SINGAPORE: A motion on Singapore’s justice system moved by the Workers’ Party (WP) was passed on Wednesday (Nov 4) after amendments were made to its wording and to remove a call for a review of the system.
The original motion raised by Workers’ Party chair Sylvia Lim read: “This House affirms that fairness, access and independence are cornerstones of Singapore’s justice system, and calls on the Government to recognise and remedy its shortcomings in order to enhance justice for all, regardless of means or social status, including facilitating a review of the justice system.”
It was amended to: “This House recognises that fairness, access and independence are cornerstones of Singapore's justice system and affirms the Government’s continuous efforts since independence to build a fair and just society, and remedy any shortcoming in order to enhance justice for all, regardless of race, language, religion, economic means or social status.”
Bukit Batok Member of Parliament (MP) Murali Pillai, who moved the amendments, said he hoped the amended motion would get bipartisan support. Explaining the amendments, he noted it was Parliament that made the political decisions to pass legislation and move amendments to the Constitution relating to the justice system.
“So the buck must stop here and this motion reflects that reality. And I don't think anything is taken away (in) the amendments that I’ve proposed,” he said.
READ: Police, AGC had reason to take action against Parti Liyani; aspects of case could have been handled better, says Shanmugam
However, in rounding up the motion, Ms Lim said WP is unable to support the amendments to the original motion.
“We cannot accept the amendments proposed because they imply that there are no shortcomings in the system, and that there will be no review of the system.
“As these are key aspects of our original motion, we are unable to support the amended motion,” she said.
Mr Singh interjected after the vote, taken after a marathon Parliament session that ended close to midnight, to say the WP MPs wanted to have their dissent to the amendments recorded.
DUAL ROLES OF ATTORNEY-GENERAL
The initial motion was sparked by the case of Parti Liyani, a former Indonesian maid employed by ex-Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong and his family.
Ms Parti had been convicted in March last year by a lower court of stealing from the Liew family, but the conviction was overturned by the High Court on Sep 4. The judge outlined several issues with the conviction findings and how the case was handled.
The debate on the motion came after Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam delivered a ministerial statement on the case, and touched on a number of broader legal issues that were not related to the specific case.
READ: Shanmugam says no influence by Liew Mun Leong in Parti Liyani case; handled like other theft cases
Leader of the Opposition and Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh suggested that there is a potential conflict of interest in the dual roles of the attorney-general as the Government’s legal adviser and as public prosecutor.
He said that even if an attorney-general can mentally separate the roles, the potential for conflict exists.
“The elephant in the room is that this conflict of interest could go even further and facilitate abuse by a future government,” he said.
He raised some scenarios where this could happen, such as a future attorney-general who is friendly with a future prime minister, who then decides not to prosecute the PM after he commits serious offences.
“The first and most obvious change is to split the role of government legal adviser from the role of public prosecutor. Neither role should be subordinate to the other and different offices should be formed,” he said.
He added that the public prosecutor should not be a former Member of Parliament as they cannot help but be “a product of their previous beliefs”, and because there should be perceived independence of the system.
“Even if a public prosecutor is completely objective and truly able to divorce himself from his previous political beliefs and loyalties, it is possible that the public may not believe it,” Mr Singh said.
Responding to these points, Leader of the House Indranee Rajah said that the attorney-general advises the Government on non-criminal matters while he decides on prosecution in criminal matters without interference.
“There's no issue with the same person in both roles, because the system ensures that in his PP (public prosecutor) role, the AG acts independently,” Ms Indranee said.
READ: Parti Liyani case: Expediting trial process for foreigners would not be fair to Singaporeans, says Shanmugam
She also said that in countries where the role of the attorney-general is separate from the public prosecutor, the official is a political office holder or even a member of the Cabinet – which is not the case in Singapore. Ms Indranee then pointed out how Singapore’s Constitution has safeguards to ensure the role is protected from political pressure.
“The track record shows that the attorney-general has prosecuted high-level people before without fear or favour,” she said.
On former political office holders being public prosecutors, she said: "What does that actually mean? What are the political views of the party that Mr Hri Kumar used to be in, for example?"
Mr Hri Kumar Nair was a People's Action Party (PAP) MP from 2006 until 2015. He was appointed as deputy attorney-general in 2017.
"We believe in meritocracy as a member of the PAP," said Ms Indranee. "We believe in integrity, we believe in not having a corrupt system, we believe in access of justice. I'm not sure how this would affect his prosecutorial functions."
If he has to charge somebody who was from the party, or whom he knows, then there would be a conflict of interest and he should and would recuse himself from the case, she added.
ENHANCING LEGAL AID FOR THE POOR
In introducing the motion, WP chair Sylvia Lim said that while Singapore's justice system is highly regarded, there is room for improvement. She raised in particular the plight of the poor in obtaining justice, among other issues.
“Have there been domestic helpers, work permit holders and even poorer Singaporeans who believed they were innocent, but have pled guilty to charges because they did not know their rights or could not afford to fight their cases?” she asked.
“If we are being honest, we should not ask whether there have been such persons but rather how many there have been.”
READ: Karl Liew to be charged for giving false evidence, false information to public servant in Parti Liyani case
Listing the structural impediments facing the poor when navigating the legal system, she said that they are more likely to fall foul of the law because of their circumstances, and then face economic hurdles in engaging legal counsel. Many also do not have the resources to post bail.
“If poorer Singaporeans face significant hurdles, work permit holders such as Ms Parti Liyani face even more,” she said.
Ms Lim listed a series of shortcomings that the Government can address directly, while suggesting that a constitutional commission led by a Supreme Court judge look into more complex issues in the justice system.
Sengkang GRC MP He Ting Ru spoke in Mandarin and English on enhancing legal aid for the poor. She said that a significant proportion of accused people still appear before the courts unrepresented.
The WP MP proposed that there be a statutory requirement for legal aid, and to consider automatically providing legal aid to some, such as those charged with serious offences carrying long sentences.
PUBLIC DEFENDERS OFFICE POSSIBLE
Mr Shanmugam noted that Ms Lim and Ms He were “not saying that the system is broken or ineffective”.
“I would say with the Workers’ Party and the points made, we’re on the same page I think, and in many ways we are pushing at an open door,” he added.
“It is not that any of these principles are new or in some way not thought of, or that we are opposed to them.”
While the Government does not object to the principles set out by the WP, the implementation of these measures and how they will be funded need to be taken into consideration, added the Home Affairs and Law Minister.
The Government “can’t be more agreed” on the importance of legal aid, especially for the poor, said Mr Shanmugam.
READ: Parti Liyani seeks compensation order for theft trial, says she suffered losses of about S$71,000
Noting that the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) covers 25 per cent of the population, he reiterated that he did not want to make legal aid mandatory.
“The moment you make it mandatory, then what happens (is) people game the system too ... They will not be able to find lawyers who can do it for the fee that the state is prepared to pay, or an extraordinary exorbitant fee is required, or lawyers do not come forward and because you can't find a lawyer to handle the case therefore the case gets postponed,” said the minister.
He added that the Government’s relationship with the bar is “more constructive”, he noted that lawyers take on pro bono cases through CLAS.
“But I have said that we are now considering how we can set up a public defenders office which would be sustainable. So in principle there is no issue, the question is how do you implement it,” said Mr Shanmugam.
Mr Vikram Nair said it would be helpful to allow more people access to legal counsel. “I do support a public defenders’ office because this will at least institutionalise a group of lawyers who would be there to defend victims who need earlier access to lawyers,” said the Sembawang GRC MP.
RECORDING OF STATEMENTS
Ms Lim and other WP MPs also raised the point that accused people should have the option of having their statements taken in a language of their choice, and to have it recorded in video to ensure that the statements are reliable.
Mr Shanmugam said that while it would be ideal to have video recording for all cases, there are currently resource constraints to expanding it beyond sexual crimes.
Responding to Mr Shanmugam, Ms Lim highlighted that there are provisions in the UK to do that.
“I wanted to highlight that other countries have done it, so I hope that he will not close his mind to the matter,” she said.
Mr Shanmugam said he did not “really have a quarrel” with this, adding that Singapore would look at other countries who record statements in languages other than English and study their models.
The Government is also waiting for artificial intelligence and video-to-text technology, he added. “We looked at some but they’re not yet mature technologies.”
WP MP for Aljunied GRC Leon Perera suggested setting up an ombudsman office that would function as an independent office to investigate complaints about unfair administrative decisions or actions of a public agency.
“An ombudsman would provide access to an independent public office with the remit and resources to investigate potential wrongdoing, errors, lapses or weaknesses in the conduct of public officials,” he said.
He added that while citizens have the right to sue the Government in court, it takes considerable time and resources.
Fellow Aljunied GRC MP Gerald Giam expanded on the difficulties faced by migrant workers who face lawsuits, Hougang MP Dennis Tan spoke on raising the minimum requirement for judicial officers, and Sengkang GRC MP Jamus Lim, an economics professor, spoke on the economic impact of having rule of law.
Responding to Mr Perera’s suggestion that the office of an ombudsman be established, Second Minister for Law Edwin Tong noted that public institutions are subject to both internal and external review.
He gave the example of how a 2018 Singapore Civil Defence Force ragging death incident had been debated in Parliament and subject to scrutiny by a board of inquiry, on top of investigations by the police.
Mr Tong pointed out that there had been 46 cases of civil action against the Government in the last two years, contrary to the Aljunied MP’s assertion that such instances were rare due to the difficulty of doing so.
“Ultimately when you have an ombudsman, the question really is – can they serve a better function than each of these specialist panels set up specifically for an inquiry where necessary, with the relevant powers of investigation where necessary and with the relevant expertise for each of these cases?” he asked.
Twenty MPs from both sides of the aisle spoke on the motion, including several office holders and seven WP members of the House.