Dan Tan case: 'Groundbreaking' judgment raises question about Act

Businessman Dan Tan Seet Eng (centre) leaving the Supreme Court on Nov 25, 2015.
Businessman Dan Tan Seet Eng (centre) leaving the Supreme Court on Nov 25, 2015. ST PHOTO: WONG KWAI CHOW

Groundbreaking - that is how legal experts and lawyers here have described the decision by Singapore's highest court to declare that alleged match-fixer Dan Tan Seet Eng's detention without trial was unlawful.

They agreed that it showed how the courts were ready to scrutinise the reasons behind the Home Affairs Minister's decision to detain a person under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act (CLTPA), and ensure that the state does not overstep the powers granted by the Act.

But the case has also led to another debate - on whether the CLTPA, first introduced in 1955 to fight secret societies, should be tweaked to take into account the global nature of organised crime today.

On Wednesday, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, delivering the judgment on behalf of a three-judge panel, said the key purpose of the Act was to prevent violence or cases in which witness intimidation made prosecution impossible.

But Tan's alleged match-fixing activities "all took place beyond our shores" in countries such as Egypt, South Africa and Nigeria, said CJ Menon. That meant there was little risk to "public safety, peace and good order" here. He added that no evidence was presented to show that potential witnesses were being intimidated.

Said National University of Singapore (NUS) law professor and former Nominated Member of Parliament Thio Li-Ann: "Simply put, the exercise of power under the CLTPA (by the Minister in Tan's case) was not for a CLTPA stipulated purpose.

"The courts will not accept as conclusive the executive's assessment that a person needs to be detained under the CLTPA. It will independently review the exercise of power and ensure it falls within the terms of the statute."

Criminal lawyer Prasad Karunakarn added: "It shows us clearly that any law should be judiciously applied."

Another criminal lawyer, Mr Shashi Nathan, described the detention without trial as a "draconian measure because you are denying a person the chance to have his defence heard". And the courts have made it clear that "if the authorities want to invoke this Act, they must be clear and transparent".

Singapore Management University law professor Eugene Tan said the case has revealed how courts and law enforcement agencies here could sometimes have a different understanding of what is required to maintain public safety, peace and good order.

And while he welcomed the decision, he remained cautious of its implications. He raised the possibility that Singapore could be seen as a "convenient" place for those engaged in transnational criminal activities to operate from.

He felt that a review of the Act and its scope could be due.

"We should not be surprised if Parliament will seek to enhance the CLTPA as a result of this particular case, so as to deal with cases of cross-border crime, even if it is committed outside of Singapore."

However, constitutional law expert Kevin Tan, who teaches at NUS, disagreed. He said the CLTPA, which was instituted as a temporary law 60 years ago, was never intended to deal with transboundary crime. "It was enacted at a time of gangsterism and secret societies."

In 2013, Mr S. Iswaran , the then Second Minister for Home Affairs, justified the use of the CLTPA against match-fixing syndicates.

He said: "The underlying nature of these match-fixing activities was no different to those of other criminal activities that have necessitated the use of the Act.

"Such criminal activities are often carried out by organised syndicates with complex and layered structures, and extensive networks which make full use of technology. Also, where cross-border illegal activities are involved, the difficulties of securing witnesses who are willing to co-operate and testify in open court are amplified."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 27, 2015, with the headline ''Groundbreaking' judgment raises question about Act'. Print Edition | Subscribe