A politician and an activist face three years in jail for questioning the judiciary’s independence
IT WAS hardly a zinger. “Malaysia’s judges are more independent than Singapore’s for cases with political implications,” wrote Jolovan Wham, an activist, on Facebook on April 27th. On October 9th Singapore’s high court found him guilty of “scandalising the judiciary”. He was not the only rabble-rouser. John Tan, a politician from the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, had observed in May: “By charging Jolovan for scandalising the judiciary, the [Attorney-General’s Chambers] only confirms what he said was true.” Mr Tan was convicted of the same crime. The pair have not yet been sentenced, but face up to three years in prison and a fine of as much as S$100,000 ($72,000).
It is the first time that Singapore’s new, beefed-up contempt-of-court law has been used. The amendments came into force last October. One effect was to broaden the definition of scandalising the judiciary. Previously actions that posed a “real risk” of undermining public confidence in the courts were considered a crime. Now a mere “risk” will do. The changes also made the penalties more severe and expanded the scope of the rules to include social-media posts.
Even before being strengthened the contempt-of-court law got plenty of use. In 2008 three men (including Mr Tan) were convicted for turning up at the Supreme Court wearing T-shirts depicting kangaroos in judges’ robes. Later a British journalist was sentenced to six weeks in prison for writing a critical book about the death penalty in Singapore. Cartoonists and bloggers have also been prosecuted. Li Shengwu, a nephew of the prime minister, is currently on trial for calling the government “very litigious” and the judiciary “pliant”.
The government has little compunction about curbing freedom of expression. A law adopted in 2017 makes it harder for groups to assemble in public. Recent changes to rules that govern the creation and exhibition of films allow film-makers’ possessions to be seized without a warrant. Many worry that proposed laws aimed at countering fake news could be used to limit free speech yet more. For some, the government’s repressive instincts are the real scandal.