November 26th, 2013
Au was accused of contempt last year. He apologised and promised not to do it again. The authorities probably see the latest cases as proof that he is a reckless netizen who hasn’t learnt his lesson. I look at it differently. If Au – one of Singapore’s most conscientious and civic-minded bloggers – cannot avoid the contempt minefield, then perhaps the problem is actually with the law. Is it getting in the way of intelligent critique of important issues?
The rejoinder would probably be that there are ways to comment without scandalising the court. In theory, perhaps. But again, I would have to ask, if even Alex Au cannot find a safe path, perhaps the terrain is just too treacherous? Au is a meticulous and gifted writer. If he is charged with contempt, there would be a significant chilling effect on other citizens who do not consider themselves anywhere near as polished in their use of words.
There is another reason why the authorities should be more generous with Au. Both the offending blogs had to do with discrimination against homosexuals. This is an area of the law that has not been satisfactorily settled. By the government’s own admission, Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises sex between men, was retained not because it is just, but because repealing it would upset conservatives.
The government’s resolution of this issue – to leave the law in the books but not actively use it – was highly unusual, to say the least. Whether or not it did the right thing, the government should acknowledge that it created a grey area that was bound to be passionately debated. Having done so, it seems only right that it allows citizens some latitude to engage in that debate, without having to fear tripping over the law of contempt.