Freedom of speech in S’pore: You can cage the singer

The Economist

A writer tests the tolerance of Singapore’s legal system

“Pleased as punch” was how Alan Shadrake’s ebullient lawyer described his client after listening to the judge’s verdict in his hearing for contempt of court on November 3rd. Mr Shadrake, for his part, looked more punched than pleased. After all, he had just been found guilty of scandalising the judiciary in a country that does not take these things lightly. He is sentenced on November 10th.

Mr Shadrake, a rumpled British journalist, first went to Singapore in 2003 to write for its tourism board. His latest scribbling does nothing to flatter his former home. “Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore’s Justice in the Dock”, is a critical look at the allegedly extensive use of the death penalty in the city-state. In July Mr Shadrake was arrested and charged with contempt of court. His trial has drawn rare attention to the death penalty and raised broader issues of freedom of speech.

Foreign writers and publications, including this one, have often found themselves in trouble when writing about Singapore’s internal affairs. Usually, they run foul of laws on “defamation”, ie, libel. The country’s elder statesman, Lee Kuan Yew, whose son is now prime minister, has brought and won a number of suits over the years to defend his reputation from criticism in the press or from political opponents. The International Bar Association (IBA) and America’s State Department have both raised concerns over the repeated use of defamation suits against critics, and questioned the independence of the courts. The government has responded that the IBA report based its allegations on feeble evidence. Singapore’s defenders also point out that its libel laws are based on inherited British laws.

Mr Shadrake may yet face defamation proceedings. This conviction was for crossing another line. Singapore is quick to defend the judicial system again any accusation of bias, and Mr Shadrake’s offence fell under that rubric. Justice Quentin Loh concluded that Mr Shadrake’s case was not about the merits (or not) of the death penalty, but about the impartiality—or otherwise—of the administration of justice. The defendant had suggested that the judiciary was “influenced by political and economic situations and biased against the weak and the poor.” The attorney-general argued that 14 passages in the book were contemptuous of the judiciary, and in 11 of those cases Mr Justice Loh agreed: Mr Shadrake’s allegations were riddled with “falsehoods”.

Yet Mr Shadrake’s lawyer, M. Ravi, remained optimistic after the verdict, even arguing that the judge had advanced the cause of freedom of expression in Singapore a bit by making it harder to bring these contempt cases. Critics say Singapore’s courts have set a low bar; prosecutors simply have to show that a defendant could have given an average reader an impression of judicial bias or impropriety. This is in contrast to many other jurisdictions, which require that, for there to be contempt, a comment must create a “real risk” of prejudicing the administration of justice. According to Mr Ravi, this “historic” ruling allowed the “real risk” defence for the first time. Mr Ravi felt his client had done relatively well in the case. Mr Shadrake says he was given a “fair hearing”.

But Mr Shadrake still has to be dealt with. He could be fined, or worse. He could also be charged under the Official Secrets Act for publishing interviews with Darshan Singh, the now-retired hangman in the book’s title. Mr Shadrake sees his book on alleged abuses in Singapore as part of a righteous cause against the death penalty. The authorities say that hanging drug traffickers and murderers has made the city a safer place, and polls suggest that most locals agree. But there is almost no public debate on the issue. Mr Shadrake’s book would have been an exception, were it widely on sale. Copies are selling fast across the causeway in Malaysia.

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