By Teo Soh Lung
The Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill presented to parliament on 11 July 2016 reminds me of another law, the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance (PPSO), 1955.
Far from “preserving” public security, the government of that day used the law to “legally imprison” thousands of people without trial.
The population was terrified by the law. Their homes were searched at any time of the day or night. Being escorted to the police station was common. Far from protecting the people and ensuring a safe environment for them to work and live in, the PPSO instilled fear in them. That fear permeates in society to this day.The sole beneficiary of the law was the government which was happy that all those arrested need not be tried in a court of law. The law empowered the government to be both prosecutor and judge.
The PPSO morphed into the Internal Security Act (ISA) when we joined Malaysia in 1963 and it remains with us to this day. The title, Internal Security Act is again a misnomer. Ask those who have been imprisoned without trial under the ISA and they will protest their innocence and declare that they were among the most loyal citizens of the country. They will tell you why they challenged the government and how they lost their battles and ended up in jail for decades. Their peaceful protests had everything to do with nationalism and loyalty to the country and nothing to do with what the government accused them of – being a security threat to the country.
The title of the new Bill - Administration of Justice (Protection) Act is noble. It claims to protect our judiciary. But is it and will it?
The judiciary, executive and the legislature are the three pillars of the state.
We cherish all these three arms of the state and we want them to be strong and independent. Of the three, the Judiciary is the most important. It acts as a bulwark between the people and the executive. It administers the law and must ensure that it is administered fairly and justly. This is very important in a country like Singapore where the opposition is miniscule and their voice weak. Civil society is also weak and unable to speak up against injustices. A strong civil society is crucial but this new law will weaken it further. If their voices are drowned because they are silenced by this law, I am quite sure that it was not what the former Chief Justice, Chan Sek Keong had looked forward to.
The preamble to the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act declares that it is “An Act to state and consolidate the law of contempt of court for the protection of the administration of justice …” It claims to consolidate the existing contempt of court law, which is quasi-criminal law today and largely dependent on the common law of England.
Tomorrow, there will be a forum at SMU to discuss the new law and I look forward to learning more about it. But for the time being, having looked at the Bill a few times, I am stunned by the length and breadth of the new law. It far exceeds the existing law both in penalties and coverage. Allan Shadrake was punished with 6 weeks’ jail and a fine of S$20,000. The new Bill sets the limit at $100,000 and 3 years' jail. Why is it necessary to set such a high penalty? Not everyone in Singapore earns ministerial salaries.
The Bill is far-reaching. Anyone who writes or is passionate for a cause can be caught under the new law. Take for example section 3(1) which states:
“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.
The definition of “Publish” is wide, too wide. It means "to disseminate, distribute, exhibit, provide or communicate by oral, visual, written, electronic or other means … to the public at large or A MEMBER OF THE PUBLIC, and includes CAUSE to be published …”
The coverage is deliberately wide. Like the Public Order Act, if a person disseminates something which the prosecutor or judge is of the view that it scandalises the judiciary and such dissemination is TO JUST ONE PERSON, he can be summoned to the police station and arrested. Contempt of court is an "ARRESTABLE" offence under the new Bill. Champions of any cause should take note that they are also subject to this law even though they are pushing for their causes be they LGBTI, Labour or animal rights.
Discretion to prosecute lies solely with the Attorney General. I suspect only the most "serious" of bloggers, writers and activists (something only the government can decide) will be charged in court. If they have funds, they can have the law tested. Most will end with visits to the police station, frequently harassed, being locked up for 48 hours in a cell and having all their computers, mobile phones and accessories seized, thus allowing the police to mine their data and assist the government in controlling an already compliant population. Such acts will definitely instil fear in the population today and for generations to come.
I may be totally wrong, and I hope I am wrong.
Hear more about the bill by registering for tomorrow’s forum at SMU “Protecting Our Judiciary and Free Speech: The Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill, 2016. Registration page is here