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Why Singapore insists on equality before the law: Shanmugam

Why Singapore insists on equality before the law: Shanmugam

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 06 Nov 2020

He also touched on several aspects of the Criminal Justice System and some of the challenges facing stakeholders.

The key question is whether the case was handled differently because of the status of the complainant, or if there has been any improper influence.

Did Mr Liew Mun Leong in any way influence these proceedings? Or was the case investigated and prosecuted in accordance with the rules like any other case? I have said it earlier, and I will reiterate. I can be categorical. There was no influence by Mr Liew. It was treated as any other theft case and handled accordingly.

This case is in fact an illustration of how the rule of law applies. A foreign domestic worker is charged. The High Court acquits her. The complainant is a wealthy, powerful person. But all are equal before the law. It doesn't matter who the parties are. (They receive) justice according to the facts and the law as the courts see it.

We may agree or disagree with the State Courts' or High Court's decisions and conclusions. But that is a different matter.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM

If you look at a systemic level, at the highest level, you talk about "the criminal justice system".

We have the police who investigate in accordance with the legal framework for police investigations. The Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) makes the charging decision based on (1) available evidence; and (2) public interest. The trial courts consider the sufficiency of the evidence and the legal issues. The appellate courts review the decision of the trial court.

This case shows that the criminal justice system as a whole works.

If you drill down to the next level, we have "systems". For example, these would comprise investigative protocols, standard operating procedures for how the police and deputy public prosecutors operate. I have mentioned some errors that were made; we have to try to strengthen the systems at that level and try to prevent a reoccurrence. I have also mentioned the challenges.

Besides these levels to the system, there will always be the risk of mistakes by individuals. These lapses will have to be dealt with. The idea of rule of law is central to our ideas of fairness, equality and justice. It is even more important in the current zeitgeist that is sweeping through countries.

Societies around the world are grappling with debates on inequality. (There is) a sense that the elite are creaming off most of the economic benefits and bending the rules and systems to their own advantage, and in the process, buying off and suborning those in government. People are fed up with unfair structures. Equal opportunities are drying up.

In Singapore, we are not in the same situation. Our active intervention in socioeconomic issues has helped most people to benefit. But our people know we must jealously guard the availability of equal opportunities. We must ensure that everyone has a fair shake. We must be alert and guard against the wealthy and the powerful taking unfair advantage.

If a significant section of our people feel that the system favours some, or that it is unfairly stacked against them, then Singapore will lose its cohesion and it can't succeed. Thus it is essential that we have a fair system, that we have a clean system, that we have a system that gives opportunities to all.

These are our fundamental concerns. If Mr Liew did unfairly influence the proceedings, then it will be a hit to our foundations. It will be a hit to our sense of fairness, equality, justice, and a dent to Project Singapore itself, because Singapore is built on these ideals.

We have always been jealous about guarding against such corrosion. It does not mean there will be no abuse of power and no corruption. But when it happens, swift, decisive action must be taken. MPs will know that successive governments have been clear about this.

CASES OF CORRUPTION

There has to be a ruthless intensity in upholding integrity. Founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew set the tone. The case of Mr Teh Cheang Wan is a prime example of that approach.

He was one of the most senior members in Mr Lee's Cabinet. But when corruption allegations surfaced, Mr Lee directed the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) to conduct investigations. Mr Teh was placed on leave of absence. He ultimately chose to end his life rather than face trial or corruption charges which the AGC had (then) yet to settle.

Mr Lee said at that time: "There is no way a minister can avoid investigations, and a trial if there is evidence to support one."

These were the values of our founding generation. And these are, and have to be, our continuing values.

They have been scrupulously stressed and adhered to by the two succeeding prime ministers. They are like religious commandments. There cannot be any compromise. Where there is a breach, action is taken. Action will be taken.

Let me refer to some cases.

In 2012, you had:

• Mr Peter Lim, Commissioner of the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF). In fact, he was Commissioner of SCDF when I was Minister of Home Affairs. He was convicted of corruption charges for receiving sexual favours with three different women. He was sentenced to six months' imprisonment, and was dismissed from public service following disciplinary proceedings.

  • In 2013, you had CPIB assistant director Edwin Yeo misappropriating money. He was jailed for 10 years for criminal breach of trust as a public servant and for forgery.
  • In 2007, you had Mr T.T. Durai, chief executive of the National Kidney Foundation. He was convicted of corruption and sentenced to imprisonment. He appealed to the High Court but (the appeal) was dismissed.
  • In 2012, Mr Howard Shaw, then executive director of the Singapore Environment Council, was convicted of obtaining commercial sex with minors. He had asked for a nominal fine based on testimonials of his good character and social standing. The court found no exceptional circumstances and sentenced him to 12 weeks' imprisonment. The sentence was to provide a strong deterrence to others.

Mr Lim was a senior Home Team officer. In many countries, his actions would not have attracted criminal punishment. In most countries, commissioners of SCDF and assistant directors of CPIB are pretty much untouchable. But not in Singapore.

GUARD AGAINST INFLUENCE PEDDLING

The message is, it doesn't matter who you are. If you do wrong, action will be taken. But it is not only corruption that we must guard against. We must also guard against soft corruption and influence peddling. Let me quote what Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Dr Goh Keng Swee have said.

In 1984, Mr Lee said, and I quote:

  • "We exercised power as trustees for the people, with an abiding sense of our fiduciary responsibility. Our honour, our sense of duty made us exercise power scrupulously. We have curbed, restrained, prevented any distortion of policies which would have been inevitable, if the personal interests of the few in charge were allowed full rein. This is the case in many new countries."
  • "When those in office regard the power vested in them as a personal prerogative, they inevitably enrich themselves, promote their families, favour their friends. The fundamental structures of the modern state are eroded, like the supporting beams of a house after termites have attacked them. Then the people have to pay dearly and long for the sins and crimes of their leaders."

And as early as 1961, Dr Goh warned about the risks that groups of elites might create an environment that would favour one community at the expense of another.

In an article in the Nanyang University journal in 1961, he said, and I quote:

"To achieve an honest and energetic administration appears easy in theory. In practice, very few of the young and emergent nations have achieved this. Even in the most advanced and leading societies, whether communist or democratic, the problem of nepotism is a recurring one and can only be countered by constant vigilance.

"In advanced societies, it is not so much open nepotism that is to be feared, but the insidious 'old boy' type whereby no illegalities are committed, but in which the pinnacles of power, influence and wealth are the reserve of those born into the right families.

"In underdeveloped countries, the matter could be more serious. A system may arise in which the dominant majority, whether of families, clans or even entire communities, arrogates to itself not only the openings to the seats of power, but also the avenues by which individuals can fit themselves out for such positions of power. The dominant majority is thus able to point out that those outside of the charmed circle just do not have the necessary qualifications to be admitted to this elite group.

"Thus many able and aspiring people are denied the opportunity for the full use of their abilities."

I personally find these words, very powerful, insightful, and I have more than once quoted the speech of Dr Goh in my own speeches because Dr Goh has, I think, identified precisely a serious, insidious risk in any society, including ours.

We are not that special that we can be immune to these risks. We have to constantly make sure that we don't allow it. We have to be very careful, to try to stamp it out wherever it appears. And make no mistake, make no mistake - it will keep appearing in big and small ways.

LETTER FROM PM TO MPS

This is again something successive prime ministers have been vigilant about. One illustration of that is the letter that the prime minister sends out at the start of each new term of this House. Most members are aware of the letter.

I quote parts:

"The context each time may be different, but the subject remains constant. Integrity, honesty and incorruptibility are fundamental. We must never tire of reminding ourselves of their importance. One vital factor to retain the trust of Singaporeans all these years is honesty and integrity. The reputation for clean, incorruptible government is one of our most precious assets.

"I cannot stress strongly enough every MP must uphold the rigorous standards we have set for ourselves. Do nothing to compromise them. Never give cause for allegations that you are misusing your position, especially your access to ministers.

"A few will cultivate you to obtain benefits for themselves or their companies, to gain respectability by association with you, or to get you to influence ministries and statutory boards to make decisions in their favour. Personal favours big and small are just some of the countless social lubricants which such people use to ingratiate themselves to MPs and make you obliged to them.

"At all times be seen to be beyond the influence of gifts or favours. Separate your public political position from your private, professional or business interests. MPs who are in business, who occupy senior management positions in companies, or who sit on company boards should be especially vigilant.

"You must not exploit your public position as government MPs, your close contacts with the ministers, or your access to government departments and civil servants, for your personal interest or the benefit of your employers. Your conduct must be always above board. We have held our position because our integrity has never been in doubt. Always conduct yourselves with modesty, decorum and dignity."

I can tell MPs this is all not just nice-sounding advice. Even before it reaches the kind of conduct referred to in the prime minister's letter, if we feel that there is some conduct that requires a closer look, we do take a closer look.

I am referring here to conduct which is not criminal, nor a breach of ethics, but which in our view should be avoided. Something that may be legal but, for example, could lead eventually to something which is not of so good odour.

When we sense that, I usually have a chat with the relevant MP. They come and have a cup of coffee with me. When they leave, the issue is usually resolved. And if it is not resolved, then they don't remain as MPs. But don't worry, it doesn't happen every time people come and have coffee with me.

If it is criminal, of course there will be prosecution. And there have been MPs and former MPs who have been prosecuted. And if there are breaches of other rules, the respective professional or regulatory bodies will take action, as they have done. We don't intervene or try to stop any of this.

I have dealt with this at some length because we must understand these are fundamental values. If we don't keep them, we will be in trouble. In Singapore, in this context, we have a more challenging environment.

We are a small place. A lot of people know each other. (There are) many educational, professional, work-related and social family connections - same schools, colleges, universities, time spent in national service, other connections. People interact with each other frequently.

We try to look for people on the basis of merit. And they will often, because of their careers and education, have deep connections with many others whom they interact with. The way we handle this is to make sure the persons appointed are men and women of character. That they have the moral fibre to do the right thing.

Our small size means these connections and interactions are inevitable.

And so, we will always have to be very careful. Always remember, we are fiduciaries. This is a sacred trust. We do this for the people. We do the right thing. Do not allow any corrosion of public interest. Act with honour. Be worthy of the trust people have reposed in us.

It is critical that whatever the relationship, the Government maintains high standards of probity, of conduct, so that decisions are made on objective and impartial assessment.

And have we lived up to those standards? MPs can ask that question honestly. What is the lived reality for Singaporeans? How much corruption do people encounter here?

We rank highly on credible international indices for absence of corruption, for rule of law, for the way our system functions cleanly. This is a country known for all this - and that continues to be the case.

WHEN THE SYSTEM GOES AWRY

What happens if you allow the system to go awry? What happens when you allow influence peddling? What happens when you allow corruption, abuse of position and abuse of power?

Let me give you a couple of examples.

First, the United States. Influence peddling has become part and parcel of politics and governance. The US Supreme Court has said that "ingratiation and access embody a central feature of democracy". (It is) not against the law for officials to set up meetings, host events and call other officials on behalf of lobbyists. Big businesses extensively lobby regulators, using middlemen.

I personally think this is not good for the healthy functioning of society.

Lobbying itself is a massive business. Big Pharma, for example, spent US$4.45 billion (S$6.03 billion) on lobbying alone, over the last 22 years. And it works. One study found that regulators were 45 per cent less likely to initiate enforcement action against banks that lobby, versus banks that don't.

The experience of South Africa offers another example.

In South Africa, "state capture" is a buzzword because of how private interests have exerted influence over government decision making and used this influence to plunder the state. Corruption scandals involving the former president and the Gupta brothers are the most famous examples. It is, of course, an extreme example of the system going awry.

Critical question for us: How do we ensure that the system stays clean? That we don't allow what Mr Lee and Dr Goh warned against?

We have a media that highlights these issues. See the number of articles that have appeared in this matter in the Singapore media. Accountability - a well-educated, aware population that holds us accountable. And Parliament, where we have these issues to be openly discussed, debated. All these are essential.

But these factors are also present in many countries where influence peddling is nevertheless a cancer.

We have avoided that slippery path, because in addition to the above, we have had in our three prime ministers the strong will to ensure a clean system and the decisiveness to act when something goes wrong. Always, always - regardless of your rules, and regardless of your systems - the rot starts at the top. If the top is clean, the system can work well. And we've got to make sure of that. And if it starts, then very few things can save such a country.

In this case, if we had seen anything wrong by way of influence peddling, swift, open, transparent action would have been taken.

Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.

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