By: Ravi Philemon
In a letter written to The Straits Times forum in 2012, writer Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh succinctly explained why the Singapore system would have failed without the scrutiny of netizens. That is the reason why I am concerned about the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill.
As a layman and untrained in the law, I think the State with the wording in the Bill (which is both vague and broad) has usurped a lot of power for itself. And this is scary because it has a potential to stifle free speech further in Singapore.
I am not against the principles of the right to fair trials, or the need to ensure that court orders are obeyed. I further agree that judicial independence is crucial to any democratic society, and welcome moves to ensure this independence. But as the website ‘simisaialsocontempt‘ explains, this is what I am concerned about:
- The Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill is problematic because its wording is both vague and broad, and there is a lack of clarity over what sort of comment or action is/isn’t in contempt of court. The legal tests applied to determining whether something is/isn’t in contempt of court is also troublingly low. The presence of such confusion and doubt leads to a ‘chilling effect’, where people opt for the safety of silence, rather than risk falling foul of the law.
- This chilling effect could lead to the curtailing of important discussions on matters of public interest, which could have prompted improvements in public institutions and practices. We have seen this happen in cases like with Jover Chew, where public discussions led to the clean-up of Sim Lim Square, or with Benjamin Lim, where public outcry led to the Ministry of Education and Singapore Police Force to improve their procedures relating to minors/vulnerable people involved in investigations.
- The bill gives the state wide powers, creating an imbalance between the state and its people.
- For example, the Attorney-General can seek a court order to compel an individual to take down his/her post, as long as a possibility of contempt can be shown. The individual need not be informed that a court order has been sought. If the individual fails to comply with the court order after it has been served, he/she could face a penalty of a $20,000 fine and/or 12 months in prison.
- The bill also allows the Government (or someone speaking on behalf of the Government) to comment on ongoing cases if it is deemed to be in the public interest. This essentially means that while comments from members of the public might be found in contempt, the Government is able to comment on cases.
- A bill with such wide implications on public discussion and speech cannot be passed in haste. Extensive public education and consultation are needed to craft a robust bill that increases public confidence.
- The bill was tabled, and had its first reading in Parliament, on 11 July. The call for public input on REACH was only put up on 12 July – there has been insufficient time for the public to scrutinise the bill, understand its implications and provide feedback.
- We are aware that certain groups have been consulted, from lawyers to civil society organisations. However, there is a lack of clarity as to which groups were consulted, how they were selected, how representative they are of the population and how the feedback they provided was considered and taken on board (or not).