SINGAPORE: It is important to have a strong and trusted judiciary as the “bedrock” of the rule of law in Singapore, said Minister for Law K Shanmugam in Parliament on Wednesday (Mar 21), adding that the Government has taken steps to protect the judiciary from abuse and contempt.
“When the quality of the judiciary suffers, the rule of law suffers. When the rule of law suffers, the country suffers. The Government regards a strong and trusted judiciary as the bedrock of the rule of law,” said Mr Shanmugam.
“That is worth defending vigorously, and we will continue to do so through our laws and policies.”
Mr Shanmugam, who is also Home Affairs Minister, was responding to questions from Member of Parliament Christopher de Souza, who asked what the Government is doing to ensure that the judiciary continues to attract top legal talent, as well as how the situation here compares with that of the United Kingdom.
Mr de Souza referred to an article published in The Times earlier this month about how the UK is facing a “crisis” in recruiting judges.
The article also said there is a perception that judges in the UK are not valued, and that some of them have gone to the Employment Tribunal to argue for better wages and pension arrangements.
Mr Shanmugam said these issues could be because the UK judiciary has not been given enough resources.
He also noted that judges in the UK have been subjected to “unfair public attacks”, by mass media or on social media, which have “undermined the standing, prestige and morale of the judiciary”.
The situation is different in Singapore, said Mr Shanmugam, pointing out that trust and confidence in the legal system was at 92 per cent according to a 2015 survey done by his ministry.
“A State Courts user survey that same year found that 95 per cent of users of our courts had confidence in the fair and effective administration of justice by the State Courts,” he added.
“But this is not cast in stone. And what is happening in the UK could easily have happened in Singapore. It can easily happen to us if we are not careful.
“The reason it has not happened is because we have chosen a different path from the United Kingdom in some ways.”
DRAWING TOP LEGAL TALENT, PROTECTING JUDICIARY FROM ABUSE
Remuneration is an important aspect of attracting “the best people from private and public sectors” to the Bench and key legal service appointments, said Mr Shanmugam.
While judges here take a pay cut when they move from private practice, Mr Shanmugam said: “We cannot come to a stage where judges feel that they are paid so little that they do not want to take it up – which is the situation, as seen in many places.
“You certainly don’t want them going to employment tribunals, and appealing and arguing about their own remuneration.”
The minister also explained why Singapore did not abolish the offence of scandalising the judiciary, as some countries including the UK have done.
“Because, if there is an erosion of trust and confidence in our judiciary, that would fundamentally affect the standing of Singapore and the way Singapore functions,” said Mr Shanmugam.
He added that Singapore has always taken a strict view on scandalising the courts, even before the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill (AOJP) was passed in Parliament in 2016.
The Bill sets out what constitutes contempt of court and clarifies what does not.
Defending the need for that legislation, Mr Shanmugam said: “Since the AOJP has become law – has freedom of speech suffered? Have legitimate, free discussions on court cases been stifled?
“If we were to compromise on this, the effects will not be felt this year or next year, in the next two years. But some years later, we are likely to find ourselves in the same position that the British find themselves in today.”