(Delivered in Parliament on 15 August 2016)
Madam Speaker, I join my Workers’ Party colleagues to oppose this bill. As an ordinary person who relies on the law to protect my family, I find this proposed law casts too large and fearful a shadow on the whole of Singapore and diminishes my sense of security for my family.
Fresh from Benjamin Lim’s Suicide
First the timing for this bill is most unfortunate. The suicide of 14 year-old Benjamin Lim in January this year is still fresh in the minds of many members of the public. It was only five months ago on 1st of March this year that Minister Shanmugam laid out the facts of the case in response to online statements and reported comments about the events leading to the suicide. The Minister was careful to point out that he consulted the Attorney-General’s Chambers to make sure he would not be in sub judice contempt. He also said that the Ministry of Home Affairs would study how the police and other institutions could respond in future to such allegations. Is this bill the response that he had promised?
If it is, how can this bill claim to merely codify common law rules when it is coming so quick on the heels of what the Minister had said in Parliament just five months ago? If it is, is the response not too fast, too furious, too hasty, given that the Benjamin Lim case is still pending? If it is, should such a bill with all its terrifying consequences not be given its airing for public debate? Surely, given the potentially far-reaching impact of the bill, all Singaporeans should be considered stakeholders to be widely consulted, and not just selected legal and judicial fraternities?
Silencing with Sub Judice Contempt, While the Government Has Immunity
Reading this bill as an ordinary person sends a chill down my spine. I sincerely hope this is not the intended effect of the bill. The chilling part is sub judice contempt. The meaning of “publish” here is so broad that it covers personal electronic communication and social messaging between friends. It is also not clear what is meant by QUOTE “a real risk of prejudice to or interference with, the course of any court proceeding that is pending” UNQUOTE. For example, a young person has died in an event following the acts of public officials, and members of the public empathize with the parents’ loss. Would I, as the father in question, be risking sub judice contempt if I asked fair questions about the event? Would I, as a concerned member of the public, be risking sub judice contempt if I questioned and criticize the authorities in good faith?
To make matters worse, Clause 4 gives the Government blanket immunity from sub judice contempt. Illustration 1 of this immunity states that QUOTE “a statement made by a person on behalf of the Government factually describing the events and circumstances relating to and leading up to the death of a person (such as the acts of public officials when a coroner’s inquiry into the person’s death is pending) which the Government believes is necessary to address inaccurate and incorrect public allegations, is not contempt of court” UNQUOTE. This is clearly referring to the Benjamin Lim case. Conversely then, would concerned members of the public who made the so-called allegations in the first place be in sub judice contempt? But why should they be? What if the so-called allegations were questions concerning the factual matrix of the events and circumstances, for example how many public officials were involved, what they were wearing, what they did, what they said, when they did what and said what and where? These so-called allegations are not known to be inaccurate and incorrect until the Government clarifies the facts.
Surely, by common sense then, when the facts are unclear on a case of great public interest, members of the public who question the factual matrix in good faith should not be in sub judice contempt. So why does the Government get a special clause giving it blanket immunity and a special illustration in this regard? Why not the ordinary citizens, the vast majority of whom would only question the authorities on facts in good faith? In fact, a corresponding illustration should state, QUOTE “A statement by a person questioning or asking for clarifications on the facts of the events and circumstances relating to and leading up to the death of a person (such as the acts of public officials when a coroner’s inquiry into the person’s death is pending) made in good faith on a case of public interest is not contempt of court by virtue that such a statement constitutes fair criticism.” UNQUOTE
In fact, if this law is not to create a deathly silence among good citizens, then this bill should include clarifying clauses with illustrations about what constitutes fair criticism and therefore is not sub judice contempt. By stating in opaque and ominous terms what the members of the public CANNOT say without stating what we CAN say, and, conversely, by giving the Government complete discretion that its officers CAN say almost anything, this law will scare the public into silence.
This Law Will Undermine the People’s Trust of the Government
Scaring the citizens into silence is not something any Government should want because it breeds an inner contempt for the authorities and our public institutions. In the long run, this inner contempt, unexpressed thus inarticulate, invalid but uncorrected, will undermine trust of the Government. Instead of protecting the police and other public institutions, as intended, this will ironically erode the foundation that gives the police and other public institutions their strength: the TRUST of the people.
Trust is a two-way street and is built on the two-way traffic of communication that is often messy but ultimately coordinated. I am an ordinary citizen who would like to be able to express fair criticism and fair comment on events of public interest that concerns me. Above all, as a father who would entrust my two sons to our education system and then the armed forces, I expect the same level of trust to be accorded to me by the Government to be able to express fair criticism and ask fair questions on cases that relate to my sons’ safety. I therefore do not see the need for this law to be enacted. In fact, this law is not only unnecessary, it also gives the executive unprecedented powers that would silence public discussion on the facts of cases of great public interest.
The status quo suffices. I was just sworn into this House when the public furor surrounding the Benjamin Lim case reached its crescendo in the online public sphere. Indeed, some unfair allegations were made, but a lot more fair questions and comments were also made, because everyone was concerned, parents were concerned. “What if it were my son?” “It could have been my son.” “How could this have happened?” As a new Non-Constituency Member of Parliament still overawed by the moment of being elected, I saw Members of Parliament on both sides of the House picking up on the public concerns and posing questions to the Ministers of Education and Home Affairs, some with emotions audible in their voices. I saw the Ministers answering the questions factually and respectfully. I saw appreciation when the Ministers promised review of processes of investigation.
After the Parliamentary session, I saw the Singaporean public, ever so rational, calming down. For some, their questions were answered. For some, they were willing to submit their doubts to the truth-finding process. For others, questions remained, and they continued to ask questions, but in more measured tones. Yes, there were those who were still unhappy, their prejudgment unshakeable, but on the whole, Singaporeans clarified their doubts and affirmed their trust in the police and our public institutions.
The point I am trying to make here is that this episode saw beneficial communication between the citizens and the Government, and trust was affirmed, perhaps even deepened as a result. It would be a grave mistake to see the episode as an attack on the Government. The Government needs no protection, there was no attack, it was a process that righted and clarified the doubts and affirmed trust.
This Bill is an Unnecessary Overreaction with Grave Consequences
This is why this bill is an overreaction. Imagine if this bill was already law in January this year. The Attorney General’s Chambers and the Ministry of Home Affairs would have had its hands full trying to warn members of the public genuinely concerned with the Benjamin Lim case that they were risking sub judice contempt. Otherwise rational citizens would get angry seeing the authorities trying to silence the affected parents and other concerned members of the public. Courts may issue a gag order, often to protect persons involved in the case and the judicial process, but it is a different matter when the executive does the same, because it would be perceived as protecting itself. Fair criticisms, fair questions, fair comments would all be driven underground.
Members of Parliament would find it difficult to adequately represent people in their attempts to raise the issue in the House. The Government would have missed out on the perfect opportunity to clarify the facts and affirm its relationship of trust with the people through the most important communicative platform in the country: Parliament. Fewer allegations and misrepresentations might surface, many people would be technically free of sub judice contempt, but the doubts and questions, uncorrected and unasked, would have rotted in people’s hearts into unexpressed contempt for the Government.
This is what I fear would happen when this bill becomes law. It is utterly unnecessary, counter-productive and ultimately subversive of trust between the Government and the people. If the Government must insist on pushing through this bill, then at the very least, we should not be hasty about it. We need to take more time to consult the people, debate about the contents and rework it from the vantage point of ordinary citizens who seek the security of the law for their families.
Madam Speaker, I oppose the bill.