The Bill on the laws of contempt of court does not substantively change the legal position on what one is permitted to say about the judiciary and ongoing court proceedings, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.
It was a point he emphasised throughout the second reading of the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill, which was passed after a nearly seven-hour debate in Parliament.
He said one could still have discussions on the merit of a law, and one could still criticise a judgment, as long as the integrity of a judge was not called into question.
ENSURING A FAIR TRIAL
It will be quite shocking for us to say that the rights of someone who wishes to comment should be put above the rights of the person who is facing a trial, for a fair trial.
LAW MINISTER K. SHANMUGAM
Several Nominated MPs (NMPs) and Workers' Party (WP) MPs disagreed, contending that the Bill went far beyond its stated aim of codifying in statutes the existing common law, which is based on judgments of previous cases.
At the start of the debate, Mr Shanmugam, who is also Home Affairs Minister, noted that the law on contempt was the only criminal law here based on case law.
The move to correct this anomaly began in 2010, when then Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong raised the idea of putting contempt of court laws in statutory form.
The Bill covers three main areas of the law of contempt: prejudicing court matters, disobeying court orders and scandalising the courts.
To those who feel that curbing comment on an ongoing trial would curtail free speech, Mr Shanmugam said a person's right to the presumption of innocence should come first.
"It will be quite shocking for us to say that the rights of someone who wishes to comment should be put above the rights of the person who is facing a trial, for a fair trial," he said.
He stressed that the legislation does not stop discussions on policy or what the law ought to be. For instance, he said, one can advocate one's position on the death penalty even if a capital trial is going on.
On scandalising the courts, the Bill sets out that this is committed if a publication "poses a risk that public confidence in the administration of justice would be undermined".
But High Court judge Quentin Loh ruled in 2010 that for a statement to be in contempt, it had to have a "real risk" of scandalising the judiciary.
Mr Shanmugam explained that while judges develop common law based on strict legal precedence, the Government looked at the larger implications of the law on the country.
Different interests were weighed against each other. The benefits that Singapore reaps as a legal hub, thanks to the prestige of its judiciary, were compared against the rights of a few who wish to attack the integrity of the courts.
"You weigh the public good against what is being proscribed and, in my view, the balance is clear," he said.
Mr Shanmugam also highlighted that the Bill makes it easier to enforce court orders, and sets out maximum penalties for contempt of court. Under common law, the punishment was limitless.
A total of 19 MPs rose to speak on the Bill. The WP MPs opposed it, taking aim at several aspects, including the change in what amounts to scandalising the courts.
WP chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) said the Bill "unnecessarily lowers the threshold on what constitutes scandalising the court".
Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera added that the Bill "will suffocate dissent, debate and democratic politics in Singapore to the detriment of balanced, accountable politics, civil society and freedom of speech".
After the debate, three NMPs who had submitted amendments to clauses in the Bill last week withdrew them. They are Mr Mahdev Mohan, Mr Kok Heng Leun and Ms Kuik Shiao-Yin.
Before the Bill was passed, WP chief Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) called for a division - which means each MP's vote is recorded - at both its second and third reading. All but the nine WP MPs in the House backed the legislation.