Singapore has never enjoyed a strong reputation on justice or the rule of law. As long ago as 1990 the New York Bar Association wrote of “a government that has been willing to decimate the rule of law for the benefit of its political interests”. A look back on some of the biggest cases (and non-cases) of the year reveals little to suggest that the historically subservient relationship between the courts and the government has changed for the better. The (ab)use of legal proceedings to silence critics remains an ever-present, but this year has also seen troubling developments with the government at times appearing to be beyond the law. Is this “a year in justice” or “a year of injustice”? You decide.
Probably the most significant cases of injustice this year are the arbitrary deportations of those acquitted for involvement in arguably the year’s defining event – the Little India riots. The concept that someone is “innocent until proven guilty“, enshrined in Singapore’s constitution, was no match for K Shanmugam’s pursuit of “cheap justice” wherein bypassing the rule of law was apparently justified in an effort to keep costs down. But this was a mistake, one which backfired on probably the world’s most expensive law minister when the judicial void created by the absence of any findings of guilt was filled by damaging accusations made by those deported against the Singapore Police Force’s investigatory processes. This is a story which continues to run, with allegations of abuse in custody now coming to light – an all too common occurence in politically sensitive cases.
Besides the Little India riots, the plight of vulnerable foreign workers in Singapore has been in the spotlight for much of the year. Some particularly egrigous cases of unlawful employment practices had civil society members calling for Tan Chuan-Jin to intervene. Sadly it doesn’t appear that his ministry – MOM – is any closer to being willing or able to enforce the law. Calls for new regulations to make exploitation harder by requiring issuance of physical payslips were also rebuffed.
While those deported foreign workers never got their day in court, one man who did this year was Kenneth Jeyaretnam, whose appeal in the IMF loan case was heard in April, with the decision published in November. Unfortunately Kenneth lost, but what was noteworthy about his case was the fact that the Court of Appeal effectively gave the government a green light to rule unlawfully. Strangely, the court seemed to fundamentally misconstrue the case – arguing that stopping unlawful, unconstitutional government behaviour is “political”. In the process the judges turned established case-law on its head, without giving any meaningful explanation, in a ruling that directly contradicted the guidance of previous cases cited as authoritative.
Another man who it seems didn’t get a day in court this year was PM Lee, despite the Auditor General reporting in July that breaches of law had occurred in his Prime Minister’s Office. It was revealed that the PMO had broken The Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act on more than two dozen occasions in contracts worth almost $300M, and while the PM himself was not directly implicated, it seems that no one was ultimately held responsible for these significant breaches which happened in a department under his oversight. The relevant department within the PMO responsible for these breaches – the National Research Foundation – was at the time being run by current president Tony Tan.
James Raj, who may or may not be responsible for hacking government websites as “The Messiah”, was in court – eventually – but had other issues obstructing his access to justice. Raj was held without charge for eight days, and when finally presented in court was remanded to the Institute of Mental Health for two weeks, but throughout this time was continually denied access to his lawyer. It is hard to imagine how Raj can enjoy a fair hearing when unable to take legal advice for such a long period of time. Furthermore his detention at IMH raised serious concerns, coming as it did at the recommendation of a government lawyer rather than a mental health professional.
On the topic of legal proceedings which silence critics, the year has been bookended by two cases against Alex Au. In the first week of January Au apologised for and took down a blog posting critical of the government over the AIM scandal. And in November Au was in hot water again, with the Attorney General’s Chambers seeking to file suit against him for the archaic crime of scandalising the judiciary. 2013 also saw Leslie Chew detained and investigated for producing allegedly seditious cartoons and film maker Lynn Lee enjoying the interior of a police station for eight hours as officers struggled to dismantle her electronic devices as a response to her publication in January of interviews with SMRT bus drivers which contained allegations of assault in custody.
However, it was not all negative on the legal front this year. January saw amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act come into force that would ultimately spare the life of convicted drug trafficker Yong Vui Kong who had his death penalty commuted to life imprisonment. This was the result of considerable effort on the part of Yong’s lawyer M Ravi, and Singapore’s civil society activists who have been campaigning tirelessly to abolish the death penalty for many years.
Speak up in the comments if you think any important cases are missing, and stay tuned to Andy Wong for part two of my review of 2013 – a year in u-turns – coming soon.