By Fathin Ungku
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore's parliament passed on Monday a bill spelling out what constitutes contempt of court, drawing criticism from rights groups, foreign diplomats and even the prime minister's sister, who say the new law will suppress freedom of speech.
The bill's definition of includes publishing material that interferes with ongoing proceedings or alleges bias on the part of judges. Offenders could be fined up to S$100,000 and jailed up to three years.
Critics say the bill's vaguely worded provisions and the harsh punishments proposed could further impede freedom of speech by leading to self-censorship.
The government says the bill will not change or expand current contempt of court practices and only aims to clarify them. Minister of Law K. Shanmugan said in parliament the law was aimed at protecting ordinary citizens.
"Do we really want to say to the ordinary man in the street that it is okay for his trial to be prejudiced, and it is okay for him to be unfairly treated, because it is incidental to someone else's right to comment," Shanmugan said.
Britain abolished a similar act called "Scandalizing the Judiciary" in 2013 on the grounds it was "incompatible with freedom of speech", the British High Commision told Reuters last week, urging "Singapore and all countries which retain 'Scandalizing the Judiciary' to abolish it."
Shanmugan said Britain's remarks were "quite improper."
The group Human Rights Watch said the bill was "overly broad" and penalties were "disproportionate".
Reporters Without Borders ranks Singapore 154th out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index, behind Venezuela.
Lee Wei Ling, the daughter of Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew and the younger sister of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, described the government as "authoritarian."
On Facebook, she said the bill, which drew 72 votes in favor and nine against, "is an attempt to muzzle public discussion in any format." Her comments are unusual in a country where public criticism of the government is rare.
LITTLE PUBLIC PROTEST
A public petition calling for a delay was submitted to parliament last week, the first in nine years. But it only drew 249 signatures.
"I am amazed that there has not been more vocal protest by more Singaporeans," Lee Wei Ling wrote on Facebook.
"Perhaps, Singaporeans have gotten used to an authoritarian government who until recently had always acted for their wellbeing, and so when another new action is taken, they do not even bother to think whether it may be against their welfare."
In her latest post, she sent a strong warning to the government.
"If it does not act for the welfare of Singaporeans, it can be voted out," she said.
The latest posts are the second round of major criticism by Lee Wei Ling. In April, she accused the prime minister of abusing his power and of forming a political dynasty. He rejected the criticism, saying "meritocracy" was a fundamental value of the Singaporean society.
(Writing by Marius Zaharia, editing by Larry King)