Singapore

MPs debate for 7 hours in Parliament over new Bill

The Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill was hotly debated in Parliament yesterday, with Law Minister K. Shanmugam engaging Workers' Party members in a war of words. FOO JIE YING and LINETTE HENG (tnp@sph.com.sg) give a flavour of the debate

The law tomorrow is going to be same as what it was yesterday.

That was a point that Law Minister K. Shanmugam reiterated time and time again during the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill debate yesterday.

Concerns from Members of Parliament (MPs) from both sides of the aisle and Nominated MPs (NMPs) surfaced yesterday over the Bill, which deals with the law of contempt of court.

It was eventually passed yesterday at about 9.30pm after a debate lasting seven hours, with Workers' Party secretary-general Low Thia Khiang calling for a division twice, once after the second reading of the Bill and once for the third.

Usually voice votes are done to carry a Bill but when a division is called, each member has to vote through a device at his or her seat.

Out of the 81 members present, nine voted against the Bill.

Mr Shanmugam said: "The fundamental point to remember is, when looking at this Bill tomorrow, Tuesday, assuming the Bill gets passed... the law is essentially the same. Some additional processes are there but the law is essentially the same.

"I say that and look anybody in the eye and say that. If anyone says that's not true, tell me."

First tabled last month, the Bill aims to codify the key elements of the law of contempt into statute.

The law of contempt of court is currently based on previous court rulings.

Under the Bill, there are three main types of conduct which constitute contempt of court, and clarifies what does not constitute contempt of court.

Different aspects of the Bill were debated by 19 MPs and NMPs yesterday, with all the WP MPs objecting to the Bill.

Some, like Marine Parade MP Edwin Tong, were worried about the "trial-by-media" effect.

Others, like WP's Mr Low, lamented that with the law, even "coffee shop talk" will be construed as contempt of court.

Mr Shanmugam rebutted some of these concerns with some strong words in his closing speech.

"All these suggestions of democracy under attack, we are going to restrict freedom of speech, make for fine statements outside if you believe that you can mislead the public.

"But for a real debate, it doesn't meet any of the points I've made," he said.

Others questioned the timing and motive of the Bill.

Non-Constituency MP and Workers' Party member Leon Perera, for instance, questioned the "rush to legislate" the law of contempt of court.

In rebuttal, Mr Shanmugam cited several mentions of codifying the law of contempt of court into statute, with the first mention dating back to 2010.

Mr Shanmugam told the House: "If you want to put up a conspiracy theory, I think you've got to try harder. And we don't normally take six years. The reason we didn't push on with the Bill is very simple.

"As I said, even in the absence of the Bill, the law is there.

"But it's just that it's better for it to be in writing because... it's the only criminal law not set out in statute..."

Directing his comments specifically at Mr Perera later, the Law Minister said: "I didn't know you'd consider six years to be a rush to legislate. It's slow by our Government's standards... (On the argument that the law) substantially affects public debate. Are there any cases where witnesses have not come forward? And why change? Why do we assume there's a change?"

But the WP's opposition to the Bill was reiterated in a statement before it was passed: "This bill is not only unnecessary, it also gives to the executive and the police powers that they currently do not have that would have a chilling effect on fair criticism and public discussion.

"If enacted, this law runs a very high risk of causing the unintended consequences of undermining the public's trust in the Government in the long run."

But Mr Shanmugam reiterated several times during his closing speech that the law remains the same in essence.

"If you take away one thing from the debate, just ask yourself how has the law operated up till now. That's how it's going to operate."

Points of concern

'COFFEE SHOP TALK'

Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang argued that the Bill would change conversations online and even at coffee shops because people might be concerned that their comments might be construed as contempt of court.

But Law Minister K. Shanmugam assured the House that this would not happen.

He added that it would only be considered contempt of court if a person threatens a court witness at a coffee shop as it would result in interference of court proceedings.

Comments made by Facebook users and popular bloggers such as Mr Brown and Mr Miyagi would probably not be considered contempt of court, said Mr Shanmugam, stressing that the rules on contempt of court have not changed despite the Bill.

'DISCOURSE COULD LEAD TO CHANGE'

The public discussions following the deaths of full-time national serviceman Dominique Sarron Lee and student Benjamin Lim led to positive results, said Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun.

Speaking in Mandarin, Mr Kok pointed out that the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) changed their standard operating procedures (SOPs) following Mr Lee's accidental death after an allergic reaction during a training exercise, and the police decided to rethink their questioning of minors.

Mr Kok, who represented a group comprising civil rights activists like Miss Kirsten Han and Mr Jolovan Wham to submit a petition which was signed by 249 people to delay the passage of the Bill, said he had reservations about the Bill as it will hamper civil discourse.

He said: "The Bill is not meant to restrain people from airing their views, except for those who are contravening regulations... But the public may become overly cautious and refrain from making comments in the future as they think they cannot withstand the severity of the penalties."

In response, Mr Shanmugam said: "I agree there is value to public discussion but context is when, at what stage and what sort of discussion. Some sort of discussions are possible before the proceedings are concluded and some sort of discussions should be held after the proceedings are concluded."

He added that it does not mean that all discussions before court proceedings are "automatically" considered contempt of court unless they are of a certain "scale and nature to prejudice proceedings".

'DOUBLE STANDARDS'

Several Workers' Party members raised their concerns about a clause in the Bill that allows the Government to make statements when it is necessary for public interest.

Mr Low said: "The real purpose is not to protect the fairness of the judicial system but to deter members of public to voice their views, although they may be reasonable or legal.

"At the same time, (the Bill) allows ministers to make a statement. This is double standards."

In response, Mr Shanmugam used an example of an incident - when two SMRT maintenance staff were killed on the train track - to highlight an occasion when the Government had to speak up.

'TRIAL-BY-MEDIA' EFFECT

It is understandable that the public is concerned about what happens in a court case.

But Jurong MP Tan Wu Meng reminded the House of the importance of a balance between freedom of expression and an accused's right to a fair trial.

"If your loved one was the victim of a crime, would you not want a fair trial? Would you not want witnesses to be protected so they can testify without fear or favour, without their recollections being affected by media coverage?"

In response to Ang Mo Kio MP Darryl David's question on how the Bill would affect mainstream and alternative media reporting, Mr Shanmugam reiterated that the factors which constitute contempt have not changed.

He said: "The mainstream media in Singapore are generally responsible and adhere to high standards in terms of reports on ongoing proceedings. Practices which are acceptable today will continue to be acceptable tomorrow."

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