Singapore Justice in the Dock Indeed

The following is an excerpt of an article published in Asia Sentinel. You can read the rest of the article here.

If the past is any precedent, Alan Shadrake, who wrote Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock (reviewed here in Asia Sentinel) and had the bad judgment to go to Singapore to publicize the book, can expect to be jailed for “scandalizing the judiciary.”

The opening argument was made by a deputy attorney general, Hema Subramaniam. The Civil
Division lawyer focused on 14 passages from Shadrake’s book, arguing that “the insinuations and imputations contained in these 14 statements constitute an attack to the entire judicial system in Singapore.” She argued that the very title of the book contained an “underlying insinuation” that “Singapore judges have been guilty of misconduct and deserve to be judged.”
In response, Ravi argued that the “serious-minded and compassionate” book had to be considered as a whole.

“Only by reading the book by its entirety can one properly determine how a reader would understand and interpret the selected quotations,” he said, adding that analysis of the judiciary was “a public duty to civil society.”

The prosecution raised the issue of whether the content of Shadrake’s book was true, an intriguing tactic since truth is not a defense to a contempt charge, but a judge can allow a defendant to argue issues voluntarily injected by the prosecution.

In discussing whether Shadrake had engaged in fair criticism, Subramaniam alleged that there was not “an iota of truth in any of the statements or allegation’s in the respondent’s book.” Ravi characterized the Singaporean government’s response to his client’s book as “somewhat hypersensitive.”

Singapore, whose justice system has been heavily criticized for its political bias, has never lost a case like this, and unless something totally unexpected happens, it won’t lose this one. In that regard, Shadrake’s trial highlights not just the controversy over Singapore’s use of the death penalty against traffickers in minute amounts of drugs, but the broader issue of freedom of speech in a city-state where sticking your head up is an invitation to get it shot off.

A wide range of human rights groups say the Singapore courts are used as a tool to silence critics. Any political or press criticism of the government results automatically in defamation suits that have been unanimously won by the prosecution and fines and charges that have bankrupted the opposition and sent major news organizations scrambling for cover.

In July 2008, the International Bar Association issued a 72-page report concluding that “Singapore cannot continue to claim that civil and political rights must take a back seat to economic rights, as its economic development is now of the highest order. In the modern era of globalization, isolationist policies and attitudes are no longer tenable.”

For his part, Shadrake remains defiant. For his first hearing in the High Court, he entered the building holding up his fingers in a V for Victory salute and shouting “Freedom and Democracy for Singapore.” The government has since backed away from the criminal defamation charge, although it hangs in the air as a threat, and Shadrake was charged with a species of contempt of court called “scandalizing the judiciary,” in other words, writing something that could make the court system look bad.

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