Petition submitted to Parliament on contempt of court Bill

NMP Kok Heng Leun submitted a petition in Parliament regarding the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill, on Aug 10, 2016.
NMP Kok Heng Leun submitted a petition in Parliament regarding the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill, on Aug 10, 2016.ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN

SINGAPORE - Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun submitted a petition to Parliament on Wednesday (August 10) on behalf of a group seeking to delay the passage of a Bill on contempt of court laws, which they said may restrict legitimate discussion on issues of public interest.

The petition wants the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill to be referred to a parliamentary select committee, and calls for greater public consultation on its content and effects.

It was signed by 249 Singaporeans during a six-day signature collection drive, which ended on Tuesday (August 9).

When contacted, the Ministry of Law said: "The objective of the Bill is to write the existing case law on contempt of court into statute." It added that it had held consulted key stakeholders, such as lawyers and civil society groups, in drafting the Bill.

The Bill was introduced and read for the first time in Parliament on July 11 and will be read for a second time at the next sitting, scheduled for next Monday (August 15).

It covers three main areas of Singapore's law of contempt: prejudicing court matters, disobeying court orders, and scandalising the courts.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam said last month that the Bill does not expand the definition of contempt of court and will provide more clarity on what constitutes the offence.

Currently, there are no statues on contempt of court and existing laws are built upon judgements of cases that are heard in court.

But the petition argues that "key provisions in the Bill are vague and that the Bill goes beyond its stated goal of consolidating key elements of the law of contempt into statute".

It adds that the Bill "introduces new powers to the Attorney-General, lowers the legal threshold required to be convicted for the offence of scandalising the court, and imposes severe punishment to a degree that may be disproportionate for a non-violent offence".

The petition was organised by a group of activists, including Dr Thum Ping Tjin, Ms Kirsten Han, Ms Rachel Zeng, and Ms Lisa Li.

Mr Kok, an artistic director of theatre company Drama Box, said he was approached last week to help submit the petition and agreed to do so as "the concerns raised largely reflect the ones I have as a parliamentarian and as a layman".

Responding to media queries, a spokesman for the office of the Clerk of Parliament said that when a petition is filed, the Clerk will check if it complies with requirements spelt out in the parliamentary standing orders.

"If so, the Clerk will endorse the petition for the MP to present it at a sitting of Parliament," said the spokesman.

Separately, the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) issued its own statement to support the general intention and the principle of the Bill. But it raised similar points as those in the petition, saying there were "some concerns about the Bill's potential negative impact on civil society and free speech".

The last such petition to Parliament was in 2007, when then NMP Siew Kum Hong filed one on behalf of a group that wanted to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code, which forbids men from having sex with each other, whether in public or in private.

ziliang@sph.com.sg