SDP's John Tan still unable to contest next General Election following High Court decision

Singapore Democratic Party vice-chairman John Tan speaking at the party's pre-election rally at Hong Lim Park on 19 October 2019. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE — Opposition politician John Tan’s application for a court declaration stating that he is eligible to contest in the upcoming General Election (GE) has been rejected.

Tan, who is vice-chairman of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), had sought the declaration after he was fined $5,000 for contempt of court in April this year. He was convicted for commenting on a contempt case involving activist Jolovan Wham, who was also fined $5,000 for a Facebook post implying that Malaysian judges were more independent than Singapore’s in politically linked cases.

In Tan’s case, he was convicted for his own Facebook post stating that the Attorney-General’s Chambers’ (AGC) actions against Wham validated Wham’s earlier statements.

According to documents released on Wednesday (6 November), Tan – who is represented by human rights lawyer M Ravi – had contended that the term “offence” in Article 45(1)(e) of the Singapore Constitution does not extend to quasi-criminal offences such as criminal contempt.

The Article states that anyone “convicted of an offence... and sentenced to imprisonment for a term of not less than one year or to a fine of not less than $2,000 and has not received a free pardon” is ineligible to become a Member of Parliament and, as such, is also unable to run as a candidate in a GE.

Responding to this point, Justice Aedit Abdullah said in his findings that “on a plain reading, Article 45(1)(e) applies to any offence, as long as the penal consequences provided for are imposed”.

“Where offences are to be limited to criminal offences, these are expressly provided for in various acts,” he added.

“Despite counsel’s best efforts on behalf of the applicant, I am thus of the view that the declaration sought cannot be granted, and accordingly dismiss the application,” said Justice Aedit.

The Jufrie Mahmood case

Tan had also argued that the government was bound by the position it took in the case of former SDP chairman Jufrie Mahmood, who was allowed to contest in the 1988 GE despite having earlier been fined $3,000 for contempt of court.

Ahead of that GE, The Straits Times reported the Returning Officer (RO) as saying that Jufrie’s nomination paper would not be rejected as his offence was not criminal in nature.

Justice Aedit noted that there were “several difficulties” with relying on the case as the basis of judging Tan’s application. Among these were that the ST report would not be “sufficient indication of a position being taken on the interpretation of Article 25(1)(e)”.

“The newspaper record only records what was told to the newspaper by the RO without details on his reasoning. No official record was tendered, which would provide some assurance against inaccuracies in reporting,” he said.

“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.”

Other arguments

Another point of contention was Tan’s stance that one’s right to vote corresponded directly with one’s right to stand for election. On this point, Justice Aedit observed that the right to stand for election as an MP is “not part of the enumerated fundamental rights in Part IV of the Constitution”.

The High Court judge also responded to Tan’s claim that the RO’s decision in the Jufrie case meant that Article 12 of the Constitution, which states that “all persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law”, had been violated.

“The fact that the respondent (the Attorney-General) in the present proceedings adopts a different position from the RO does not amount to deliberate and arbitrary discrimination against the applicant,” said Justice Aedit.

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Civil activist Jolovan Wham and SDP vice-chairman John Tan each fined $5,000 for contempt of court