The rule of law and Singapore

April 25, 2010
Singapore Democrats

This post is at least a year old. Some of the links in this post may no longer work correctly.

Priveen Suraj

Aristotle in
Politics said, “Where laws do not rule there is no constitution.” The rule of law can be regarded as the supremacy of law over men. The term “Rule of Law” is derived from the French phrase ‘la principe de legalite’ which means the “principal of legality”.

It refers to “a government based on principles of law and not of men” and thus is opposed to arbitrary powers. Aristotle also endorsed the concept of Rule of Law by writing that “law should govern and those in power should be servants of the laws.”

In reality, this can be of an alien concept to many for a government has been regarded by the citizen as the ultimate authority of law. By way of an example, many Singaporeans erroneously believe that the government is the law and any act done contrary to its interest would inevitably be flouting the law.

In a monarchy, the concept of law developed to control the exercise of arbitrary powers of the monarchs, like in the United Kingdom. However in democracies, the concept has assumed a different dimension in that the holders of public powers must be able to publicly justify that the exercise of their powers is legally valid and socially just.

A fundamental nature to the concept of the Rule of law is that laws ought to be clear and known to those under the law. There are a few aspects, or limbs, of the Rule of Law.

The first limb of the Rule of law is abhorrence of arbitrary power. Laws govern everyone in society including government officials, law enforcement officers and even the courts. In the case of Singapore it seems that laws made and unmade by one man.

When the Government was introducing the elected presidency bill in the late 1980s, it said that bill was in fact clipping its own wings. Once the Constitutional amendment was in place, the Government would have some of its powers checked.

This seemed rather noble. However, in a dispute with elected president Ong Teng Cheong, Mr Lee rubbished the notion, saying:

“No, if you’ve to clip your wings, then you are in trouble, you cannot govern…I cannot remember what he [Goh Chok Tong] said but I would not have used that phrase because the executive powers of the Government should not be clipped.”


Equality before the law is the second limb of Rule of law. The actions of government and public officials are subject to law and be accountable before the courts as are the actions of ordinary citizens.

In Singapore, however, this isn’t always the case. PAP ministers were seen entering polling stations during the voting day in the 1997 elections when they were not authorised to do so. But the Attorney General Chan Sek Keong, who is now the Chief Justice, said that the ministers had not committed any offence.

It is essential to note that the rule of law is not aimed in making those who are unequal equal but to merely reduce the equality among those who are equal and to treat them equally. An Indian writer pointed out that: “Equality as a foundation of democracy does not envisage equality between unequal; it contemplates equality between those who are similarly circumstanced.”

The third limb of the Rule of Law states that the rights of the ordinary citizen must be protected. This is the role of the courts for without the authority to protect, rights conferred on citizens amount to nothing.

In Singapore, as in many oppressive states, laws are used as tools of oppression. The Internal Security Act, for example, violates the fundamental human rights of Singaporeans. The law has long been used against the Government’s opponents and critics. The courts are bound by the Act and powerless to rule against it.

Lord Diplock once said, “Absence of clarity is destructive of the rule of law, it is unfair to those who wish to preserve the rule of law; it encourages those who wish to undermine it.” Thus it is essential that laws are clear. Ambiguous laws contravenes the Rule of law.

The Singapore government has always resisted public debates on concepts such as human rights, democracy and the Rule of law. This is a shame because a modern society and a economy depends very much on the Rule of Law.

Priveen Suraj is President of the Young Democrats.