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BBC interview with Pingtjin Thum and Sui Yi Siong on new Contempt of Court Law

Historian Thum Pingtjin, known as PJ Thum, and lawyer Sui Yi Siong shared their views on the recently passed Administration of Justice (Protection) Act - the Contempt of Court Law, on a BBC program.

Mr Sui is a Legal Associate at Harry Elias Partnership, and Mr Thum is a Research Associate at the Centre for Global History and coordinator of Project Southeast Asia at the University of Oxford.

Commenting on the discussion on his Facebook, Mr Thum said:

“My central point was that it is not the guilty who should fear the law, but the innocent. Changing the law to a seizable offence means that anyone who is innocent but charged with the offense can still potentially be arrested, have their homes searched, belongings seized, undergo a lengthy interrogation, and a lengthy expensive court trial. This is problematic especially in light of how in recent years the Attorney-General has more aggressively pursued potential contempt of court cases, as well as numerous amendments to laws which have given the government increased arbitrary power to curtail freedom of speech.”

PJ had said in the discussion that it is not the guilty who should fear the law, but the innocent.

Below is the transcript of the BBC interview

BBC: “Here in Singapore the government had defended if you contempt law...could strengthen freedom of speech.”

“Singapore’s Home Minister said the bill did not seek to expand the powers of the current contempt of law, but merely aimed to clarify it.”

“And under the new law,  offenders could be fined up to US$ 75,000, that’s S$100,000, and jailed for up to three years.”

“With me now in our Singapore's studio, to discuss this new law is Sui Yi Siong, a lawyer at the Harry Elias Partnership Singapore; and PJ Thum, head of the Southeast Asia Program at the University of Oxford.”

“Gentlemen, welcome to Newsday.”

“Let’s start up with you Mr Sui, “Do you think that this bill will shackle freedom of speech?”

Mr Sui answered, “No I don’t think so, the Minister in his speech in the parliament made it clear what he’s trying to prescribe are concerted media campaigns that try to shape the outcome of a case, but anything beyond this category is permissible.”

“So for instance, if the media runs (a) very considered campaign, saying that someone should be convicted or let go, that might amount to contempt.”

“But anything beyond that level, say a person sitting in his living room commenting on a case, that’s not contempt.”

BBC: “So, PJ, he says it would not shackle freedom of speech, so why are you against this new law?”

PJ Thum said with a laugh: “Well, the implication of the new law are not for the guilty.”

“Yi Siong is totally correct that it does qualify what is already on the books. But there is one fundamental change.”

“It turns the law from a non-seizable to a seizable offence, and that has severe implications for the innocence.”

“It changes the nature of the relationships. The government, the attorney general, has been more aggressively pursuing cases of contempt in recent years.”

“And that means that for activists who are accused of being in contempt of court, they would be subject to arrest, to have their home search, their belonging seized, to undergo lengthy interrogation before going to court and maybe accruing a lot of costs.”

“In the past people who have undergone the process had been led off with a warning or have the charges dropped.”

“But now they will undergo a lengthy and difficult process.”

BBC: “And even if you rant on social media the authorities can go to your home and take you away?”

Sui Yi Siong: “In a sense, in a sense, but I think it’s only in the most serious of cases that the AGC will exercise its powers. I have full respect for the Singapore’s police and prosecutors, I think they act in public interest, and I think they will weigh the seriousness of any alleged offence that is committed.”

“But as a defense lawyer activist, I think I’m in full agreement with PJ. I think the fact that contempt is an arrestable offense makes it quite serious, but as a defense lawyer, I think any defense lawyer will do their best to get whoever is remanded out on bail, released as soon as possible.”

TOC notes that in May 2014, Mr M Ravi filed a criminal motion on behalf of Mr James Raj to seek a declaration that under Article 9(3) of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (“Constitution”) that there is an immediate right to counsel upon the request of a person remanded for investigations and for James Raj to be granted immediate access to legal counsel. In its judgment, the Court of Appeal ruled that there is no legal requirement that a person be granted access to legal counsel within 48 hours and the access can be denied by the police up to almost 3 weeks. (read here)

BBC: “And PJ, according to the government this will not basically change or expand the current court practices and only aims to clarify them. And this is basically aimed to protect the ordinary citizens.”

PJ Thum: “Yes, that’s fine, it’s really important to protect the ordinary citizens, it is really important that the integrity of our court process be upheld.”

“But it also indicates how the problematic nature of how contempt of court has been used and pursued in Singapore.”

“There have been many activists who have been slapped with an accusation of contempt of court, and later, as I mention, let off but only after a lengthy process.”

“And so this is going to make life very difficult. So the ramifications are not for the guilty, but for the innocent, especially if you are innocent. That’s why you should be worried about this law.”

BBC: “Is the penalty too steep? S$100,000 and up to three years in prison?”

Sui Yi Siong: “To be perfectly fair to the law as it stands, this is the maximum offence, and it’s only when the offence is commit. When the High Court at the Court of Appeal decides on such an offence.”

“So this is the maximum, it doesn’t mean a court will always impose such a fine, and I think the majority of cases will be dealt with the state courts in Singapore was just the first instance court, and there the maximum fine and jail terms are much lower; and again, it’s up to the judge to decide and I don’t think any judge would immediately impose the maximum.”

BBC: “Could this also means that the government could clamp down even further and even be more restrictive on the media?”

Sui Yi Siong: “In a sense, if the media is engaging in some sort of conceited attempt in influencing a trial, then yes.”

“If you are familiar with the Joanna Yeates' case in the UK about maybe four, five years ago, I think UK viewers will be familiar about this.”

“Basically, the Sun and the Daily Mirror ran a media campaign when a man was arrested. Even they said that he is a murder suspect even though he was completely innocent, they destroyed his reputation completely; they ran articles implying he’s a pedophile, stalkish tendency.”

“So I think what the minister wants to prevent is this sort of circus from happening. When it comes to the media, I think Singapore’s mass media is perfectly responsible and even our social media, so if they stay within the boundaries, there’s nothing to fear, really.”

BBC: “PJ, is this law is done and dusted? Can it still be amended going forward?”

PJ Thum laughed and said: “In theory, any law can be amended. But what really worries me is the history of the context of increasing arbitrary executive power in Singapore and the ability of the government to go after freedom of speech... In the past few years we’ve seen a whole raft of amendments and new laws that give the government to clamp down the freedom of speech.”

“And this trend is continuing, and it’s very worrying.”

“As Thomas Paine said, a government which has an arbitrary power over its people, along as the government has arbitrary power over its people, the people are not free because their lives depend on the goodwill of the government.”

“So as long as that exist, you are still a slave.”

BBC: “Mr Sui let me try this to compare this with the UK. How is this contempt of court differ from what happens in the UK?”

Sui Yi Siong: “Well if you just look at the plain wording it seems different. But if you listen to what the minister said in parliament, actually we’re not so far apart.”

“So the UK test is what they called, I believe, a substantial risk of serious prejudice; Singapore is a real risk.”

“But the Joanna Yeates' case which I mentioned, Chris Jefferies that was decided in the context of the UK contempt of court act.”

“And according to what the minister said apparently that is what is Singapore test is, so we’re not so far apart.”

In the contempt ruling handed down at the high court on Friday, Lord Justice Thomas and Mr Justice Owen described the Daily Mirror articles as "extreme" and "substantial risks to the course of justice".

The judges said the Sun's coverage of Jefferies created a "very serious risk" that any future court defence would be damaged.

"These articles [in the Sun] would have certainly justified an abuse of process argument, and although their effect is not as grave as that of two series of articles contained in the Mirror, the vilification of Mr Jefferies created a very serious risk that the preparation of his defence would be damaged," the judges said. "At the time when this edition of the Sun was published it created substantial risks to the course of justice. It therefore constituted a contempt under the strict liability rule." - The Guardian