SINGAPORE: Upholding the rule of law is key to Singapore’s survival, and the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) plays a critical role in doing that, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Friday (Mar 31).
Speaking at an event commemorating the AGC’s 150th anniversary. Mr Lee said emphasising the rule of law is a “vital national interest” for a small country like Singapore, and helped Singapore to distinguish itself from other developing countries and move from third world to first.
"We say what we mean, and we mean what we say. We honour agreements we enter into and we expect others to honour agreements they enter with us," he said.
“Sometimes we are faulted for being rigid and inflexible – too straight. But it is absolutely critical for our words to count and for us to hold others to what they have undertaken to us.”
Upholding the rule of law also means that everyone is treated equally under the law – whether he is an individual or the Government, Mr Lee said.
"Individuals can get redress for their grievances, be it against their peers, persons in high positions or the Government,” he said. “It means people trust the courts to hear their cases impartially and render judgements in accordance to the law and the facts.
"Wrongdoing is punished firmly and fairly, with mercy and compassion shown to deserving cases."
But while it is important to uphold individual rights and freedoms, these have to be carefully balanced against society's need to maintain law and order, and fostering social cohesion among people of different races and religions who call Singapore home, he added.
AGC CRITICAL IN DEFENDING SINGAPORE’S INTERESTS
As the public prosecutor, the AGC enforces all laws “without fear or favour”. Whether it is charging a high-profile individual for corruption or serving as Singapore’s international lawyer, the AGC has a critical role, Mr Lee said.
"As public prosecutors, you ensure that everyone is accountable for their actions. You enforce all our laws, whether it is against drug abuse, organised crime, unauthorised money lending or terrorism," he said. "Because our laws are enforced, Singaporeans and foreigners know that here in Singapore, they are safe and secure."
He also cited the AGC’s role in the Pedra Branca case, lauding the professionalism and dedication of the AGC officers who worked on the case.
"The outcome in our favour reflected their efforts and their capability," Mr Lee said. "Malaysia is now taking steps to revise that judgment. They are entitled to try. But it is our Government's duty to defend Singapore's interests in accordance with international law.
"And I am confident of the eventual outcome, because we have a capable and experienced team in AGC advising us.”
As the drafter of legislation, the AGC also advises the Government when laws need to be updated or new ones need to be introduced, he noted.
“But when we have to make laws on our own that have no precedent elsewhere, we have to be very deliberate, think creatively and feel our way forward, and recognise that we will have to amend the laws later as we gain experience working it, to deal with unexpected issues or react to changing circumstances,” he said.
He raised the example of the Elected Presidency, and the AGC’s role in introducing and amending the related laws since it was first legislated in 1991.
"In the last 30 years, we have amended the Elected President provisions in the Constitution multiple times, to make the system work properly as intended," Mr Lee said. "The recurring theme has been striking the right balance between the Government's need for operational flexibility with the President's duty to exercise effective oversight."
To commemorate the AGC's 150th anniversary, a book chronicling its history was also launched.
The AGC was first set up in 1867 with just three lawyers, and has since expanded to around 560 legal and non-legal officers serving in five legal divisions ranging from criminal justice to international affairs, as well as its supporting divisions.
Additional reporting by Wendy Wong.