Contempt of court case: High Court imposes S$5,000 fine against John Tan and Jolovan Wham; Tan may potentially be barred from contesting in GE due to fine

The Singapore High Court imposed a fine of S$5,000 against social worker Jolovan Wham and senior opposition politician John Tan Liang Joo respectively on Mon (29 Apr) after finding the two men guilty of scandalising the judiciary.

In addition to the fine, Wham and Tan were required by Justice Woo Bih Li to pay S$2997.82 and S$1966.39 respectively in legal costs and disbursements to the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC).

Defence lawyer Eugene Thuraisingam has stated that both Wham and Tan will be appealing against the fines and disbursement fees.

On the same day their sentences were doled out, Mr Thuraisingam sought lighter penalties on behalf of the two men, namely a fine of S$4,000 to S$6,000 for Wham and a shorter jail term of seven days for Tan instead of a fine.

This is due to a provision in the Singapore Constitution, namely Article 45(1)(e), which stipulates that political candidates who are convicted of any offence would be disqualified from running to become Members of Parliament in the general election if they are fined more than S$2,000 or imprisoned for more than a year for said offence:

However, State Counsel of the AGC Senthilkumaran Sabapathy retorted that the offending Facebook posts had not been taken down for almost 11 months now, and described the defendants’ actions as “displaying an utter lack of regard for the authority of courts in general, and blatant disrespect for the finding of the court that they are in contempt of court”.

Senthilkumaran also added that neither Tan nor Wham had issued a public apology nor displayed any intention to do so, which he argued to be a lack of remorse on the part of the two men.

Earlier on 20 Mar, Senthilkumaran sought a S$10,000 to S$15,000 fine against Wham and a custodial 15-day jail term against Tan.

Justice Woo, in delivering his judgement, did not regard the length of time the posts had been put up online as crucial in comparison to the reasoning behind the defendants’ defiance in taking them down.

He determined that the posts had impeached the impartiality and integrity of Singapore’s judicial system, and posed a risk of undermining public confidence in the administration of justice.

He also noted that Tan’s post represented an additional attack on Singapore’s court system.

Mr Thuraisingam, however, countered these statements by stipulating that Tan would remove his Facebook post on Wed, while Wham would remove his once the appeal for his first conviction has concluded, but without any apologies.

In response to their appeal, the AGC made a request for the offending posts and republications to be taken down, and for the defendants to publish an apology notice, the latter of which is to remain online for the same length of time as the offending posts.

Mr Senthilkumaran also revised his request for their fines to be fixed to S$8,000 and S$5,000 for Wham and Tan respectively.

Under the new contempt of court laws by the High Court or Court of Appeal, Wham and Tan could be fined up to S$100,000, and/or face a jail term of up to three years.

Another unrelated factor that warranted the custodial sentence for Tan was his previous conviction for contempt of court.

Back in 2008, Tan and two other men showed up at the High Court wearing a shirt that depicted a kangaroo dressed in a judge’s robe.

He also posted a picture of them online wearing the shirt while standing at the court’s entrance. For this particular offence, Tan served 15 days behind bars.

“In our submissions, it does not make sense to receive a more lenient sentence despite him being a repeat offender,” Senthilkumaran argued.

As for Wham, he was sentenced to jail for 16 days last month in the State Courts for a separate case in 2016 involving organising an assembly without a permit and refusing to sign his police statement. He is also facing another five charges related to two assemblies he had allegedly organised, which will be dealt with after the appeal.

Thuraisingam implored the court to consider that neither of his clients intended to scandalise the judiciary. While Tan had meant to criticise the Attorney-General, Thuraisingam justified Wham’s post as simply trying to make the point of comparison for different judicial systems in a certain type of case.

In regards to the above matter, Justice Woo queried: “But if he (Wham) were concerned then shouldn’t he have taken certain steps when he knew already that certain proceedings are being commenced against him?”

Justice Woo then adjourned sentencing to a later unconfirmed date as he reserved his judgement on the case.

Wham is a social worker with the Community Action Network, while Tan was one of the Singapore Democratic Party’s candidates, vice-chairman and assistant secretary-general for Marsiling-Yew Tee Group Representation Constituency in the 2015 General Election.

The AGC’s initiation of legal action against both Wham and Tan on the grounds of the two men scandalising the judiciary in separate Facebook posts last year marked the first convictions under the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act, which came into effect in October 2017.