SINGAPORE – The High Court on Wednesday (Nov 6) rejected an application by opposition politician John Tan for a declaration that he is eligible to run in the upcoming general election, despite being fined $5,000 for contempt of court earlier this year.
Under the Constitution, a person who is convicted of an offence and sentenced to at least a year’s jail or a fine of at least $2,000 is disqualified from standing for election as a Member of Parliament.
Mr Tan, the vice-chairman of the Singapore Democratic Party, argued that the term “offence” does not extend to quasi-criminal offences such as contempt by scandalising the court.
But Justice Aedit Abdullah disagreed.
In his written judgment, the judge said the term “offence” in the Constitution is broad enough to include contempt by scandalising the court, also known as criminal contempt.
In October last year, Mr Tan was convicted of scandalising the court over a statement he had made in reference to a matter involving civil rights activist Jolovan Wham.
Wham made a Facebook post on April 27 that year stating that Singapore’s courts are not as independent as Malaysia’s on cases with political implications.
The Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) then initiated contempt of court action against Wham.
On May 6 last year, Mr Tan published a post on his Facebook page, saying that the AGC’s actions confirmed the truth of Wham’s comment.
After he was fined for contempt in April this year, Mr Tan sought a court declaration that he is not disqualified from contesting in the next general election, due by April 2021.
Represented by lawyer M. Ravi, he argued that the phrase “has been convicted of an offence” in the Constitution is ambiguous and can be read as being confined to criminal offences, excluding quasi-criminal offences such as criminal contempt.
Mr Tan also relied on the position taken by election officials in a prior case involving veteran opposition politician Jufrie Mahmood.
In 1988, the then Returning Officer told The Straits Times that Mr Jufrie’s nomination paper would not be rejected if he attempted to stand for election. Mr Jufrie had earlier been fined $3,000 for contempt of court.
Responding to Mr Tan’s arguments, the AGC argued that the ordinary meaning of the term “offence” would include criminal contempt.
The AGC argued that the legislative purpose of the provision is to filter out unsuitable candidates. It added that the position taken in respect of Mr Jufrie’s nomination in 1988 did not assist in the interpretation of the law.
In his judgment, Justice Aedit said there was nothing to show that the term “offence” was limited to criminal offences. Mr Tan is thus disqualified from standing for elections.
“Based on the text of the provision and the context in which it is found in the Constitution, the interpretation to be given to the term ‘offence’ in Art 45(1)(e) extends to cover quasi-criminal offences such as criminal contempt.”
The judge said there were difficulties with relying on how Mr Jufrie’s case, including the fact that no details were given on the reason and no official record was tendered.
“Even if the RO’s position was accurately reported, this does not mean that the government remains bound by the position some 31 years later. The RO’s interpretation cannot be binding on the courts, which are tasked under the Constitution to interpret the law.”
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