I read with disappointment that British author Alan Shadrake's appeal against a conviction for contempt of court was dismissed by the Singapore Court of Appeal on Friday, 27 May 2011. Is such a harsh sentence necessary? Is a custodial sentence needed? Has he even committed a crime?
Whether or not the death penalty should be abolished is a separate issue. Whether or not Shadrake has locus standi to comment on Singapore’s laws as a foreigner is likewise a separate point.
I had expected GE 2011 to be the dawn of a new age. Clearly, I had been too hopeful.
PM Lee Hsien Loong pledged that there will be changes within the People’s Action Party (PAP). The cabinet reshuffle added credence to that promise. It is therefore regrettable that Singapore has not taken his opportunity to rejuvenate certain aspects of its legal process. By and large Singapore’s legal system is world class. Be that as it may, there are certain areas that are sorely in need of change.
Shadrake was charged and found guilty of “scandalising the judiciary” in his book, “Once a Jolly Hangman”. I have read the book. It is not particularly well written, nor is it exceptionally sensational. All it did was raise some questions in relation to how the death penalty is used and how it can be unfairly applied. He is not the first person to raise these concerns nor will he be the last. The only mistake he made was to promote the book in Singapore.
The Attorney General, in explaining why charges were brought against the author, said ”public confidence in the Singapore Judiciary cannot be allowed, in any way to be tarnished or diminished by any contumacious behaviour”. Public confidence in the judiciary is of utmost importance. However, such
confidence must be earned. It cannot be asserted with force. Blind loyalty and faith cannot be demanded. This high handed statement sounds remarkably like the PAP’s past mantra.
By imposing such a harsh sentence, the courts of Singapore have achieved precisely the opposite result of what it wanted. It has created publicity for Shadrake and for the book. Had the courts, or the Attorney General, simply ignored the book or issued a statement casting doubt on its claims without taking the matter further, the debacle would have died down. Now, however, everyone knows about it and wants to read it. By attempting to quash the book, they have succeeded in giving the book credibility.
Those in power in Singapore have to be more mature in how it deals with supposed criticism.
Suppression only leads to oppression, which will in turn boil over. Criticism must be engaged and questions must be answered. The Government should have addressed each of Shadrake’s accusations, citing why each of them was untrue, without embarking on the legal route through the courts. This would go a long way in building public trust and goodwill.
All in power have to be accountable to the people over whom it wields power. This applies equally to the judiciary, the executive and the legislative. . Being able to deal with questions such as those raised by Shadrake would be a start.