SDP to Law Society: Speak up on rights of Singaporeans

4 September 2006

Mr Philip Jeyaretnam, SC
Law Society

Dear Sir,

Your President’s Message published in the August issue of the Law Gazette is entirely noteworthy, unfortunately for the wrong reasons.

You may know that the Singapore Government has banned protests at the upcoming WB-IMF Meeting. The police have also denied my fellow activists and I a permit to have a rally and march during the Meeting.

Questions regarding the Government’s trampling of our Constitutional assurances of freedoms of speech and assembly necessarily arise. There could hardly be a matter of greater gravitas for an organisation such as the Law Society.

And yet, amazingly, half of your Message recounts the excitement of the World Cup and the dream of Singapore playing in the finals. Even when you delve into the realm of the legal profession in the latter half of your presentation, you emphasize on the facilitation of the “expansion of trade and investment”. Likewise, your September Message completely ignores the matter.

There is nary a word on the protection of Singaporean lawyers and citizens against the PAP whose political instinct, as even its leaders admit, is to move away from democracy.

A cursory glance at the roles of bar associations and law societies of other jurisdictions clearly shows that your counterparts are deeply active in protecting and promoting the rights of their peoples. Yet, you have somehow succeeded in relegating the noble profession of lawyers to one servicing business clients and promoting trade.

Of course, you might argue that those countries are those countries and Singapore is Singapore. But that, might I add, is the PAP’s line, not the Law Society’s. Or have I been too presumptuous?

You then incomprehensibly start to extol the virtue of the rule of law. At the risk of sounding patronizing, I need to point out that there is a difference between the rule “by” law and the rule “of” law.

Rule “by” law is a system where the law is manipulated by the government for its own interests and where the ruling party remains above the law. In contrast, the rule “of” law abides by the principle that no one is above the law, not even the government. The rule “of” law is a regulator of government power, it ensures equality before law, and sees to it that the law is administered autonomously.

Do you still think that the rule “of” law prevails in our country?

You seem to have indirectly answered the question when you concluded that it was a “journalistic coup” to have secured an interview with Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

There is no greater dishonour you can heap on your compatriots who have gone before you, lawyers who understood the real meaning of the rule of law and who valiantly fought the Minister Mentor for it. I am thinking of lawyers such as Messrs Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, Francis Seow, Tang Liang Hong, and Tan Wah Piow, just to name a few.

Returning to the WB-IMF Meeting, it would be extremely helpful to the rule of law in Singapore if the Law Society could reiterate that the rights enshrined in our Constitution is the lifeline of citizens to a more tolerable future, not the playthings of the PAP.

As I have pointed out before, your organization must raise its proverbial ostrich head once in a while and weigh in on matters concerning our nation and its future. With leadership comes responsibility. The Law Society has amply demonstrated that it possesses the former in abundance. The time has come for it to assume some of the latter.

I, as I’m sure many Singaporeans, await your reply. I am availing this letter to the public for obvious reasons.



Starry Skies Over Berlin (and Singapore)

Law Society President’s Message for August 2006

June and the first week of July were given over to watching World Cup matches, discussing the performances of individual players, observing the patriotic fervour of the 32 different nations and substituting our own judgment – honed with the benefit of half a dozen replays from all sorts of angles – for that of the men-in-black, who get one chance to see the action, from one angle, usually not the best one. I was most impressed by Benito Archundia, the Mexican referee who took charge of the Germany-Italy semi-final. He happens to be a lawyer by profession, and I was convinced that this helped to make him a great arbiter of the fair and foul.

After the excitement of the World Cup come the fireworks of National Day. It is great to dream, and, having watched the football teams of nations not much more populous than our own give a good account of themselves (Trinidad and Tobago (1m), Costa Rica (4m), Togo (5m)), perhaps Goal 2010 could be reinvigorated. Why shouldn’t Singapore take its place as a World Cup finalist one day? It is not just about achieving a certain level of sporting performance: it is also about offering the world a story that is not just an economic one. This World Cup saw more nations with players imported for the purpose – for example, Tunisia and Japan both had a Brazilian named Santos in their teams – and this has seemed the obvious shortcut to glory for us. But the squads for both Japan and Tunisia were otherwise homegrown. A national team filled with imports would no longer tell the story of the nation.  Imports are different from natural migrants – people whose families come to that country for reasons other than to play football for the national team – and France would not be the truly great team it is without its African and Caribbean strands. Making up a predominantly homegrown team to play at that level remains a big challenge for us – we first need to achieve the prospect of decent sporting careers for our kids (a problem that has its parallel in the arts).

So in all probability we can expect to re-focus on the hum and the drum, business rather than sport: semiconductors, biotechnology, transport and communications.

Somewhere in the middle, a mix of art and science, creativity and rote application, stand lawyers. The role of the legal profession in facilitating the expansion of trade and investment is clear and compelling. It has been recognised (some might say belatedly) that a services hub like Singapore needs more lawyers. The foundational value of the rule of law is beyond debate, and lawyers must nurture, protect and uphold the rule of law. The profession debated its future in the landmark conference held in February this year. Conclusions from the conference included:

·         how the market requires diverse structures and sizes of law practices, and the future is not just with the big;

·         how the profession must respond to new demands for legal services, locally and regionally;

·         how the profession must take greater responsibility in ensuring access to justice; and

·         how the profession needs to strengthen its own governance and regulation in order to maintain public trust.

Continuing the theme of the future of the profession, the editorial team of this great journal, and our intrepid reporter, Rajan Chettiar in particular, conceived the idea of seeking the insights of the man who could well be Singapore’s most famous lawyer, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. It was something of a journalistic coup to secure this opportunity to hear his views on the profession. What better vantage point from which to survey what lies ahead? I am sure you will not be disappointed when you read the interview.

Philip Jeyaretnam, SC

The Law Society of Singapore

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