Singapore’s languishing lawyers

Jed Yoong
Asia Sentinel

Few people want to be called to the bar in the Lion City

Although many countries, particularly the United States, might look upon it as a blessing, Singapore is facing a growing shortage of lawyers and is trying to find ways to increase their numbers even as they leave the profession in droves, driven out partly by low pay, long hours and, critics say, a legal straitjacket that prevents them from the effective practice of the law.

On balance, only about 75 additional lawyers have been added to Singapore’s legal system since 1999. According to the Law Society of Singapore, some 3,401 lawyers were practicing in the island republic in 1999. By March 2006, the last year for which the Law Society maintains figures on its website, only 3,476 lawyers were practicing, a 2 percent increase despite an 11 percent rise in population to 4.4 million. Singapore has only one lawyer per 1,136 people. By comparison, the state of California in the United States, with a population of about 38 million – a place many say is over-lawyered – has more than 200,000 lawyers, or 1 per 190 people, according to the state bar association.

“I think the younger generation does not fancy law as a subject anymore,” said one lawyer. “They prefer graphics and computer studies. The legal profession is essentially a service industry. That means you get paid for hard work and most Singaporeans I believe either prefer business or government jobs, not dry boring stressful legal work.”

Exorbitant legal costs also have caused litigants to resort to other means of settling disputes, according to Gopalan Singh, a longtime critic of the system who is now practicing law in California. Legal aid, he says, is only available in criminal cases for social welfare recipients. That has led to convicted offenders who are appearing in High Court appeals without lawyers. “People are resorting to unconventional methods to settle scores, such as paying gangsters to recover debts,” Gopalan says.

Singapore Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong attributes the lack of lawyers to the low salaries and suggests an upward review. Local media reported last year that junior lawyers are paid more than double in Hong Kong, about S$11,650 a month compared to about S$4,000 in Singapore. According to the Singapore Department of Statistics, the average monthly income among employed residents was S$6,830.

A doctorate in law in Singapore takes anywhere from two to five years, according to the National University of Singapore. At an average salary of S$8,775 a month, the legal profession ranks 11th among professions in Singapore, according to the Ministry of Manpower, well behind such occupations as financial futures dealer, at S$13,449 a month (although far above journalists, a profession relatively despised by the Singapore government, and ranked 104th at S$3,711 per month).

“Pay them well,” Chan said. “Greed works most of the time, even for the large majority of people in affluent societies.”

But there are other reasons as well, says a Kuala Lumpur-based lawyer. “Many of my lawyer friends there who have been in practice for yonks (a long time) have very little work. Corporate work goes mainly to the big connected firms, like those connected to the (family of Singapore patriarch Lee Kuan Yew) or the bigger names with lots of influence. The medium and smaller firms chase after the scraps.”

In addition, he says, Singapore’s judicial system is so efficient that everything is done by email. “That means documents and filing papers are done at lightning speed. So when you strike an action you file in your basic documents along with every other legal form from A to Z in one go. Within two days you may get a trial date. All this speed means fantastic stress for lawyers. Justice rushed is justice denied.”

While these are certainly reasons for a languishing legal profession, the courts are probably at least a partial cause of the hemorrhage, while lawyers say the emasculation of the Law Society of Singapore in the mid 1980s has contributed. Francis Seow, who became a vocal critic of Lee Kuan Yew, was ultimately elected president of the law society in 1986 and ran for public office only to be arrested and accused, among other things, of taking money from American political interests. He fled the country but was later convicted in absentia of tax evasion. It is not advisable, lawyers say, to practice any kind of law that brings lawyers into conflict with the government. To date, no major judgment has ever gone against them. To be sued in Singapore is as good as being convicted.

The Singapore government is attempting to address the issue with moves like setting up a new law school within the Singapore Management University, increasing the intake for the National University of Singapore (NUS) law faculty and allowing foreign firms and lawyers to practice in the country. Courses include business and corporate law, intellectual property law, financial law and regulation and a variety of others including a course in ethics and social responsibility. The first students were accepted last August.

Local media reported earlier this month that Law Minister S Jayakumar is confident that the measures would “ease the supply crunch. ” He announced that he expects “an almost 70 percent increase in the number of law graduates in two to three years’ time.” He emphasized that “while we may need more lawyers, I would like to stress that it cannot be at the expense of quality.”

The question of quality is one that Gopalan Singh snorts at. “The law is being routinely and blatantly abused for political purposes,” he wrote in his blog, Singapore, he says, “has turned into a lawless country, a country run according to the pleasure of Lee Kuan Yew; not according to law. A legal system where if you knew the identities of the litigants, you can predict the outcome of the trial with absolute accuracy. That is if Lee Kuan Yew or his family were parties to an action, the outcome of the litigation is known even before you step into court! Lee wins. Hapless opponent loses.”…

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