Social and Economic Development and the Rule of Law – the post-colonial experience in Asia

Sylvia Limby Sylvia Lim,
Non-Constituency Member of Parliament
Chairman,
Workers’ Party

Assessment of situation in Singapore

Certainly, Singapore’s priority has always been economic development. This must always be important as a government goal, for with growth will come, we hope, improvement to people’s lives. We have all seen how the lack of economic development in Myanmar brings severe misery and finally, social unrest.

In its bid to make Singapore a business-friendly place, resources are poured into making Singapore politically stable, and strengthening dispute resolution mechanisms. In surveys of expatriates already quoted to you by our leaders, our legal system tends to be ranked very highly. I have no doubt that the qualifications of our judges and lawyers, and the efficiency of the courts, can meet any international benchmarks. Hence, businesses generally know that any dispute which comes before the courts will be dealt with quickly and in a reasoned way.

However, when one delves deeper into the issue of the quality of justice, there will be areas for improvement. One is the area of criminal justice, where Singapore, like all countries, faces the tension between crime control and due process. Singapore leans much towards the crime control model and has made compromises to due process. For instance, we have very strict drug laws here. Under the Misuse of Drugs Act, there are presumptions of fact which the prosecution can rely on, which shift the burden of proof to the Defendant to rebut the presumptions. Speaking as a former defence counsel, it is not easy to rebut the presumption, especially since the accused person is usually in custody and the evidence he needs may be abroad. Our Constitution provides for an arrested person to be allowed to see his lawyer as soon as possible after arrest; yet as a result of case law, the Defendant will only be able to see his lawyer if the police feels it will not jeopardize their investigations, which could be several weeks later depending on the nature of the case. As one prepares for trial, there is no obligation for the prosecution to disclose evidence it has obtained but is not using, which could be very useful to the Defendant. I suppose if you were raising a young family here, such procedures may comfort you, but if your child were a suspect in a case, your experience would be quite different.

What about government power? How far can Parliament serve as a check on the executive government?

We inherited the Westminster system from London. Unlike the United States where the Executive and Legislature are distinct arms, the Westminster model requires the Cabinet to be drawn from the Legislature i.e. from Members of Parliament. Yet, even though we have common roots, the balance here is tilted much more in favour of the executive government. Why?

One reason is obviously the overwhelming dominance of the ruling party in Parliament, holding all but 2 elected seats, and that the party whip was lifted only on a handful of occasions in the last 40 years. Hence, if any matter is put to a vote, the executive government’s plans will prevail. Defenders of the system will say that this is the people’s choice, to re-elect the ruling party overwhelmingly. Again, delve deeper and one sees that there are walkovers in many constituencies due to lack of opposition candidates, but that’s for a political seminar, not for today. Much as I desire political reforms, I think we still need to respect the outcome of the elections and push for change within the limits of the law.

At this point I should say that conferences such as these are very useful for us to benchmark ourselves against international practices, but finally we Singaporeans can decide for ourselves what kind of country we want.

One aspect of the rule of good law is freedom of information. This is another key difference between London and Singapore. Both structural and cultural factors are at play. We see in Britain laws requiring government declassification of official information, and the formation of boards of trustees as watchdogs over media companies to ensure that the public gets balanced information. In Singapore, more information is classified and the mass media is not subject to any oversight by a body protecting the public right to information. In Britain, there would be an outcry if someone formerly from the intelligence services or a former Cabinet Minister was put in charge of a media company. In Singapore, this is not unusual.

However, one media watchdog which has evolved naturally is the Internet community. It is now much harder for people to spin propaganda if alternative versions / leaks spring up online. In Singapore, we have clearly seen the effect of the Internet as empowering and forcing disclosure of more information of public interest. For instance, in the last Parliamentary elections here, the internet community took it upon itself to propagate news not carried in the mainstream media, particularly opposition news. We now also see the government using the mainstream media to address rumours or discussions arising from Internet discourse. I believe this ground-up development is very important and empowering for our citizens.

The last 2 aspects I would like to touch on are access to legal redress and the role of lawyers to promote the rule of law.

Regarding access to legal redress, there is the issue of the cost of legal counsel. This is not a criticism of lawyers but a fact of life. Here there is state-funded legal aid to a limited extent. For civil cases, the income ceiling is low and there are many who are above the ceiling who would still find lawyers very expensive. For criminal cases, the State funds the defence only in cases involving the death penalty. In non-capital cases, it falls on the voluntary scheme of the Law Society to provide aid.

One cultural impediment is that it is not common to find people suing the government especially the police. First, awareness of the limits of State power is generally low e.g. not many people know that the police can only keep someone for 48 hrs without producing them in court. Secondly, there are the rules of evidential privilege and official confidence which restrict discovery of official documents. Finally, the consequence of losing the case and paying legal costs to the government is a concern. Such a lack of challenge to the government is not good, as it may lead to our government officers becoming complacent.

Finally, let me say something about the role of lawyers. Under the Legal Profession Act here, the Law Society Council’s role is to take charge of matters concerning the practice of law. The Act also says the Law Society can comment on any other matters submitted to it. It has been said that this means that the Council should not comment on legislation that does not touch on the practice of law directly. I find this to be an unnecessary restriction on the Law Society whose members have much to offer on any laws or policies which it considers undesirable because of inherent unfairness, lack of due process, and being prone to abuse of power. I do not know how active your professional organizations are in your countries, but I am sure lawyers can add tremendous value on rule of law concerns even in areas not touching the practice of law. Indeed, each of us has a duty to do so.

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Related Links:

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Singapore’s legal system attacked at lawyers’ meeting

Lawyers’ Rights Watch report on rule of law in Singapore

Excerpt from Singapore’s Two-Faced Judiciary

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