Those who have not heard of the Bill cannot be blamed. After all, it was introduced just a little over a month ago, with little to no public consultation, and the local media has barely said anything about the issue.
As the petition points out, the key provisions in the Bill are vague and goes beyond its stated goal of consolidating key elements of the law of contempt into statute.
New powers have been given to the Attorney-General (AG) and the legal threshold for the offence of scandalising the court has been lowered under the bill, overturning precedent set by Singapore’s courts and making it easier for the Attorney-General to obtain a conviction.
To make things worse, the maximum penalty has been set far, far above the current precedent, so much so that some have commented that it is disproportionate to the crime. The highest punishment meted out for contempt of court in Singapore thus far was six weeks’ imprisonment and a fine of $20,000, but the new Bill will increase the maximum penalty to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of $100,000.
How will this affect the average person on the street? That is a question many, including seasoned lawyers, have found hard to answer, due to the broad language of key provisions in the Bill.
To give you an idea, here are some of the more recent TOC coverage that could be affected by the Bill.
1. The Thaipusam “riot” where devotees were “violent” against police officers
During the annual Thaipusam procession on 3 February 2015, three Singaporean men were arrested and subsequently charged in court on Saturday morning for allegedly disorderly behaviour and assaulting police officers.
A group of police officers in civilian attire had approached a group of devotees and asked them to stop playing their musical instruments. Harsh words were subsequently exchanged, and the situation escalated.
The police’s statement on the incident was,
“Despite numerous warnings to calm down, he persisted with his disorderly behaviour and was placed under arrest. While one of our officers was effecting the arrest of the man, another two men, aged 32 and 28, came forward to stop the arrest, with the 32 year old assaulting three officers in the process.
The three men, all Singaporeans, also used vulgarities against the officers. All three men were believed to have been drinking earlier as they smelt strongly of alcohol. They have been arrested and investigations are ongoing. One injured Police officer was conveyed conscious to TTSH and is in stable condition.”
However, according to an eyewitness TOC spoke to, he said that none of the men arrested were drunk and that the police claimed that they were drunk based on assumptions, such as body odour.
It is unknown whether the three were found guilty of the charges, as no reports are available. Have proceedings concluded, or are investigations still ongoing? If the Bill were already in force, would we be risking contempt of court charges commenting on this case even today?
TOC understands that members of the group later filed a challenge to the courts on last year’s ban of musical instruments. The government and Hindu Endowment Board (HEB) retracted the ban before the case was heard in court. The plaintiffs withdrew their lawsuit thereafter.
We don’t know what caused the government and HEB’s change of position on the use of musical instruments. But a lack of public discussion on the event and reports from eye-witnesses would have surely put the devotees at a disadvantage.
Read TOC’s coverage here: Eye-witness account of the Thaipusam incident on 3 February
2. Dominique Sarron Lee
Dominique Sarron Lee’s death was caused by the negligence of two officers from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), yet family members could not sue the government due to a clause in Section 14 of the Government Proceedings Act.
14. (1) Nothing done or omitted to be done by a member of the forces while on duty as such shall subject either him or the Government to liability in tort for causing the death of another person, or for causing personal injury to another person, in so far as the death or personal injury is due to anything suffered by that other person while he is a member of the forces if —
(a) at the time when the thing is suffered by that other person, he is —
(i) on duty as a member of the forces; or
(ii) though not on duty as a member of the forces —
(A) on any land, premises, ship, aircraft or vehicle for the time being used for the purposes of the forces; or
(B) on any journey necessary to enable him to report for duty as such or to return home after such duty;
From TOC’s communication with the family, we understand that all they wanted was for the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) to acknowledge that Dominique’s death was a result of negligence and to receive an apology from the Defence Minister himself. But they were met with denials and stonewalled while seeking more information about his death.
When they launched a suit to find out more about what happened to Dominique, MINDEF stepped in and stopped the legal action, saying that the information was state property. During the meeting with MINDEF’s representatives, the family were offered a sum of S$320,000 to settle out of court. Their demand for an apology from the ministry was rejected. (TOC wrote to MINDEF about the family’s claims in February 2016, but has received no response.)
To seek justice, the family sued the government and the two SAF officers for a token sum of $34,500 for causing death due to negligence. The court threw the case out as the government was protected by Section 14.
If the new Bill had been in force, would people have been able to comment on the unfairness of the system towards the family? Would the media and blogs be able to comment on ongoing cases? The uncertainty and high penalty would likely mean that people would choose to self-censor instead.
3. Benjamin Lim
Everyone in Singapore should have known about the case involving 14-year-old Benjamin Lim’s death after he was interviewed by the police at school and the police station after being accused of molesting a girl in the lift. The Law Minister himself later repeated this allegation in Parliament, almost as fact.
If the Coroner’s Inquiry was to find that the police and school have nothing to do with the death of Benjamin Lim, no one can comment on the matter as it may be viewed as a contempt of the court by the AG – anything that looks like it might have been suggesting that the court was not impartial could be in contempt of court. Even the family who is currently under a court gag order will be forced to keep silent and accept the judgement as such.
4. MINDEF’s court case with Dr Ting Choon Ming
In 2015, TOC reported how Dr Ting Choon Meng, an innovator and medical professional, decided to withdraw his case against Ministry of Defence for the unauthorised use of his company’s design after Syntech Engineers, which represented MINDEF, dragged the case out and demanded about S$580,000 in legal fees.
Dr Ting had his patent revoked due to MINDEF counter-suing him, stating that he did not have the rights to the patent. After the story went out, MINDEF went for TOC and Dr Ting, claiming that the story was not factual. The Ministry filed a court order against the two under the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA). While it succeeded to silent TOC and Dr Ting at the state court, the High Court subsequently ruled that MINDEF as a government body is not entitled to use the act for protection.
MINDEF is still appealing for the right to use POHA.
Under the new Bill, would the government be able to claim that such reporting and commentary was in contempt of court?
Read TOC’s coverage here: Inventor forced by Mindef to close company over patent rights
5. The defamation suit against Roy Ngerng
Roy Ngerng’s case was the first time in Singapore a defamation suit was brought by a politician against an ordinary citizen. Ngerng was later found by the court to have defamed the prime minister, and was ordered to pay $150,000 in damages and aggravated damages to Lee Hsien Loong.
The case was closely followed by Singaporeans. Some pointed out that Lee and his party had not seemed to have suffered from Ngerng’s blogging, and had even secured a decisive victory at the 2015 general election – what, then, was the damage that Ngerng was accused of inflicting?
Under the Bill, would such questions be deemed in contempt?
Read TOC’s coverage here: “We all know I’m being persecuted” – Ngerng’s teary outburst in court
6. Amos YeeAmos Yee was arrested at his home by eight police officers after over 20 police reports were filed against him for comments that insulted Christianity and the first Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. He was first charged not just with wounding religious feelings and distributing obscene material, but also harassment.
The case drew widespread public comment from the get-go. Some pointed out the absurdity of the charge of harassment, as Yee had simply published a YouTube video – one would actually need to willingly click on the video to watch it.
The charges of harassment were later dropped, although there was little indication as to why this was so.
Amos was later convicted of the two other charges. He was sentenced four-weeks in jail, but had already been remanded by the police for 50 days which included his time spent in Changi Prison and two weeks at Institute of Mental Health for assessment.
When the defence lawyers tried to take a look at all the 32 police reports filed against Amos, the prosecutor only allowed two, which complained about the insult of the Christian faith, to be viewed in court.
Many observers believed that Amos’ disparaging remarks about Lee Kuan Yew and his legacy is the real reason for the state bringing charges against a teenager. If the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill had been in force then, such comments could potentially have been in contempt of court. The local and international advocacy related to free speech and the rights of the child could have also been deemed in contempt of court.
Of course, the list goes on.
Under the new Bill, government officials are exempted from contempt of court. We’ve already seen such examples: PM Lee commented on the retention of S377A prior to the judgement of the case, and Ministers and Members of Parliament stated that the reason for the Little India Riot was caused by alcohol and drunkenness even before the Commission of Inquiry.
So when the proposed Bill is passed, news publications and influential bloggers will be shrouded in a veil of fear and uncertainty over what comments the Attorney General would choose to act upon.
Majulah Singapura for SG100.