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Every citizen of Singapore ought to feel deeply unsettled by the investigation and prosecution of cartoonist Leslie Chew. The case only strengthens my opinion about the Singapore legal system, building on my time researching the political history of the city-state, including the actions that the state has taken against members of the SDP.
A charge of contempt of court levied against Mr Chew indicates that the Attorney General ‘s Chambers (AGC) feels that Mr Chew’s cartoons have undermined the authority and integrity of a judge and/or the courts. The need to protect against contempt of court stems from the judiciary’s role as arbiter and administrator of justice.
In Singapore, this need even overrides the constitutional right to free speech.* The court protects your rights, the thinking goes, so to protect the court we must limit your rights. Try wrapping your head around that one.
(Note: The law on scandalising the judiciary in the UK was abolished in 2012. During the debate, Lord Pannick said: “Much of the criticism to which judges are subjected is ill informed and unsubstantiated. However, even where criticism is unjustified, it should not be a criminal offence. As Justice Albie Sachs said on this subject in a judgment in the Constitutional Court of South Africa in 2001, respect for the courts will be all the stronger, to the degree that it is earned, rather than to the extent that it is commanded.”)
The conservative nature of Singapore law aside, prosecuting Mr Chew strikes me as an error on the part of the AGC in another way: in doing so, the AGC has committed the very offence of which it accuses Mr Chew of committing—that is, undermining the authority of the judiciary.
News of Mr Chew’s arrest spread like electronic wildfire across the internet, and reactions have been similarly inflamed. Here is a man who makes cartoons and is now being prosecuted. Most people find this incredulous; how can the state be so insecure as to come after a humourist?
Law doesn’t happen in the abstract. Practitioners and scholars of law cannot divorce law in theory from its implementation in reality. And the reality of the AGC’s decision to charge Mr Chew is the exponential increase in coverage and awareness of Mr Chew’s work. The AGC has singularly increased the number of people who have seen the cartoon(s) in question.
If, indeed, Mr Chew’s work undermined the authority and integrity of the Singapore judiciary, then the AGC’s actions have only heightened this effect.
More importantly, however, the AGC’s actions strike at the very confidence and trust that Singaporeans may have of their judiciary. Many have a deep moral intuition that prosecuting a cartoonist simply for his work is wrong and unjust, and judging by the volume of online discourse, this sentiment is widely shared.
Legal theorists have long argued that students of law cannot ignore the intersect of law and morality. By charging Mr Chew, the AGC has violated the deeply-held moral intuitions of Singaporeans. In doing so, it has damaged the image of the courts more forcefully than any cartoon could ever have accomplished. The AGC’s actions is like the mythical Ouroboros devouring itself.
The state will endeavour to show that Mr Chew’s cartoons had an inherent tendency to convey allegations of judicial impropriety. I propose an alternative investigation to look at who has caused greater damage to the image of the Singaporean judiciary: a cartoonist or the AGC that prosecuted one.
* See Article 14(2) of the Constitution of Singapore.
Christopher Liu is a student at the McGill University. He is currently an intern with the SDP.