AGC’s seemingly selective prosecution of individuals for Contempt of Court

Just this Wednesday, the Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal by Dr Tan Cheng Bock who sought to contest the legitimacy and timing of the upcoming reserved Presidential Election. And if one were to read the social media comments made following the verdict,  you would see comments such as those below:

  • “Expected lah. This is Singapore all judges is under PAP payroll and you think can win PAP? Unless PAP is not the government then will win.”
  • “It is a long foregone conclusion leh. U expect TCB to win the appeal, go for PE and get elected? Really expect Garment to sacrifice a Palia-Men speaker and MP for a lost cause meh.”
  • “Parliamentary ruling government leader push the PE Reserved for Malays to the court but the Justices of Appeal Court pushed the issues back to Parliament by saying Parliament has the right to enact or interpret the laws. What a joke. What a country we have become; third world or worst than that ? Am I in Uganda? I am still pinching myself daily whether I am in Singapore or Uganda.”
  • “A nature expected decision coming from a puppet Constitution.”

The above comments were retrieved from Channel News Asia’s Facebook post, and there are many other comments which run beside these comments. All these imply to a casual reader that it had been a foregone conclusion before the five judges made the judgement to dismiss Dr Tan’s application.

While many of the comments may be brief and contain no specific reference to Dr Tan’s case, they would still considered to be guilty of contempt, according to the arguments made by the AGC in its charge of Contempt of Court against lawyer Eugene Thuraisingam. The Public Prosecutor there argued that if his offending poem was read in its full context, one would infer that the wordings in his poem were made in reference to how the case was being ruled and not towards a particular law. Therefore, if the comments were read in relation to the case which the commenters are now commenting on, one could very well read their comments as implying that the court had made the verdict because it was under the influence of the People’s Action Party and that one cannot expect natural justice in Singapore’s judiciary system.

So I wrote to AGC on Wednesday afternoon, asking if they would be looking into the discussion made on Channel News Asia’s Facebook page and other similar posts made on other news platforms.

However, AGC has kept its silence till today.

180 degrees difference in attitude towards Mr Li Shengwu’s private Facebook post

Now moving on to the prosecution of Mr Li Sheng Wu by AGC for the comments made on the judiciary in his private Facebook post, AGC’s approach seems awfully different.

When Li first posted the private Facebook post on 15 July 2017 which was limited to his private audience of a small group of friends, the screengrab was then published by Facebook page, “SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh” and subsequently reported by a local website, “Thoughts of Real Singaporeans” on the same day with a news commentary. The Independent Singapore also reported on the post based on information from the aforementioned website.

Subsequently, AGC highlighted the post on 17 July by issuing a press statement to the media that spurred the nation-wide coverage by MSM and independent media outlets, stating that it is looking into the comments made by Li in response to media queries.

All in all, AGC took less than one working day to respond to media queries which had most likely been sent during the weekend, late Saturday or Sunday. However, in comparison, AGC did not find a need to respond to TOC’s query about comments that are publicly accessible and read by the mass public.

One might argue that AGC will only respond to respectable mainstream media that are granted media accreditation.

But which media outlet did AGC respond to? Let’s look at the media reports by Singapore MSM (news agencies that have official media passes) after AGC’s issuing of its statement on 17 July:

Straits Times wrote – The AGC, following media queries, said in a brief statement yesterday morning: “AGC is aware of the post and is looking into the matter.”
Channel News Asia reported – In response to media queries, the AGC said on Monday it is aware of the post and is looking into the matter.
The New Paper wrote – Replying to media queries, an AGC spokesman said in a statement yesterday: “AGC is aware of the post and is looking into the matter.”
Yahoo wrote – The AGC said in a media statement on Monday (17 July) that it is aware of the post and is looking into the matter.
Zaobao wrote – “总检察署昨早针对李绳武本月15日对我国司法体系提出质疑的贴文答复媒体询问时说:“总检察署已留意到这则贴文,并正在研究此事” (same as other media reports)
Mothership wrote – The Attorney-General’s Chambers told Mothership on Monday that it is “looking into” a Facebook post by Li Shengwu, the oldest son of Lee Hsien Yang.

So looking at the wording of the reports, it is unknown which established media outlet asked AGC about Li’s post. The media outlet which asked the question would have came out happily, stating that AGC had responded to its media query along with the report. In most cases, AGC will only issue press statements when it is taking action (ie: warning letters, file charges and etc) and not when it is taking a wait-and-see approach.

Furthermore, when TOC wrote to AGC in 2014 on queries in regards to a possible illegal act, the AGC said it “cannot provide legal advice to members of the public.”

So what AGC should have done in the case of Li’s private Facebook comments should have been what they are doing to TOC’s media queries, by simply ignoring the query and let the matter die off. Or wait for someone who really feel that Li had committed an offence with his comments, to make a police report, such in the case of Amos Yee’s YouTube videos.

But instead, AGC choose to respond to the media query and even went on to announce its response to the media in Singapore instead of the media outlets which made the queries. AGC then turned around, claiming that Li should definitely have anticipated that his comments would be shared widely when it was AGC who made the comments known and read far and wide.

Discretion of AGC based on nothing more than a whim?

So looking at AGC’s differing approaches in replying to media query and choice of action in pursuing prosecution of individuals for contempt of court. One would wonder if the AGC, headed by Attorney-General, Mr Lucien Wong, Prime Minister Lee’s former personal lawyer and Mr Hri Kumar, former PAP Member of Parliament, had blew up the matter with Mr Li’s private Facebook comments for reasons unknown to us commoners.

After all, if Li – who is known to be the late Lee Kuan Yew’s favorite grandson due to his capability and intellect – is found guilty through a court hearing without his presence, he will be effectively forced to go exile from Singapore unless he comes back to face the penalty imposed.

But get this right, I am not saying that people who made the comments about the verdict, in regards to Dr Tan’s appeal, ought to be prosecuted for voicing their views on the court system. But I am simply showing how the law on contempt of court is flawed. How can there be a law – in this case, Contempt of Court soon to be Adminstration of Justice (Protection) Act – that allows the government to selectively choose individuals to be prosecuted while some are not. It is akin to having some being allowed to commit murder without being arrested or prosecuted because the AGC decides not to, hiding behind the justification of prosecutorial discretion.

If AGC cannot actively enforce a law, then the law should be relooked at or repealed, such as the section 377A of the penal code which criminalises consenting sex between men.

The law of this land, ought to be based on the consideration of whether the law can be fairly carried out for the purpose it is intended to achieve, whether it is for deterrence or proportionate punishment. But if the law is seen to be selectively imposed on certain individuals and not others, then this is a country that is ruled by law and not based on the rule of law.

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