I feel that the division on the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill shows out of many things, the uselessness and non-democratic nature of the Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs).
The bill was passed 72 against 9 after Workers’ Party called for a division at the end of the debate for the bill. All MPs of the WP voting “No” in both second and third reading of the bill. All NMPs present at the debate voted “Yes” for the bill to be passed.
My comment on their “uselessness” is not to say that the inputs by the NMPs to the debate on Monday was superficial, in fact they raised many pertinent points to the bill and valid concerns over the excessive powers which the bill seem to provide the government with.
NMP Kok Heng Leun made a passionate speech in Mandarin. He expressed his concerns over some wordings in the bill would excessively curb open discussion by the public especially on on-going proceedings, noting that past discussions on cases such as Benjamin Lim have made the authorities to rethink on its policies,
He pointed out that in the past, judges have noted the need for the proof of real risk for contempt and that the risk much be “real and grave”. He asked for clarification from the Law Minister on what circumstances would be considered as risk risks or would prejudice the judiciary. Such as in incidence, where family members could voice out against perceived injustice while a trial is ongoing.
He also highlighted that the penalty that is set in the new bill is disproportionate against the crime that is committed. Noting that a violent crime such as assault carries a penalty of a maximum fine of $5,000 or/and imprisonment of 2 years while a non-violent crime of contempt of court carries a penalty of maximum fine of $100,000 or/and 3 years of imprisonment.
NMP, Kuik Shiao-Yin voiced out concerns by youths whom she spoke with, of why the public is not given the right of fair critism on matters, just as same as what the government is entitled to. And pointed out that the bill will introduce indifference to the new generation of Singaporeans which is much more concerning than of worries of freedom of expression by a minority of outspoken youths. She asked if the executive would be above the judiciary which would mean, “Ownself check ownself”.
NMP, Asst Prof Mahdev Mohan sought clarifications from the Law Minister on the “Real Risk” that is missing from the bill and goes on to ask if the new bill means a lower threshold to prove if a person is in contempt of Court. He also noted that the bill had “pre-judge” in its wordings and noted that the only reference to this term is UK where contempt is found regardless how reasonable the criticism is.
He went on to quote the current Chief Justice who said in 2015 that the rule of law, is the bed rock from which Singapore society is found. The core idea is the the notion that the power of the state is vested in the various arms of the government and that such power is subject to legal limits it would be meaningless to speak of a power being limited if there can be no recourse to determine how and in what circumstances the limits can be specified.
NMP, Ms K Thanaletchimi asked what constitutes fair reporting under the new bill and shared her views that people need to be educated and be informed about the definition.
Of course the Mainstream Media reported that the Minister of Law and Home Affairs, K Shanmugam addressed the questions by Workers’ Party but would it dare to show the video footage of the debate that happened after Mr Shanmugam made his response to the Workers’ Party?
However, in the subsequent debate that followed after his clarification, he clearly couldn’t answer the allegations made upon the bill about the excessive powers granted upon the government, such as unlimited powers for the government to comment during trials and also allow contempt of court to be an arrestable offence and yet, the NMPs decided to vote in support of the bill and went further to withdraw their recommendation to amend the bill to include “Real Risk” in the wordings.
At one point, he couldn’t answer how the words of the bill, specifically Section 3(4) of the bill allowed the intervention of the court as what Ms Sylvia Lim and NCMP Leon Perera noted in their questions and remarked to him on how the bill will essentially empower the government to determine what is. This question also pertains to what Asst Prof Mahdev Mohan raised about the limits of the power for the government.
Ms Lim asked which current law in the penal code provides the power for police to arrest for individual being charged for the contempt of court, no clear answer was given by the Law Minister. He merely replied that there is already powers granted to the police to act on offences.
The Law Minister did not give specific examples to what constitutes contempt of court apart from emphasising that the court should be protected from baseless accusations. True enough, that the court should be protected from baseless accusations but that is already provided for under the existing common law. But what about fair criticism on judgements and on-going trials? The Law Minister fails to provide any clarification on what constitute fair reporting and criticism and this would mean that the Attorney General will have the discreet to determine.
And when Ms Lim asked if the intention of the government is to ensure the court remains as the final arbitrator, as claimed by the Law Minister, then why is the bill worded as,
“A statement made by a person on behalf of the Government about the subject matter of or an issue in a court proceeding that is pending is not contempt of court under subsection (1)(b) if the 5 Government believes that such statement is necessary in the public interest.”
Mr Shanmugam went round and round to emphasize that the government cannot act outside of the law without addressing how the wordings of the bill is stated as such.
But people need to understand, since the law is passed, that means the government will be acting within the law.
NMPs can say a lot of fanciful words and flaunt how they represent Singaporeans in their field of specialty, but let’s get it straight, they don’t have to answer to anyone as they were never elected by the people to be in that position. Not really referencing to the ones who spoke but specifically individuals like Calvin Cheng and Chia Yong Yong.
All four NMPs who rose to voice their concerns about the bill subsequently voted “Yes” to the bill despite no clear clarification was made by the Law Minister in his response to the questions.
While I appreciate the hard work by the NMPs for their research and effort. I am disappointed that the NMPs did not follow through their disagreement on the wordings of the bill with their votes. Worse of all, they withdrew their recommended amendments before the bill was tabled to a select committee.