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Shanmugam rebukes British High Commission for comments on judiciary

SINGAPORE — Law Minister K Shanmugam had strong words for the British High Commission yesterday, questioning its purpose and basis for issuing a statement last Friday urging countries, including Singapore, to abolish laws relating to scandalising the judiciary.

Shanmugam rebukes British High Commission for comments on judiciary

Law Minister K Shanmugam. Photo: Ernest Chua/TODAY

SINGAPORE — Law Minister K Shanmugam had strong words for the British High Commission yesterday, questioning its purpose and basis for issuing a statement last Friday urging countries, including Singapore, to abolish laws relating to scandalising the judiciary.

By issuing the statement to Reuters the weekend before Parliament was due to debate the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill, the High Commission seemed to be trying to influence proceedings, “which is quite improper”, he said.

The minister’s rebuke came during an 80-minute speech in Parliament where he justified the Government’s decision to criminalise contempt of court, which led to a lengthy debate on the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill that saw 18 Members of Parliament rising to speak.

Mr Shanmugam also asked if the High Commission was aware of the circumstances behind the United Kingdom’s decision to abolish the offence in 2013 before it issued those comments. Regardless, “it does not speak well”, he said.

Mr Shanmugam said the British had taken that decision reluctantly because the standing of judges in the eyes of the public had deteriorated to an irreversible low, therefore, keeping the statute would have limited value. Singapore, however, is not in the position Britain found itself in, as shown in a survey conducted by the Ministry of Law.

If the High Commission did not know this background, the statement would also be ill-considered and the High Commissioner should “spend some time studying the facts”, said Mr Shanmugam.

Training his sights on the High Commissioner, who said the comment came from his press office and was not specific to Singapore, Mr Shanmugam said: “With the deepest respect to the High Commissioner, one can only say this answer is extremely intriguing. Very interesting, very intriguing. If you want to intervene in a debate and make a comment, then at least have the courage of your convictions and not beat a hasty retreat at the first question.”

He added that if the High Commission was “really serious and sincere” about its statement, “one would have expected them to touch base and talk to us”.

Noting that Australia, New Zealand and Ireland also criminalise scandalising the court, Mr Shanmugam wondered aloud pointedly if “only some ex-colonies are privileged to get such advice from the British High Commission”.

When contacted, the British High Commission said it would not make any further comment at this point. The British High Commissioner to Singapore is Mr Scott Wightman.

Mr Shanmugam also spent time explaining why Singapore should not follow Britain’s decision, including how the “uncomfortably close relationship” between its media and political leaders is widely acknowledged and criticised for having an impact on public policies.

While Britain may be able to face a situation of a judiciary that is not protected, underpaid and feels undervalued, Singapore “will not be so lucky”.

Citing the Dutch Prime Minister’s description of Britain as a “collapsed” country politically, economically, monetarily and constitutionally, Mr Shanmugam said Singapore will “truly be in trouble” if it gets to such a situation.

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