware of the power of the police in such cases. Homes can be raided, photographed and videoed. Computers, hard disks and mobile phones can be seized. All these are done without the sanction of our courts, that is to say, without a warrant to seize. The police are free to do anything they want. Their advice to the person who objects to his properties being seized will be “We seize first and you can complain after we are gone”.
The police will know the contacts of activists and everything they do after forensically going through these devices. Such seizures will send shivers down the spines of activists and the public. The idea is to instil fear in everyone. We know that each time electronic devices are seized by the police, the owners lose thousands of dollars. New devices become outdated and useless by the time the police deem it fit to return to the owners. Meanwhile, the police and government officials gloat over successful raids and enjoy the inconvenience and sufferings they inflict on activists. They are accountable to no one because the law does not set a time limit for them to return the seized properties. The law protects them while we citizens are helpless.
I suspect most investigations on contempt of court offences will end with police raids and confiscation of computers, hard disks and mobile phones and not in our courts. That is the intent of the new law. Nip a weak civil society in the bud. Instil fear and curb free speech and expression.