SINGAPORE: Expediting the trial process for economically vulnerable foreign nationals would not be fair to Singaporeans who have also been accused of crimes, as doing so would cause the latter to “wait even longer”, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam on Wednesday (Nov 4).
Mr Shanmugam was responding to a parliamentary question from Progress Singapore Party’s (PSP) Non- Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Leong Mun Wai, as part of a ministerial statement delivered on the case of former Indonesian maid Parti Liyani.
READ: Police, AGC had reason to take action against Parti Liyani; aspects of case could have been handled better, says Shanmugam
The minister said the median time taken for the trial process of a criminal case is 15 months, starting from the time an accused is charged in court to a judgment being delivered.
Factors that affect the time taken include the nature of the case, availability of counsels or Deputy Public Prosecutors, documents and witnesses and the time taken for deliberation.
About 600 criminal trials are handled by the State Courts a year – a “heavy load” for the 55 judges, said Mr Shanmugam. About 22 per cent of these cases involved foreigners, he added.
“If we expedite a case for a foreign person, then a Singaporean accused will have to wait even longer,” said the minister. “So having a criminal case pending, why should we make Singaporeans suffer disproportionately more?”
Mr Shanmugam cited an example of a 51-year-old Singaporean who was charged in March this year for two counts of shop theft. The Singaporean claimed trial and was remanded.
In June, the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) assessed that his remand period - three months at that point - might outstrip his sentence. At the request of the Public Prosecutor, the trial was brought forward and “conducted on an urgent basis”, the minister told the House.
He was later convicted and sentenced to 16 weeks’ jail.
READ: High Court's inference on key factor in Parti Liyani acquittal 'quite different' from what she said: Shanmugam
“There will be many other cases like this,” said Mr Shanmugam.
“But even if there is no specific remand situation, if you bring forward some people in the queue, the others in the queue will have to wait longer,” he added.
“I don’t think it is fair to Singaporeans to do what Mr Leong has suggested.”
Mr Shanmugam also reiterated the issue of manpower constraints in the Singapore Police Force (SPF), in response to a question from People’s Action Party MP Louis Ng.
Mr Ng had asked if authorities would consider allowing foreign domestic workers and other work permit holders to be accompanied by non-legal personnel during police interviews, an arrangement similar to the Appropriate Adult Scheme.
The minister said that from 2015 to 2019, an average of 2,741 foreign domestic workers on work permits were arrested each year.
“Interviews have to be done quickly,” he elaborated. “I have earlier said, police are already very stretched. Let’s not stretch them further.”
He added that providing an appropriate adult for every foreign worker during a police interview would be a “very difficult exercise”.
Last year, such adults attended to 2,300 activations that involved minors and mentally vulnerable persons.
“If we had to provide AAs (appropriate adults) for every foreign worker interviewed, we would minimally have to double the current volunteer pool, provide the training and resourcing, and some may require more than one statement,” he said.
“This will become a real constraint and load on the police.”
Furthermore, if each interview required an appropriate adult, “interviews will be delayed if the AA is not available,” he added. “Evidence could go missing. There are other issues.”
READ: Parti Liyani case: Liew Mun Leong’s son investigated for potential criminal offences including perjury
“The foreign workers are adults. The key is for police to make sure that the foreign workers understand the questions and their answers are properly recorded, and it has to be open for scrutiny in court, which it is,” the minister said.
Mr Shanmugam provided more statistics regarding the workload of the SPF.
For instance, about 66,200 criminal cases were handled by about 1,100 investigation officers in 2016.
In Singapore, there are about 13,200 police officers, including full-time National Servicemen. This means that the ratio of police officers to the country’s population is 0.23 per cent.
In comparison, New York has a ratio of 0.42 per cent, while London is 0.34 per cent and Hong Kong is 0.39 per cent.
To be on par with those cities, Singapore would need more police officers. For instance, to have the same ratio as New York, the SPF will need about 11,000 more officers, said Mr Shanmugam.
“So Members can understand and appreciate the load on our officers,” said Mr Shanmugam.
“My concern is that there is a limit to how much our officers can do with increasing workload and increasing expectations, but without a proportionate increase in manpower.”
READ: Shanmugam says no influence by Liew Mun Leong in Parti Liyani case; handled like other theft cases
Responding to another parliamentary question filed previously by Mr Leong, Mr Shanmugam said the SPF currently employs a pool of interpreters for the three official working languages as well as more common dialects such as Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese.
Mr Leong had asked whether steps are being taken to strengthen the interpreter service in the SPF in light of findings from Ms Parti's case.
“The police will engage the services of interpreters if the interviewee is unable to understand the language used by the interviewer or vice versa,” said Mr Shanmugam.
READ: Parti Liyani seeks compensation order for theft trial, says she suffered losses of about S$71,000
For foreign languages, the police will engage the services of foreign language interpreters on “an ad hoc basis”, noted Mr Shanmugam.
“There is a framework to assess the suitability of interpreters, which includes their qualifications and relevant work experience,” explained Mr Shanmugam.
“In (Ms Liyani's) case, she was asked. She said she could speak in Malay,” added Mr Shanmugam.
“The point is: Does the interviewee understand the language being used? And as I said earlier, the police have been told they must really check this.
‘SOME HARD QUESTIONS’
On the topic of the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS), Mr Shanmugam said his preference was to keep to the “pro-bono spirit”, with a small number of lawyers employed specifically by CLAS and lawyers from the private sector coming in.
This would be the “better approach”, he said.
The CLAS aims to provide legal aid to persons facing non-capital charges and is administered by the Law Society’s pro bono services.
“Our approach has been: Legal aid for those who truly need it, with public-private partnership tapping on the excellent pro-bono spirit of our lawyers, and should we give it up?” Mr Shanmugam asked.
“But we are also not completely satisfied with the current model. These are some hard questions - How can we better help those who can’t pay for lawyers and yet, make sure we don’t go down the road that other countries have travelled.”
Pointing out that CLAS covers the lowest 25 per cent in terms of household income, Mr Shanmugam said he would be “happy” to hear what members had to say on whether the number could be expanded and that suggestions would be considered “seriously”.
“We should aim to have a structure that helps those who truly need help, but doesn’t become an unacceptable strain on the Treasury. And those who can afford to pay for lawyers, the taxpayer should not have to pay for them,” added Mr Shanmugam.
Responding to a question from PAP MP Carrie Tan, Mr Shanmugan noted that the Ministry is “considering seriously” a public defender’s office, where the Government pays for and employs the lawyers in a “separate structure”. These lawyers then act in criminal cases to defend the accused.
“We will study the details and feasibility of this further in consultation with the Law Society and the Criminal Bar,” he added.
THE NEED FOR A COMMISSION OF INQUIRY
Addressing another question from PSP’s Mr Leong on whether a Committee of Inquiry will be appointed to look into the conduct of the SPF and the AGC, the minister said he does not have the power to do so for the AGC, as it “is not an agency that reports to (him)”.
READ: Karl Liew to be charged for giving false evidence, false information to public servant in Parti Liyani case
However, he is prepared to recommend the set-up of a “high-level” Commission of Inquiry to the Cabinet.
“I am prepared to recommend to Cabinet that we have a Commission of Inquiry but member should first tell us what he wants this Commission of Inquiry to look into, and he should confirm that he will come to the Commission of Inquiry and state his position,” said Mr Shanmugam.
This is because the officers involved “have confirmed categorically no improper pressure” and that this case was “dealt with as a routine case”.
The minister added that the facts he had laid out in his ministerial statement showed “a good prima facie case to proceed”. There will also be a disciplinary tribunal looking into Ms Liyani’s complaint against the agency’s officers.
“Thus, before we have a Commission of Inquiry which is a serious matter (that) will take up resources and lots of time … member should specify what part of this matter continues to reasonably make him believe and question that undue influence was used by the Liews,” said Mr Shanmugam.
Mr Leong replied that he was aware of the difference between a Committee of Inquiry and a Commission of Inquiry, but added that it was “still important” to have an independent inquiry.
Pressed by the minister to elaborate on the specific issues that he would like the commission to look into, the NCMP cited the five weeks it took for the police to attend to the evidence as an example.
“Even if the manpower situation is tight, do they need five weeks to attend to the evidence for example? I’m quoting this as an example because I think there are many aspects that need further investigation so that we can … look at the whole systemic aspects of the criminal justice process so that we can come up with a better solution.”
To that, Mr Shanmugam stressed that he has asked for an explanation and that “there is no excuse for (the) five weeks”.
“The police do not in any way seek to defend it,” he said.
With this matter set to be looked into, he added that he would not recommend a Commission of Inquiry for this purpose.
READ: Timeline - How former maid Parti Liyani was acquitted of stealing from Changi Airport Group chairman's family
The to-and-fro lasted for about 15 minutes before Mr Leong reiterated his point that the case “probably requires more investigation ... and interpretation of the facts".
“But if you think that is enough, then I will withdraw my proposition or recommendation for an independent inquiry,” he said.
When asked by new PAP MP Xie Yao Quan if he felt that Ms Liyani was guilty, Mr Shanmugan declined comment.
Said Mr Shanmugam: “It’s a very stark question - is Ms Liyani guilty? She has been acquitted by the High Court and I said that we must proceed on that basis and not reopen that issue.
“I think we leave it at that and I don’t want to be commenting on the decision.”