Attorney-General v Tan Liang Joo John and Others

CourtHigh Court (Singapore)
JudgeJudith Prakash J
Judgment Date18 February 2009
Neutral Citation[2009] SGHC 41
Citation[2009] SGHC 41
Defendant CounselFirst and second respondents in person,Chia Ti Lik (Chia Ngee Thuang & Co)
Plaintiff CounselJeffrey Chan Wah Teck, Jennifer Marie, Gillian Koh-Tan and Lee Jwee Nguan (Attorney-General's Chambers)
Published date23 February 2009
Docket NumberOriginating Summonses Nos 1242, 1244 and 1246 of 2008
Date18 February 2009
Subject MatterCivil contempt,Respondents wearing T-shirt imprinted with picture of kangaroo in court building,First respondent relying on defence of fair criticism,Respondents blaming publication on third party,Appropriate sentence,First respondent posting or acquiescing in online posting of photograph of respondents wearing the T-shirts,Whether publication a necessary element of liability,Whether liable for contempt of scandalising the court,Contempt of Court,Scope of defence of fair criticism,Whether defence of fair criticism applicable,Whether loss of employment a mitigating factor,Respondents refusing to apologise

18 February 2009

Judith Prakash J:


1 These were applications by the Attorney-General (“the Applicant”) seeking orders of committal against Tan Liang Joo John (“the First Respondent”), Isrizal bin Mohamed Isa (“the Second Respondent”) and Muhammad Shafi’ie Syahmi bin Sariman (“the Third Respondent”) (collectively “the Respondents”) for contempt of court. Orders for the applications to be tried at the same time were made by a Senior Assistant Registrar on 29 October 2008.

2 The ground upon which the applications against the Respondents were made was that they had scandalised the Singapore judiciary in the following manner:

(a) in respect of all the Respondents, by publicly wearing a white T-shirt, imprinted with a palm-sized picture of a kangaroo dressed in a judge’s gown (I shall refer to this as the “contemning T-shirt”), within and in the vicinity of the Supreme Court on 26 May 2008, when a hearing (the “assessment of damages hearing”) was being held before Justice Belinda Ang in Court No 4B of the Supreme Court for the assessment of damages payable by Chee Soon Juan, Chee Siok Chin and the Singapore Democratic Party to Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in defamation actions instituted by the Minister Mentor and the Prime Minister (in Suit No 262 of 2006 and Suit No 261 of 2006 respectively);

(b) additionally, in respect of the First Respondent only:

(1) by publicly wearing the contemning T-shirt within and in the vicinity of the Supreme Court on 27 May 2008, during the continuation of the assessment of damages hearing; and

(2) by pointing to the picture of the kangaroo on the contemning T-shirt and saying, “This is a kangaroo court”, to Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew when the latter walked past him outside Court No 4B of the Supreme Court on 26 May 2008; and

(c) by posting, or acquiescing in the posting of, an article entitled “Police question activists over kangaroo T-shirts” which appeared on the Singapore Democratic Party (“SDP”) website on 27 July 2008 (“the SDP article”), which article was accompanied by a photograph of the Respondents wearing the contemning T-shirts and standing outside the main entrance of the Supreme Court building (“the photograph of the Respondents”).

3 The Applicant contended that the Respondents had engaged in a deliberate and calculated attempt to scandalise the Singapore judiciary by stigmatising it as a kangaroo court which, according to Black’s Law Dictionary (Brian A Garner ed, West Publishing, 8th Ed, 2004 at 382), is:

1. A self-appointed tribunal or mock court in which the principles of law and justice are disregarded, perverted, or parodied...

2. A court or tribunal characterized by unauthorized or irregular procedures, esp. so as to render a fair proceeding impossible.

3. A sham legal proceeding.

4 The Applicant had originally relied on identical affidavits in support of the applications against all the Respondents. The Second Respondent applied by way of Summons No 4761 of 2008 to strike out the affidavits or parts thereof on the basis that those parts did not pertain to his conduct and were irrelevant. In the hearing before me on 4 November 2008, the Applicant contended that there appeared to be an intention linking all the incidents from 26 to 27 May 2008 and the posting of the SDP article on the SDP website. Thus, the entire chain of events had to be put before the court in order for me to determine the precise extent of the Second Respondent’s culpability. I granted the Second Respondent’s application in large part. Since the applications against the Respondents were to be tried at the same time, the evidence of the entire chain of events would be before me. The Second Respondent should, however, only have to answer for his own actions, not the actions of others, and thus only evidence relating to his conduct was admissible in the application against him. I bore this in mind in arriving at the sentences of each of the Respondents.

5 On 24 November 2008, I found each of the Respondents liable for the contempt of scandalising the court. After hearing the parties’ submissions on sentence on 27 November 2008, I sentenced the First Respondent to 15 days in prison and the Second and Third Respondents to seven days in prison each. I now give the reasons for my decision.

The Respondents’ cases

6 The First Respondent submitted that his wearing of the contemning T-shirt was an act of fair criticism and self-expression, done in the hope that the Singapore judiciary would “improve from strength to strength”. He also argued that when he had first turned up at the Supreme Court on 26 May 2008 wearing the contemning T-shirt, he had not been told by the security personnel that the T-shirt was objectionable. The First Respondent contended that he had never intended that the photograph of the Respondents should be widely circulated. Rather, the photograph was wanted for private commemoration or remembrance and it would never have been circulated had it not been for reportage by the Straits Times. He admitted that he had access and some editorial say in the SDP website, but stated that the SDP had only posted the SDP article and the photograph of the Respondents after the police started investigating the Respondents’ alleged contempt. The purpose of the posting was to provide information on the investigations to the public. The First Respondent also denied telling the Minister Mentor that the picture on his T-shirt was of a kangaroo court.

7 The Second Respondent submitted that he had had no intention to commit any contempt or scandalise the Singapore judiciary. He had only changed into the contemning T-shirt on 26 May 2008 in reaction to an incident between him and the police officers at the Supreme Court while he was in the queue during lunchtime (ie, the decision to do so was neither wholly rational nor calculated). He too argued that he had not been warned on 26 May 2008 that wearing the contemning T-shirt would amount to contempt of court. The Second Respondent submitted that the image on the T-shirt could be interpreted in various ways and thus it was not proven beyond reasonable doubt that it amounted to contempt of court in the manner asserted by the Applicant. His position was that the contemning T-shirt in fact depicted a dressed wallaby.

8 Counsel for the Third Respondent conceded the liability of his client. Thus, I will deal with his submissions when I discuss the Respondents’ sentences below.

The Respondents’ liability for scandalising the court

9 The jurisdiction of the Singapore court to punish for contempt is given statutory effect by s 7(1) of the Supreme Court of Judicature Act (Cap 322, 2007 Rev Ed), which provides that: “The High Court and the Court of Appeal shall have power to punish for contempt of court.” It is settled law in Singapore that it is a contempt of court to scandalise a court or judge (see Attorney-General v Pang Cheng Lian [1972-74] SLR 658 at 661; Attorney-General v Wong Hong Toy [1982-1983] SLR 398 at 403; Attorney-General v Zimmerman [1984-85] SLR 814 at 817; Attorney-General v Wain (No 1) [1991] SLR 383 at 394, 397; Attorney-General v Lingle [1995] 1 SLR 696 at 700; Attorney-General v Chee Soon Juan [2006] 2 SLR 650 at 658; and, more recently, Lee Hsien Loong v Singapore Democratic Party [2008] SGHC 173 at [168]).

10 The classic exposition of the law which has now been accepted as part of our law (see, for example, AG v Wain (No 1) at 394) is found in R v Gray [1900] 2 QB 36, in which Lord Russell of Killowen stated (at 40):

Any act done or writing published calculated to bring a Court or a judge of the Court into contempt, or to lower his authority, is a contempt of Court. That is one class of contempt. Further, any act done or writing published calculated to obstruct or interfere with the due course of justice or the lawful process of the Courts is a contempt of Court. The former class belongs to the category which Lord Hardwicke LC characterised as “scandalising a Court or a judge”.

11 The raison d’etre for the offence of scandalising the court (and indeed contempt of court in general) is the preservation of public confidence in the administration of justice (see AG v Wong Hong Toy at 403; Lee Hsien Loong v Singapore Democratic Party at [169]–[170]). This has been recognised by courts throughout the Commonwealth. The High Court of Australia, for example, stated in Gallagher v Durack (1983) 45 ALR 53 at 55:

The authority of the law rests on public confidence, and it is important to the stability of society that the confidence of the public should not be shaken by baseless remarks on the integrity or impartiality of courts or judges.

12 To establish contempt the law does not require that a complainant prove that the act or words created a real risk of prejudicing the administration of justice. It is sufficient for the claimant to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the act or words complained of had the inherent tendency to interfere with the administration of justice (AG v Chee Soon Juan at [31]; AG v Wain (No 1) at 397; Attorney-General v Hertzberg Daniel [2008] SGHC 218 (“AG v Hertzberg Daniel”) at [34]). An act or statement has such an inherent tendency if it would convey to an average reasonable reader or viewer allegations of bias, lack of impartiality, impropriety or any wrongdoing concerning a judge (and, a fortiori, a court) in the exercise of his judicial function (AG v Hertzberg Daniel at [31]), in the circumstances that obtained at the time of the act or words (AG v Wain (No 1) at 399).

13 It follows that, although Lord Killowen referred to an act which is “calculated” to bring a court into contempt, the intention of the alleged contemnor is irrelevant in establishing liability for the contempt (Lee Hsien Loong v Singapore Democratic Party at [221]; AG v Chee Soon Juan at [31]; AG v Wain (No 1) at 395). Intention becomes relevant only when the court determines...

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