British author gets some traction on contempt appeal, reports Asia Sentinel
Singapore’s government may well be regretting the use of a sledgehammer to crack a small nut, in this case prosecuting the British author of a hitherto obscure, Malaysia-published book critical of the injustices present in the Lion City’s eager use of capital punishment. The case has brought international attention to Singapore’s relatively easy and allegedly discriminatory use of the hangman’s noose in a way that casts doubt on its preferred image as a state that is strict but fair.
The Court of Appeal has reserved judgment on the appeal by author Alan Shadrake against a six-week prison term and a S$20,000 fine for contempt of court relating to passages in his book: “Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the dock.” It was argued that Shadrake had deliberately impugned the impartiality and integrity of the Singapore judiciary with his book.
This was not, of course, the first time that Singapore’s legal system has been used to silence criticism and to maintain the claim that the judiciary is independent of the ruling political powers. There is a litany of cases of contempt of court and libel actions by politicians, all won by the plaintiffs, which speak to this issue. But the norm has been usually to use civil law to suppress criticism or give fines rather than jail for contempt.
So, faced with the publicity that Shadrake’s case has, as a result, received, it now seems very possible that, unusually, the Appeals court will determine not to draw further attention to the case, commute his prison sentence and get him out of Singapore where he is currently free on bail and telling everyone within earshot that he is willing to go jail for the principle of free speech.
The book has drawn unwanted attention to both the suspected scale of Singapore’s executions, as well as to the standard of justice involved. Hitherto the fact that the country does not publish data on executions and anyway is a tiny state has largely spared it the attacks delivered by Amnesty International and other campaigners against countries, headed by China, which frequently use the death penalty for offences such as corruption as well as murder and drug smuggling.
But relative to the size of its population many believe that Singapore is in the same league as China , and some African countries headed by Libya, when it comes to the ultimate penalty. Those are not the sort of comparisons that reflect well on Singapore’s vaunted reputation for the impartial rule of law. This is doubly the case when many executions are of mules used for drug smuggling. Such extreme penalties for drug couriers from poor countries desperate for money can reasonably be regarded as grossly hypocritical given the amount of money that Singapore makes as banker, hotelier and shopping mall to the drug lords of Burma, to cite one example. These are also the sort of executions that may even bring a pang of conscience to the high-flying currency traders and investment bankers – cocaine, anyone? who lead the good expat life in Singapore.