Got rule of law?

Singapore Democrats


“You measure us by every single yardstick of governance and you’ll find…rule of law, transparency, integrity of the system, efficiency of the civil service, confidence domestically and internationally”

Lee Kuan Yew, Minister Mentor, 2007

“I believe that Singaporeans understand and support the fundamentals that have made Singapore what it is today. What are these fundamentals? The first fundamental is the rule of law.”

Wong Kan Seng, Minister for Home Affairs, 2008

“The mission of the courts requires that its authority be respected by all. This is so fundamental and critical to the rule of law…”

– Chan Sek Keong, Chief Justice, 2009

“The essence of the rule of law is that the law applies to all.”

Walter Woon, Attorney General, 2009

“One of the fundamentals of Singapore’s success is our firm commitment to the rule of law.”

Chao Hick Tin, 2007, then AG, now Court of Appeal Judge

And so it is written that Singapore has it. What it is our leaders haven’t quite said, but they insist that we have it. We’re, of course, talking about the rule of law.

What is it?

Before we get into arguing whether we have it or not, shouldn’t we at least have an idea what exactly constitutes the rule of law?

In 1959 a group of 185 judges, practising lawyers and teachers of law from 53 countries, assembled in New Delhi, India to study this subject. The meeting, conducted by the International Commission of Jurists, was a culmination of two years of preparatory work which included an examination of the views of legal professionals and institutions all over the world. The participants came to a consensus that the rule of law needed to include the following:

One, that the individual is possessed of certain rights and freedoms and that he is entitled to protection of these rights and freedoms by the State;

Two, that there is an absolute need for an independent judiciary and bar as well as for effective machinery for the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms;

Three, that the establishment of social, economic and cultural conditions would permit men to live in dignity and to fulfil their legitimate aspirations.

For a comprehensive account of the meeting and the proceedings, click here.

Since then few serious students of law have disputed this concept of the rule of law. Against this backdrop let us examine where Singapore stands.

First, how does the state protect the rights and freedoms that Singaporeans possess? Let us count the ways.

When the SDP produced a video in 1996 to explain the party’s alternative policies, the Government amended the Films Act to outlaw political videos.

Then when J B Jeyaretnam and Dr Chee Soon Juan obtained overseas funding for the Open Singapore Centre, the Government introduced the Political Donations Act.

After Mr Gandhi Ambalam and Dr Chee were arrested outside the Istana in 2002 for attempting to conduct a rally, legislation was passed to make illegal the assembly of two or more persons there.

After we posted podcasts on this website in 2006, the Government amended the Broadcasting Act to ban them.

But the mother of all anti-rule-of-law laws must surely be the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance)(Processions and Assemblies) Rules which stipulates that any group of 5 or more persons gathered in public shall require a permit (which Minister for Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng says he will not grant) to:
a. demonstrate support for or opposition to the views or actions of any person;
b. publicise a cause or campaign; or
c. mark or commemorate any event

Activists who have been charged repeatedly for having broken laws that forbid Singaporeans to speak and assemble in public have continually asked, and will persist in asking, our Judiciary to rule that these laws and decisions by the Executive are ultra-vires (beyond the powers of) the Constitution. So far we have not been successful.

No serious-minded legal professional would dare to venture that the introduction/amendment of laws to curtail fundamental freedoms is consistent with the principles of the rule of law.

A lie by any other name…

Which brings us to the next question. Why is the Singaporean establishment so intent, anxious even, to insist that it practices the rule of law? Why can’t it say, as it is wont to do, that we are an Asian society and we have our own definition of the rule of law?

By repeatedly declaring that it abides by the rule of law when it clearly doesn’t, the Government shows a certain weakness of mind and courage. Why won’t it say: “Never mind what the world thinks, we don’t need the rule of law in Singapore”?

On the contrary, this Government makes great effort to hide behind the cloak of the rule of law.

The truth of the matter, if it is not already apparent, is that the rule of law is the accepted principle in the working world. Without it territorial disputes cannot be resolved with civility and the atrocities of World Wars cannot be prevented. Most of all, trade and commerce cannot flourish.

It is this last point that the Singapore Government is most concerned about. It needs to prop up the facade that it practices the rule of law because without it, Singapore cannot be the hub of anything, much less the centre of commerce in Asia.

Hong Kong’s appetite for the rule of law was seriously questioned when the Chinese government took back the territory in 1997. Businesses and Hong Kongers were understandably nervous. Beijing quickly assured the world that it would not interfere in Hong Kong’s affairs and that the adherence to the rule of law would be respected. As a result Hong Kong found its feet again.

For similar reasons, the Singapore Government needs to continually assure the business community that it practices the rule of law. So far it has worked. Businesses are either buying the rhetoric or they are willing to turn a blind eye because the lure of low or zero taxes and the ability of the Government to suppress workers’ rights are proving irresistible.

The truth is that we need foreign money and if telling the world that we have the rule of law is what it takes to attract this money, then this Government will spare no effort to propagate this untruth.

But history has shown repeatedly that lies do not live forever. When the time comes Singapore will genuinely come under the rule of law. Until then the PAP Government will continue to play make-believe and the SDP will continue to expose it.


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