Nominated Member of Parliament Kok Heng Leun on Wednesday 10 August 2016 submitted a Public Petition on the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill.
The petition was signed by 249 individuals. It is the first time in nine years that a Public Petition has been submitted to Parliament – the last petition was submitted by then-Nominated Member of Parliament Siew Kum Hong in 2007 seeking a repeal of S377A of the Penal Code.
The Don’t Kena Contempt campaign states that it welcomes efforts to protect the judiciary, and agrees that the integrity of legal proceedings and the maintenance of public confidence are essential.
The campaigners voiced their support in efforts by the Government to ensure court orders are obeyed, individuals have the right to a fair trial, greater protection of judicial independence, and that high levels of trust in Singapore’s legal system are preserved.
However, they went on to note their concerns about how the key provisions in the Bill which are vague and that the Bill goes beyond its stated goal of consolidating key elements of the law of contempt into statute.
They pointed out that the bill introduces new powers to the Attorney-General, lowers the legal threshold required to be convicted for the offence of scandalising the court, and imposes severe punishment to a degree that may be disproportionate for a nonviolent offence. The proposed punishments far exceed punishments meted out by Singapore courts, even for the hitherto worst case of scandalising contempt.
The campaigners claim that this will have a chilling effect on free speech and entrench Singapore’s culture of self censorship and fear even further. It will also discourage debate on issues of public interest which are important for democracy and public accountability.
“The bill, in its current form, causes confusion over what is or isn’t in contempt, and could lead to people choosing not to participate in legitimate discussion on matters of public interest, for fear of getting in trouble. The Ministry of Law says that the bill is merely a consolidation of current contempt law, but this could be a chance for Singapore to actually improve on current contempt law by crafting a bill based on extensive public education and consultation,” said Kirsten Han, a member of the Don’t Kena Contempt campaign.
The campaigners are hopeful that Parliament will refer the Bill to a Select Committee under Section 68 of the Parliamentary Standing Orders. They also wrote that the Select Committee should then resolve to hold public hearings permitted under Section 103(5) of the Parliamentary Standing Orders, so that the deliberation over ways to improve the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill can open to genuine and extensive public consultation.
In the instance that Parliament would form a Select Committee, the campaigners urge all interested parties – whether they belong to an organisation or would simply like to express their view as an individual to partake in the discussion.
“We believe in being active citizens who contribute to robust public discourse on Singapore’s policies. Like the submission of a Public Petition, participation in a Select Committee hearing is an integral part of the democratic process, and Singapore benefits when more people take up an active role in this process,” said member of the Don’t Kena Contempt campaign Lisa Li.
The campaigners notes that they strongly believe that broader consultation, greater openness, and more deliberation that leads to amendments to the language of the Bill where necessary will pave the way for a more robust law that better achieves the goals of consolidation and clarification when it passes. This according to them, ensures that the law better serves all Singaporeans.
Petition that was submitted
The Don’t Kena Contempt campaign was set up by a group of Singaporeans concerned by both the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill in its current form, and the speed with which it is being put through Parliament to be passed into law. The campaign is calling for a delay in the passage of the bill, so that it can be properly debated, with extensive and thorough public education and consultation.