Shadrake faces heavy silencing hand

It’s all over the world by now: The Singapore government arrested last Sunday morning Alan Shadrake, the author of Once a Jolly Hangman, a book I reviewed a short while ago. BBC has reported the arrest, as has Associated Press. A simple web search shows that it’s been further carried in Indian, Canadian, Australian, Taiwanese media, among many others. Amnesty International has highlighted his case on its website.

The Media Development Authority (MDA), Singapore’s orwellian-named censors, has owned up to being the party that made a police report, triggering his arrest. Amnesty International noted in its story, with dripping irony, that the MDA claimed on its website to be “developing Singapore into a vibrant global media city.”

The police issued a statement on 18 July 2010 (the day of the arrest) that said:

In response to media queries, Police confirm that they have arrested British national Alan Shadrake. He is being investigated for alleged offences of criminal defamation and other offences. The arrest was made pursuant to a Police report that was lodged on 16 July 2010 by Media Development Authority. Alan Shadrake has also been served with an application by the Attorney-General for an order of committal for Contempt of Court. Police investigations are ongoing.

I understand a court date has been set: 30 July 2010.

What is criminal defamation? It’s considered an archaic law in most countries that still have it, in that it has historically been used to silence speech inconvenient to the powers that be. In Singapore, it is found in Sections 499 and 500 of our Penal Code, which say:

499. Whoever, by words either spoken or intended to be read, or by signs, or by visible representations, makes or publishes any imputation concerning any person, intending to harm, or knowing or having reason to believe that such imputation will harm, the reputation of such person, is said, except in the cases hereinafter excepted, to defame that person.

[snip] and

500. Whoever defames another shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years, or with fine, or with both.

Criminal defamation is different from usual libel or slander suits that we more often hear about, e.g. the 2008 case against Dow Jones and editor Hugo Restall brought by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and others. Those are civil suits taken out by a person who feels his reputation has been damaged by another, and the judgement sought is usually one of retraction, apology and financial damages. Criminal defamation is a case brought by the State against an individual, for which the penalty can include imprisonment.

What therefore is unclear is whose reputation has been damaged that the State so keenly feels about? On the surface, it would be the MDA since it was they who lodged the police report, but as far as I can recall, Shadrake did not even mention the MDA in his book. So what standing does the MDA have to lodge such a complaint?

How can it be that a police report of defamation is made without any specifics as to whose reputation has allegedly been injured and by what item of speech? Saying it’s the book is too broad a brush; it has some 200 pages.

Latest reports are that Shadrake was held nearly 40 hours before he got bail, during which he was intensively interrogated. Were the police on a fishing expedition trying to catch him on something? So, is this whole thing yet another example of intimidation again?

Consider this: Even Section 499 of our Penal Code allows a number of exceptions, among which are:

Imputation of any truth which the public good requires to be made or published
First Exception.—It is not defamation to impute anything which is true concerning any person, if it is for the public good that the imputation should be made or published. Whether or not it is for the public good is a question of fact.

Public conduct of public servants
Second Exception.—It is not defamation to express in good faith any opinion whatever respecting the conduct of any person touching any discharge of his public functions, or respecting his character, so far as his character appears in that conduct, and no further.

Conduct of any person touching any public question
Third Exception.—It is not defamation to express in good faith any opinion whatever respecting the conduct of any person touching any public question, and respecting his character, so far as his character appears in that conduct, and no further.

Yes, in his book Shadrake gathered many telltale clues that point to an uneven application of justice, and poses a question of how perfect or imperfect is our justice system. That the carriage or miscarriage of justice is a matter of public good or public interest surely is beyond contest. Anyone who has read the book will likely find that what accusations he has raised would fall within the second and third exceptions.

So, even if the MDA (especially when it does not appear to have any locus standi) has made a complaint, did our men in blue even read the book to establish for themselves whether the complaint has any merit, before rushing around like mindless zombies arresting the author?

Shadrake’s chief point in his book was that various officers of justice were not discharging their duties properly. It seems to me that by arresting him, our civil servants, the police and the Attorney-General’s Chambers are only proving his point.

* * * * *

It is true that many countries too have laws pertaining to criminal defamation, but it is now considered archaic in modern liberal democracies. In Europe, which has one of the best developed bodies of human rights jurisprudence, case law now makes it clear that fair comment on public interest matters cannot possibly fall under such a law.

In a paper, Ilia Dohel writing for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said:

Although the Strasbourg Court [European Court of Human Rights] has never ruled that criminal defamation laws have to be abolished, it may be derived from its judgements that in no case involving public interest or initiated by a public official would instituting criminal charges against a journalist be compatible with modern freedom of expression principles enshrined in Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

and that,

Even more significant is the Court’s standard on cases involving public officials and public interest stories. Several rulings defended the right of the society to scrutinise public officials, who have consciously chosen the limelight: ‘The limits of acceptable criticism are accordingly wider with regard to a politician acting in his public capacity than in relation to a private individual. The former inevitably and knowingly lays himself open to close scrutiny of his every word and deed by both journalists and the public at large, and he must display a greater degree of tolerance, especially when he himself makes public statements that are susceptible of criticism’ (Oberschlick v. Austria, judgement of 25 April 1991).

* * * * *

Alan Shadrake has also been called upon to answer the charge of Contempt of Court. Here again, this is an abuse of the law. Singapore seems to prefer an interpretation of this concept as wide as the Pacific Ocean.  Any speech that even questions the operation of justice is now considered to be an expression of contempt. The effect would be to silence any criticism, however well-founded, and give further impunity to public officials to abuse their positions or underperform.

This is just one more example of so many things that are wrong with Singapore’s justice system, and of governance generally.

26 Responses to “Shadrake faces heavy silencing hand”

  1. 1 Mat Alamak 20 July 2010 at 20:50

    There was a precedent of police action regarding criminal defamation in 2002. See link

    Apparently it is used when something is more serious or damaging than what transpires in a libel suit. In the 2002 case above, the government even reportedly described the Muslim group Fateha as “poisonous”, that’s why action was taken to investigate it for criminal defamation.

    So perhaps there is something in Alan Shadrake’s case which was also similarly viewed by the government to warrant his arrest on grounds of criminal defamation and contempt of court, which means there is a case of him violating the law and which is punishable by a jail term. Not so much as his views on the death penalty, as the government emphasised.

    For the rest of us we will see what really is the case about when he goes on trial, which he will.(After all he is not detained under ISA) By the way, in the 2002 case above, Singaporeans did not have a chance to find out the final outcome because the person in question had fled to Australia then to escape the investigation and outcome.

  2. 2 yuen 20 July 2010 at 22:16

    people often have the errorneous impression that “out of bound markers” have been loosened; I suppose that, if people concentrate on the pursuit of money and relaxation, they are not so likely to cross those markers, and so can easily get that impression; it is when cases like this happens that people realize things have basically remained the same

  3. 3 -M- 20 July 2010 at 22:45

    Provided he doesn’t get a heavy fine, the government has done him a great favour in promoting the book, because I am definitely getting one to read.

  4. 6 A Singaporean historian 20 July 2010 at 23:39

    This case has send a shiver down the spines of writers and historians who write on Singapore, that only one side of the truth can be revealed. A form of self-censorship continues to be practised within my discipline.

  5. 7 twasher 21 July 2010 at 03:09

    So much for letting 100 flowers bloom.

  6. 8 Alan Wong 21 July 2010 at 06:05

    Remember TT Durai’s initial lawsuits to intimidate critics into silence and make others pay for his lies.

    MDA’s reputation as a govt agency is already a very bad one to begin with, in my opinion. It doesn’t even know its real role in serving the public’s interests. It should be a quasi-judicial one. Why should it make it worse by getting involved in the daily politics of the PAP leaders ?

    And shouldn’t the PAP leaders take it upon themselves to sue in their private capacity if they feel that it is their subsequent image that is slighted in the book ?

    Our govt can only be as ‘as good as it gets’ by the actions of its leaders.

  7. 9 Robox 21 July 2010 at 07:05

    Re: “Alan Shadrake has also been called upon to answer the charge of Contempt of Court. Here again, this is an abuse of the law. Singapore seems to prefer an interpretation of this concept as wide as the Pacific Ocean.”

    Yes, I had always understood that contempt of court had to do with non-compliance of in-court instructions. This is one of the explanations from; all of the other explanantions are alonfg the same lines, notwithstanding that there is such a thing as a legal definition.


    Contempt of court is when someone refuses to obey the ruling or direction of the court. It is a serious offense. Anyone who refuses to follow a court order can be charged with contempt, but the punishment would be up to the member of the judiciary who hears the case, each case is decided on it’s own merits.


    In short, the MDA has exceeded, nay, abused its powers.

  8. 11 francis 21 July 2010 at 09:46

    As history has proven time and time again, history belongs to the victor and never the loser.

    • 12 Brendan 21 July 2010 at 22:11

      You are right. So who is the loser?? And guess who will be the loser at the end of the elections? It’s obvious isn’t it. You snooze you loose.

  9. 13 T 21 July 2010 at 10:26

    /// twasher 21 July 2010 at 03:09
    So much for letting 100 flowers bloom. ///

    If I read you correctly, you seemed disappointed that the 100 flowers were not allowed to bloom, or if there did, they were crushed. But that was exactly what happened in Mao Zedong’s experiment as well.

  10. 14 qwerty 21 July 2010 at 12:02

    by the time investigation and trial finishes, he will have enough material to write another book.

    This time, its first hand account..

  11. 15 Kate 21 July 2010 at 18:51

    A Brit. friend said:
    Doesn’t the Singapore govt know that the new British govt is desperate to prove itself more capable and accomplished than its predecessor? If the charges are indeed trumped-up, then they’d be picking a fight with the wrong enemy.

  12. 16 Snooked 22 July 2010 at 05:06

    It actually depends on oneself. Some might use mistakes pointed out by others and try to improve and make it right. Another might deny the mistakes and insists he/she is right. Some will turn the mistakes around, insists he/she is right and blame the other party defaming him/her.

    In this case, I do not see what is wrong when someone writes a book and states, in their own opinion on how something should work, instead on how it is being put to use now. Everyone has their rights to voice out their opinion on anything, without harming another in any way.

    Since young, we were taught to view the surroundings and what is happening in out lives from as much angles as possible. It is only in this way will we be able to find a solution to a problem and to improve in anything we are currently doing.

    Hopefully this incident will bring light to the term of “democracy” in Singapore and let the world understand the democracy rulings in Singapore. 😛

    • 17 Robox 22 July 2010 at 06:22

      Hi Snooked, you said: “Everyone has their rights to voice out their opinion on anything, without harming another in any way.”

      The problem with the PAP, and I suspect that it is primarily Lee Kuan Yew and how he has impacted not only on his party members but beyond as well, is that they – he – see/s criticism as causing him harm personally. However, what he fails to be ever able to see is that theis, and other, criticism actually has a larger good that benefits all of society. As you say: “It is only in this way will we be able to find a solution to a problem and to improve in anything we are currently doing.”

      It takes emotional maturity to be able to do this, and I believe that that might be the crux of the problem.

  13. 18 anonymous 22 July 2010 at 18:58

    Public confidence in a system of justice, or any other system, is more likely to result from transparency, rather than suppression of criticism, and secrecy. This type of Contempt of Court used to exist in UK some time ago, and newspapers got into trouble for criticising judges, but it fell into disuse or was abolished, and the justice system has improved much since.

    I don’t see anything wrong with a pragmatic approach to cases involving foreigners. It has saved some lives. America just released 10 spies without punishment in an exchange with Russia. Such things are not unusual.

    Reports of the book are giving the impression that it suggests it is wrong that some such lives were saved. Strange for a book that is supposed to be against the death penalty. Are these reports accurate?

    Whatever the merits, the way the writer was arrested and interrogated was likely a huge mistake and will be a major embarrassment. Very bad PR.

  14. 19 yawningbread 22 July 2010 at 21:56

    anonymous wrote: “Reports of the book are giving the impression that it suggests it is wrong that some such lives were saved. Strange for a book that is supposed to be against the death penalty. Are these reports accurate?

    Have you seen my book review?

    From my reading of the book, its main thrust is not for or against the death penalty per se. Its chief point is that in practice, capital punishment has been unevenly applied. Some get hanged; others with crimes of similar gravity, do not.

    Unequal application is indirectly an argument against the death penalty, as shown in many countries that eventually abolished it, but Shadrake does not actually make this point in his book. It’s for readers to conclude.

    • 20 prettyplace 23 July 2010 at 00:50

      agree with you, they are fishing for more details to come down on him.

      I hope what Kate’s friend said helps.
      It a coalition in the UK and last I heard, its buzzing.

      If Alan Shadrake wants, he can just walk into the Australian, British, US or Canadian embassy and say good bye to Singapore.

      He’s getting ready for a fight.
      Let’s see where our macho men stand.

      • 21 rojakgirl 25 July 2010 at 02:57

        Macho men? I have not been keeping up with Singapore politics for quite some time, so I’m very rusty.

        Well, said friend is quite a keen follower of British politics so hopefully he is quite right. Well, this is what he actually said:

        “Very foolish, if this is so, though. With a brand new govt in Britain that’ll be desperate to prove they aren’t as useless as the last lot, this is quite possibly the worst time they could have picked to provoke a fight with the UK. If they HAVE just dragged a 75 year old guy in on trumped up charges that amount to nothing but bull, they may find the flames of international opinion rather too hot to handle…

        I find it hard to believe your govt could be THAT inept or stupid, Luci. Sure, the days of ‘gunboat diplomacy’ are well over, but a strong nation can still make life very difficult for a weaker one. They’d have to be mad to provoke a diplomatic incident over a book – let alone a book written by a pensioner!”

        Clarification: Luci = my nick

        I think the govt is desperately digging for more details so they can turn it from “based on BS evidence” to “solid evidence”. Let’s hope Shadrake doesn’t break.


  15. 22 yuen 25 July 2010 at 03:07

    assuming there will be an election soon, too much bad news has been out there; repeated flooding has dented the image of technocratic competence; rising COE and house prices could increase frustration; even the frequency of investigations into non-profit organizations fund misuse throws negative light on preventive vigilance (maybe too busy watching other people?)

    while I doubt they would drop the case, it would be in their interest to avoid dragging this matter into 2011

    • 23 rojakgirl 25 July 2010 at 03:26

      But the elections are coming towards the end of the year, no? What has this case got to do with 2011? Or are you commenting on Singaporeans’ inability to “remember”?

      • 24 yuen 25 July 2010 at 03:31

        eh..if the case drags into 2011, then it would still be in the news at the end of 2010, right? especially if there is some too and fro between SG and Britain

        in any case, since PAP has not introduced new candidates, nor has the election commission announced new boundaries, the election is still some time away

  16. 25 rojakgirl 25 July 2010 at 03:56

    Hopefully, it will hang on until 2011, then they “lose face”.

    Hmmm… good points. I did not get to vote in 2006, so did not really pay too much attention to the entire campaign. Or did I? My memory is darn bad when it comes to Singapore politics.

    Anyways, I see quite a few opinions by Singaporeans who support the government’s actions of jailing Alan Shadrake. I wonder if they ever stopped to think about the consequences?

    If any of their children were “accidentally” made a victim of “a drug crime gone wrong”(people dumping the drugs on them) and then, given the death sentence for being at the wrong time and wrong place, would they still dare to say: “Death to any who flouts the law”?

  17. 26 rojakgirl 25 July 2010 at 04:02

    Correction: when I said “Did I?” , I meant “did I pay any attention to the elections” and not “did I vote?”

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