CJ asserts independence, will people listen?

March 31, 2010
Singapore Democrats

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Singapore Democrats

Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong recently published a paper in the Singapore Academy of Law Journal where, among other things, he talked about the need for public confidence in the Judiciary:

The respect and support of the public is crucial for the independence of the Judiciary as an institution. In a democratic society, the respect and support of the public is, in fact, one of the best safeguards for the independence of the Judiciary as an institution.

The Singapore Democrats agree. For if it is merely proclaimed from on high without the public feeling the same way, judicial independence is as real as Santa Claus.

The question is, how do we measure public confidence in our Judiciary? Judging from feedback in the only available medium of free and open discussion in Singapore, the Internet, the CJ has his work cut out for him.

A good reflection of the Internet’s sentiment on judicial independence in Singapore is, perhaps, captured by prominent blogger Mr Alex Au who wrote: 

After all, look at our judiciary. It’s the one institution supposedly anchored to rigorous standards of justice developed over centuries in England. Yet, have they not been cowed, judging by its performance in every single politically sensitive case involving opposition politicians and independent media?

CJ Chan ought to note that one of the factors influencing the public’s views on the Judiciary is reflected by the decisions that Judges make, especially when it comes to cases involving, directly or otherwise, the PAP and its leaders.

Take the case of the Tak Boleh Tahan protesters who were convicted of conducting an illegal assembly and procession in a gazetted, high-security area outside the Parliament House.

They were charged under the Rule 2 of the Miscellaneous Offences Act (MOA) which stipulates that a pemit is required for an activity if the activity:

  • consists of a group of 5 or more persons
  • demonstrates support for or opposition to the views/actions of any person;
  • publicises a cause or campaign;
  • marks or commemorates any event

The Judge in this case found that the TBT protest met the criteria set out above and duly convicted the activists.

But take a look at this. A Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE) media release on 14 Mar 08 announced an event, in which hundreds participated, that was:

to commemorate the World Consumer Rights Day…The theme of this year’s World Consumer Rights Day is ‘Junk Food Generation – Campaign to stop the marketing of unhealthy food to children.’…Our objective is to publicise these events as part of our overarching initiative to commemorate the World Consumer Rights Day and to raise awareness for the consumer rights movement in Singapore…CASE will support the Consumer International’s initiatives of a global consumer campaign to discourage the marketing of unhealthy food to children. (emphases added)

The words “commemorate”, “campaign”, “publicise”, “support” are highlighted to show how the event fits into the criteria of MOA’s Rule 2. In addition the march, which was held the day after the TBT protest, coursed through the gazetted area outside Parliament House.

Yet, quite inexplicably, the CASE protest was allowed to proceed.

The TBT defendants tried to raise this issue during the trial citing Article 12 of the Constitution which states that all persons are to be treated equally under the law. This requirement was put in place specifically to prevent such abuses of the law by the authorities.

The trial Judge not only did not consider such a weighty issue but disallowed the defendants to question the police witnesses on whether there was indeed illegal discrimination. It was important to compare the two protests:

  • Did CASE have a permit?
  • If yes, why did it get one when the TBT’s application was rejected?
  • If no, why was the CASE event allowed to proceed and the organisers/participants not prosecuted?

This is where Singaporeans find it so hard to comprehend what the courts are doing. People want to be reasoned with, not have laws and court rulings ignore blatant double standards.

Unlawful discrimination, real or perceived, cannot and must not be brushed aside.

The defendants have cited rulings in the UK – no less than one handed down by the House of Lords – that emphatically state that defendants must be allowed to raise the issue of police abuse of power and unlawful discrimination in their own defence during the trials.

TBT: Illegal

CASE: Legal

This is especially salient in cases involving the political opposition because of the vested interest the ruling party maintains in prosecuting them. So far arguments of unlawful targeting of the opposition have met brickwalls in court. 

If accused persons can show that the authorities have acted in an unconstitutional/unlawful manner, then they cannot be convicted of the charge. And yet such authorities were disregarded.

For the public to have confidence that the Judiciary will dispense sound decisions the people must see that our courts base their decisions on sound reasoning and common sense.

Absent such a practice, the Judiciary will have to repeatedly come out and tell Singaporeans that it is independent. Whether it convinces the people, especially in this day and age of the Internet where discussions take place unfettered, is another matter.