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British critic unlikely to find leniency in Singapore court

After writing a book critical of the Singapore court system, British journalist Alan Shadrake may face a fine and prison time. 'The more they do to me, it proves what I say in the book,' he tells the Monitor.

By Correspondent / August 23, 2010

British author Alan Shadrake, speaks to reporters before his court hearing on July 30 in Singapore. After writing a book critical of the Singapore court system, Shadrake may face a fine and prison time.

Wong Maye-E/AP



Cup of tea in one hand, paperback in the other, Alan Shadrake sits down at a shady table in the hotel courtyard. To the foreign tourists walking by, he looks like one of them, another casual visitor flitting through this tropical city-state.

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But Mr. Sheldrake, a British journalist, isn’t free to leave town when he pleases. The book he carries, "Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore’s Justice in the Dock," is his own, and its content has triggered a criminal investigation. He’s already been charged for contempt of court for his bilious criticism of how Singapore’s judiciary applies the death penalty. A criminal defamation case is also pending.

The author is the latest critic to fall foul of Singapore’s prickly rulers, who exert strict controls on civil liberties in their squeaky-clean city. His trial may shine a spotlight on the flaws in this system, at a time when a new generation is beginning to question some of its high-handed ways.

There is virtually no precedent for a successful legal defense on issues deemed sensitive by Singaporean authorities. The US State Department and human rights groups have repeatedly raised concerns over judicial impartiality in political cases, such as ruling-party lawsuits against the opposition.

If found guilty of "scandalizing the judiciary" in his book, Shadrake faces a fine, a jail term, or both. But he refuses to apologize in return for a lesser sentence and says he prefers to defend himself in court when the trial resumes later this month.

“I don’t care what they do to me. The more they do to me, it proves what I say in the book. It will be another chapter in my book,” says Shadrake, who divides his time between Britain and Malaysia, where the book was published in June. He was arrested last month after a private book launch in Singapore.

Implications of impropriety?

At a July 30 hearing, prosecutors filed papers stating that Shadrake’s book implied that Singapore's judiciary was “guilty of impropriety” and succumbs to “political and economic pressures” in death penalty cases, according to news reports.

Last year, Singapore’s High Court fined a Wall Street Journal editor for publishing three articles that criticized the judiciary. Other international publications have also faced legal action in Singapore, often initiated by its founding leader, Lee Kwan Yew, or his son, Lee Hsien Loong, the current prime minister. Prominent opposition figures have also been sued for defamation, resulting in heavy damages and, in some cases, bankruptcy.

Lee Kwan Yew, who holds the title of Minister Mentor, has argued that legal action is necessary to protect his reputation and that of Singapore, which styles itself as an efficient, crime-free financial hub. Government officials point to international surveys that rate its judiciary system as world-class.

But critics say the government’s legal tactics against its opponents undermines this much-vaunted reputation. In Shadrake’s case, the charge of contempt is particularly troubling because Singapore doesn’t allow a defense of fair comment or public interest, as is the case in libel law.