Singapore Passes Expanded Contempt of Court Law

Over the objections of the sister of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and human rights and press organizations, the Singapore Parliament has pushed through a bill widening the ability to bring contempt of court charges against political opponents.

The measure, the “Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill,” passed on a straight party line vote after seven hours of heated debate, with 72 People’s Action Party votes in favor and nine Worker Party votes against. It rewrites and expands contempt of court laws to allow the attorney general to bring contempt charges as well as the courts.

Opponents charged it limits freedom of expression and takes away the power of the judiciary to bring contempt charges and vests it in the government. Some 250-odd Singaporeans signed a petition contending the law could restrict legitimate discussion of issues that are of public interest.

It also specifies types of conduct that comprise contempt including “scandalizing the court,” disobeying court orders, interfering with court proceedings, sub-judice contempt, in which comments over court proceedings prejudice the case, and others.

Lee Wei Ling, Lee Hsien Loong’s physician sister, also charged on Facebook that the law would limit public discussion of public issues. It is the second time Wei Ling has spoken out recently. In May she said she would no longer write for the government-controlled New Straits Times after editors censored an article she wrote saying Lee Kuan Yew, the Lee family patriarch and founder of modern Singapore, would have cringed at the depth of hero worship that has surfaced in the year since his death in April 2015.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called vainly on Singapore lawmakers to scrap the proposed legislation, arguing that the draft law’s penalties for violations, “including possible prison terms for criticizing the judiciary, threaten to entrench more self-censorship in Singapore's constrained media environment.”

Allowing the attorney general rather than the courts to accuse writers of contempt would “open the door to the government's use of the law to pursue critics,” the CPJ argued.

Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, called the measure “the next handy tool for the government to suppress critical speech in Singapore. People should be free to express their views of the justice system without fear of being imprisoned or bankrupted by onerous fines.”

It is unclear what motivated the attorney general, K Shanmugam, to frame the bill. Singaporean judges’ trigger-finger use of contempt charges against critics has been widely criticized by political reform organizations for decades.

In addition, a huge range of international publications have been sued by the Lee family or the government for defamation, including AsiaWeek, the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Asian Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Time Magazine, the Financial Times, the International Herald Tribune and others. The Lees have never lost a case in Singapore.

“I think it’s part of a strategic clampdown,” a Singaporean dissident who asked not to be named for fear of being charged told Asia Sentinel in early August. “Singapore’s strategy has been two-pronged – to use the law and heavy financial penalties to curb free speech. It has worked largely but people have become more sophisticated in how they work around it, by being really careful. So the government is refining its game.”

The measure is said to be particularly aimed at the conduct of what were called “troublesome lawyers” and online news publications, clearly setting out punishments attributable to contempt, rather than conduct that would run afoul of the law, according to one analysis although virtually all news media has been muzzled in Singapore. One online blog, The Online Citizen, has continued although it is perennially short on funds and seeks to carefully avoid being too critical. Most Internet traffic appears to have largely been throttled

However, a 17-year-old rebellious teenager named Amos Yee has been giving the government fits for more than a year with obscenity-filled juvenile rants posted on YoutTube that have won him a total of eight charges including allegedly wounding the religious feelings of Muslims, one for allegedly wounding the religious feelings of Christians and two of failing to report to police to answer questions.

Instead of buckling under, Yee said he intends to stand trial on the charges.

Before Yee, British author Alan Shadrake served five weeks in jail in 2011 for scandalizing the courts with his book, “Once A Jolly Hangman,” which alleged bias in capital cases. Immediately after he was freed, he was bundled off to Changi Airport and put aboard a London-bound airplane. Before that, it was the turn of Melanie Kirkpatrick, the New York-based deputy editor of the Wall Street General, who was fined S$10,000 for writing two editorials criticizing the Singapore courts. The Journal itself was fined S$25,000, then the highest amount ever levied by a Singapore court against a publication.