In his statement to Parliament on the 26 January 2016 death by apparent suicide of Benjamin Lim, law minister K Shanmugam referred extensively to video evidence when he presented what he called the facts. He said that closed-circuit television (CCTV) had captured the teenager making a detour to another block in the neighbourhood when coming home from school, and following a girl into a lift. Then he mentioned that CCTV within the lift provided evidence “showing what happened” without elaborating what exactly it showed.
Indeed, it is now commonplace to see video cameras in many places in Singapore.
But the police themselves, which Shanmugam was so eager to defend, have resisted video-taping their interrogations. One would have thought that the high-stakes nature of a police interrogation would be precisely the kind of situation where priority should be placed on investing in such equipment. People can be jailed or even executed (perhaps wrongly) based on whatever transpires there.
Several times over the years, there have been calls to videotape police interviews. In the wake of Benjamin Lim’s death, these have been repeated. Having such a record and making them public would have resolved two of the many controversies about this case:
- whether the boy was intimidated by the interrogating officer;
- whether he was offered food and drink through the three-and-a-half hours he was at the police station.
Shanmugam simply wants us to take him at his word.
We should never take politicians at their word, least of all those who believe that ordinary citizens should be watched wherever they go, but they and and their police officers should never have to suffer similar scrutiny.
I don’t know how exactly this meme began because Shanmugam was not reported by the mainstream news stories to have used this term. Probably it was lawyer M Ravi who first raised this in a social media post. Ravi was commenting on how Shanmugam appeared to be telling commentators to shut up over the Benjamin Lim case, with the implied threat of a sub judice charge. Ravi might have been reading the subtext of Shanmugam’s words — not totally off the mark, in my view — rather than quoting the minister.
On my Facebook wall, others have pointed out that the case is not before the courts. They have a point. There may be a coroner’s inquiry, but from what I see surfing the web, sub judice usually kicks in only when someone has been charged and a hearing date set. In this case, no one has been charged.
More important than arguing this technicality, we need to examine the very concept and appropriateness of sub judice law.
Firstly, I think this law only exists in common law jurisdictions such as England, Ireland, Australia, Singapore, India — countries that have inherited the English legal system, while European (civil law) countries have no equivalent law. And there was a reason for it. The English legal system was characterised by jury trials, where ordinary people were selected to decide on the guilt or innocence of accused persons. Jurors are not trained lawyers; they may be more easily confused by reportage and commentary outside the courtroom.
Singapore no longer has jury trials. In other words, the circumstances that justify a sub judice law are no longer extant.
We cannot on one hand boast (as this government is wont to do) that Singapore has high calibre judges, thus high standards in the administration of justice, while on the other hand imply, through the continued reliance on a sub judice law, that judges are feeble of mind and easily influenced by opinionated commentary. The judges either know what they are doing or not.
I found an interesting mention in a 2007 blog by McGarr Solicitors relating to the distinction between jury and non-jury trials:
In 1994 the [Irish] Law Reform Commission suggested; “The Commission, with the exception of the President, is satisfied that it would be unduly restrictive to extend the operation of the sub judice rule to appellate proceedings, which are invariably decided by non-jury courts.”
Unduly restrictive, because the rule contradicts the human right to freedom of expression. We must require strong justification before that human right is circumscribed, and I would argue that since we have abolished jury trials, that justification is no more.
But of course this won’t be the first time our government uses a law that has outlived its original intent to silence opponents and shield themselves from criticism.