An open letter to Singaporean lawyers

October 11, 2007
Singapore Democrats

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Singapore Democrats

Dear Singaporean lawyers,

A lawyer is, by definition, someone who is learned in the law and sanctioned to practice it. Law is a system of rules agreed upon by society so that justice can he administered.

In other words, lawyers are servants of justice; sworn to uphold the rule of law. Indeed, the Law Society, an organisation to which all of you belong, swears

“To serve our members and the community
By sustaining a competent and independent Bar
Which upholds the rule of law and ensures access to justice”

Noble words. But nonetheless just words. Let me explain. The rule of law is a concept based on the following three principles:

1. The legal order regulates the power of the government;
2. It ensures equality before the law; and
3. There must be formal and substantive justice.

Of these, only the first two are directly relevant to this letter. On the first principle, it would be stretching the truth quite a bit to say that the PAP Government is subjected to and regulated by the legal order.

Where laws curtail or threaten its power, the ruling party simply changes them. The Parliamentary Elections Act, Public Entertainment and Meetings Act, Legal Profession Act, Internal Security Act, Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, Films Act, Broadcasting Act, and Political Donations Act are just a few statutes that have been introduced or amended to ensure that the PAP’s political control remains total.

Even the Constitution is amended willy-nilly whenever it gets in the way. As a result, society has been effectively silenced. The PAP is law unto itself.

As for the second principle of equality before the law, recent events make it unmistakable that no such thing exists in Singapore.

A couple of days ago, four of my colleagues and I were arrested for protesting outside the Istana. But in Mar 07, a large group from PAP MPs and supporters assembled unmolested by the police near Parliament House in a ‘demonstration’ for consumer rights.

And while the Law Society was allowed to organise its annual run, a similar activity organised by the Open Singapore Centre calling for the abolition of the Internal Security Act was banned.

In 2005, a group of PAP women MPs were allowed to conduct
Malaysian lawyers staging a protest to call for reform of the judicial systema march in support of International Women’s Day. But a group of gays were denied the right to jog along the Singapore River.

But why am I writing to you, lawyers of Singapore? Let me answer this by citing a couple of recent occurrences. A few months ago, lawyers in Pakistan protested vigorously against General Pervez Musharraf when he tried to replace the Chief Justice who had stood up to the president’s undemocratic rule.

More recently and closer to home, Malaysian lawyers were vehement in their criticism of their government’s handling of judicial appointments and conducted a protest march to demonstrate their anger. Interestingly, there is also a law in Malaysia that forbids gatherings of five or more persons in public.

The point that needs to be registered is that lawyers in civilized societies are often the vanguard of ensuring that the rule of law is not trampled upon by the Executive.

This necessarily includes fighting to protect the civil and political rights of the community. Indeed bar associations around the world have human rights components that make representations to their governments to protect civil liberties of the people.

In Singapore, however, the Government tells the Law Society that it cannot comment on proposed legislation unless invited. Such is the scale of the tragedy. Should lawyers in Singapore continue to be so emasculated and shorn of dignity?

Despite the overpowering dominance of the Government, lawyers in Singapore are not totally powerless. There is something you can do. If you don’t already know, the International Bar Association is devoting an entire day during its annual conference in Singapore on the rule of law. The host committee is your Law Society.

Called the Rule of Law Symposium, the event will take place next Friday, 19 Oct 07 at the Suntec City. The one-day symposium will feature various speakers as well as breakout sessions during which measures will be discussed to see how the rule of law in Singapore can be strengthened.

This is an opportunity for you to bring your knowledge and expertise to bear on the direful situation that we have in Singapore. It is an opportunity to be true to yourselves and your profession.

Society has accorded you the rare privilege of being trained to defend justice. Now is the time to put it into practice. The community needs you.

Yours sincerely,

Chee Soon Juan
Secretary-General
Singapore Democratic Party