WP calls for Constitutional Commission to review Singapore’s justice system, among other proposals mooted during marathon debate
The Workers’ Party suggested setting up a Constitutional Commission led by a Supreme Court judge to review the current system, among several recommendations.
In a marathon debate stretching six hours, the Workers’ Party (WP) laid out several suggestions to reform Singapore’s criminal justice system, in view of how certain shortcomings seemed to have emerged over the high-profile case of Ms Parti Liyani.
WP, led by its chairman Sylvia Lim, suggested setting up a Constitutional Commission led by a Supreme Court judge to review the current system, among several recommendations. This is after Ms Parti’s acquittal for theft charges that she had initially been convicted for sparked a public outcry.
Questions have been raised by the public on how disadvantaged individuals can have equal access to justice, and whether there was subconscious bias given the vast difference in social status between the accused, who is a foreign domestic worker, and her former employer and the complainant, Mr Liew Mun Leong, a prominent businessman who has headed several government-linked companies before he resigned due to the public backlash.
On Wednesday (Nov 4), Members of the House debated on the full motion filed by Ms Lim, Member of Parliament (MP) for Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC). This came after Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam’s ministerial statement on the same topic and the ensuing debate that went on for more than two hours.
The parliamentary session, which ended just 10 minutes shy of midnight, saw seven WP MPs speaking on various aspects of improving the criminal justice system and four political office-holders responding to the suggestions made. Seven MPs from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and one Non-Constituency MP from the Progress Singapore Party also spoke during the debate on the motion.
Mr Murali Pillai, MP for Bukit Batok, suggested several amendments to the motion, one of which is to strike out a line that recommends a review of the justice system.
The amendments were passed in a vote. The WP MPs did not support the amendments and had their dissent recorded.
Explaining WP’s position in her wrap-up speech, Ms Lim said that the amendments suggested by Mr Murali imply that there are no shortcomings in Singapore’s justice system and that there would be no review.
“As these are key aspects of our original motion, we are unable to support the amended motion,” she said.
SUGGESTIONS TO IMPROVE THE JUSTICE SYSTEM
Besides an external review through a Constitutional Commission, WP suggested several ways the justice system can be improved.
That includes allowing the poor to pay their fines through instalments, having police statements recorded in the accused’s first language, compensation for those who have suffered miscarriage of justice and to enhance legal aid.
Other recommendations are:
1. Splitting the roles of public prosecutor and attorney-general
Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh called on the Government to split the office of the Attorney-General (AG) into two roles, one of the public prosecutor, and the other as the Government’s legal adviser, to ensure greater independence in Singapore’s justice system — a suggestion the opposition party has brought up before.
Having one person fulfil both roles, as it is the case in Singapore now, represents a potential conflict of interest, which can create the potential for abuse, Mr Singh said.
That is because the AG has the duty to protect the interests of the Government as well as represent the public and prosecute without fear or favour, even if it entails “damaging the reputation of the government of the day or prosecuting ministers or even the prime minister”.
He also said that the system should “eschew” the appointment of a former MP as public prosecutor because the person would naturally have the same political views of his or her political party.
The current Deputy AG Hri Kumar Nair is a former MP from the PAP.
While there may be objective independence in the present system, Mr Singh argued that the public perception of independence is also highly important and changes can be made to improve perceptions of Singapore’s justice system.
Leader of the House Indranee Rajah, however, pointed out that the AG in Singapore does not hold political office, and is not easily removed from office, thereby preventing him from being beholden to political pressure. There are also constitutional safeguards even in the hypothetical situation where a future prime minister and the AG are in collusion.
For example, if the prime minister does not wish to proceed with an investigation into corruption, the director of the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau can seek the approval of the country's president to go ahead with it.
She also questioned Mr Singh’s assertion that a former politician who became AG may be a product of the beliefs of the party to which he or she belonged.
“What does that actually mean? What are the views of the party that Mr Hri Kumar used to be in, for example? One of the views is we believe in meritocracy as a member of the PAP, we believe in integrity, we believe in not having a corrupt system, we believe in access to justice. I’m not sure how these will affect his prosecutorial functions,” Ms Indranee said.
“What is it about the beliefs of PAP that will somehow affect his prosecutorial functions? Nothing.”
2. Make prosecutorial disclosure a statutory requirement
Mr Singh also argued that obligations for prosecutors to disclose material evidence to the defence should be codified in the Criminal Procedure Code.
Right now, the practice among prosecutors in disclosing evidence is based on a case precedent, where the Court of Appeal judge ruled that the prosecution must disclose credible and relevant unused material favourable to the defence’s case.
While this was a positive development in making inroads in reducing the asymmetries of evidence between the prosecution and the defence counsel, Mr Singh said that prosecutors still have no legal duty to do so.
“It is precisely because of the very prospect of inadvertent non-disclosure that Parliament has to legislate forthwith to prevent possible future miscarriages of justice because of non-disclosure,” he added.
Responding to Mr Singh, Mr Shanmugam said that the Government is looking to set out disclosure requirements in the statutes and discussions have started since early this year.
“I think it is unsatisfactory that it's left as a common law principle. So we are going to put it out in statute — what is appropriate, what is fair, how do you framework it, which are the cases and principles you take in,” Mr Shanmugam said.
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