The Workers’ Party welcomes the recent decision by the Court of Appeal in Attorney-General v Ting Choon Meng that government agencies such as MINDEF do not fall under the legal definition of “persons” under Section 15 of the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA).
However, we are concerned by the Ministry of Law’s response to the ruling, which suggests that the Government is looking into taking further action on the matter.
There is a precedent in our legal history that gives cause for concern in this regard. In December 1988, the Court of Appeal passed a landmark judgement in Chng Suan Tze v Minister for Home Affairs stating that “all power has legal limits” and the legality of detention orders under the Internal Security Act (ISA) had to be subject to judicial review. The Government at the time disagreed with the Court’s ruling and by end-January 1989, had passed retrospective legislation to abolish judicial reviews and appeals to the Privy Council for ISA cases.
As the Court noted in the case of MINDEF, the Government possesses significant resources and access to media channels that it can use to address false statements. There is hence no need for the Government to resort to using the POHA to protect itself from “harassment”. In fact, a wider application of the POHA may also open the possibility of abuse by companies, which may claim “harassment” from other companies or individuals with which they are undergoing a dispute.
The focus of the debate in Parliament on the POHA in 2014 was to protect individuals from harassment. For the POHA to be used to protect the Government from “harassment” risks weakening Singapore’s climate of free speech and robust debate. It risks turning the POHA into the latest in the many tools that the Government can use against Singaporeans who publicly express different views from the Government on its policies and actions.
The Government should be upfront about the legislative intent of the Bills it proposes. The Minister had cited reasons of justice and protection for vulnerable individuals throughout the Parliamentary debate, and provided several examples of individuals who would be protected under the new law. The prospect of the POHA being used to “protect the Government from harassment” and the rationale for why this was necessary was not explained and discussed as one of the aims of the Bill.
Should the Government react to the Court’s judgement by seeking to amend the law to more clearly define how the POHA “protects the Government from harassment”, the Workers’ Party will vigorously oppose such amendments.