How the Law Society was, and remains, castrated

Gandhi Ambalam
Gandhi Ambalam

The Law Society of Singapore is impotent and largely irrelevant to society. It was not always like that.

Younger Singaporeans may not know about or remember the events surrounding the castration of the organisation in 1987. In view of the fact that lawyers and bar associations around the world, in particular, Malaysia and Pakistan are vigorously resisting authoritarian tendencies, it is timely to remind Singaporeans of how our country’s Law Society has failed us.

Established in 1967 the organization, according to its mission statement, is dedicated to serving its members and the community, sustaining a competent and independent Bar, upholding the rule of law and ensuring access to justice for all. Lofty ideals undoubtedly.

In 1986 Mr Francis Seow, urged on by his compatriots, decided to run for the presidency and was duly elected. Speaking at the opening of the legal year in Jan 1987, Mr Seow served notice of a sea change instead of the usual “exchange of congratulatory messages and pious platitudes between bench and bar”.

He demanded for his members more respect from the bench, which, together with the attorney-general and his chambers, had been treating lawyers in shoddy fashion.

Mr Seow, himself a former solicitor general, had “plans for a more assertive and caring bar, that the Law Society should be consulted on the selection and appointments, promotions, and transfers of subordinate judicial and legal officers by the Legal Service Commission.”

Mr Seow also wanted the Society to be more vocal in lawmaking. In early 1986, Mr Lee Kuan Yew wanted to introduce Newspaper and Printing Presses (Amendment) Bill, which would enable the Government to restrict the circulation of foreign publications that are “deemed” to have interfered in the domestic politics of Singapore.

The Law Society appointed a committee, chaired by Ms Teo Soh Lung, to look into the Bill. A report critical of the Government’s intentions was later released.

Then Prime Minister Lee could take it no longer. He had Ms Teo and a few other members of the Law Society detained under the Internal Security Act. Together with other church workers and social activists the Government spun a tale about the conspiracy of a Marxist plot out to wreak havoc in the country, and had the whole lot arrested.

To ensure that lawyers could not repeat their acts of disobedience, Mr Lee introduced amendments to the Legal Profession Act that barred the Law Society from commenting on existing or proposed legislation, unless its views were specifically sought by government.

In addition amendments ensured that “errant lawyers would be disqualified being elected as officers of the Society. Mr Seow noted in his book To Catch a Tartar that “It was apparent to the most obtuse observer that the main thrust of the amendments was directed towards my ouster as president of the Law Society and to still the voices of dissent.”

Sufficiently antagonized the Law Society called for an EGM and almost unanimously voted to deplore Mr Lee’s amendment to the Legal Profession Act.

Undeterred, the prime minister summoned a parliamentary select committee hearing to “solicit” feedback on the proposed legislation. He used the televised forum to try to discredit Mr Seow and his colleagues.

It backfired. By all accounts, Mr Lee came across as petty and vindictive out for his pound of flesh against lawyers who were opposed to his machinations. Mr Lee like with everything else pushed through the amendment.

As a result, Mr Seow was removed as president of the Law Society and his allies were arrested. From then on the association, having been cleansed of “trouble makers”, became yet another PAP-sanctioned body.

For years the Society remained a nonentity, preferring to bury its head in the sand. Successive presidents honed their skills at organising annual Dinner & Dances and road runs, but took pains to avoid anything remotely important to society.

There was some glimmer of hope in 2004, however, when Mr Philip Jeyaretnam, son of opposition warhorse Mr J B Jeyaretnam, was elected president of the Society. But all hopes for a more caring and conscientious bar were dashed as Mr Jeyaretnam turned out to be no different from his predecessors. Disappointingly under his presidency the Society was determined to remain as one of the many good boys of the PAP.

Jeyaretnam Jr is succeeded by Senior Counsel Mr Michael Hwang. Can we expect anything different from this president? Not unless you live in Disneyland.

Unlike its counterpart in Malaysia where the Bar has been courageously championing the cause of democracy and the independence of the judiciary, the Law Society of Singapore is resigned to being a decorative vase to further adorn the rule of law display window of Singapore.

The Law Society and the Malaysian Bar Council meet annually for the Bench and Bar Games, an occasion for both organizations to come together and get to know each other better.

I wonder what they talk about.

Mr Ambalam is Chairman of the Singapore Democrats. He is a former journalist.