Thursday 16 February 2012

'All are equal' before the law - Minister for Law K Shanmugam

By Selina Lum, The Straits Times, 15 Feb 2012

ACTION will be taken against anyone who breaks the law here, whether that person is a Cabinet minister, a senior civil servant, a public official of lower rank or someone in the private sector, said Law and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam.

He was speaking at the Rule of Law Symposium yesterday at the Supreme Court auditorium. In his keynote speech, he touched on corruption, saying that even with the strictest laws, there will be individuals who fall short from time to time.

When this happens, it is a test of the system to see whether it is able to respond swiftly and decisively. 'This is the case in Singapore,' he said, without referring to any specific case.

The way to minimise corruption is through the careful selection of people, but that, and everything else, will not eliminate wrongdoing, he added.

'There will be people who will do wrong. This happens in every system, every society.'

Mr Shanmugam said that what is needed is to follow up with effective and strict - and in the case of public servants, harsh - enforcement.

'That way, everyone knows that the likelihood is very high of being caught and dealt with.'

A system of offenders being dealt with severely and a culture of intolerance against corruption will result in a relatively clean system, he said. The minister then quoted 17th century British historian Thomas Fuller, who said: 'Be you ever so high, the law is still above you.'

Mr Shanmugam's speech also traced the historical context of the rule of law as a founding principle of Singapore and how it operates here.

He said there was very little use in having legislation embodying the highest ideals, only to do something else in practice.

'So it is a question of how the laws and the Constitution apply in practice,' he added.

The rule of law ultimately has to operate to deliver good governance, he said.

'That has to be fundamental. So we look at the rule of law not only as the foundation of the state, but also a dynamic concept of framework and architecture that will actively provide for the progress of society - if it is properly adapted and used.'

Among the examples he cited was that of land acquisition by the Singapore Government, which is viewed in some parts of the world as an undesirable power for governments to have.

But he pointed out that when the Government started acquiring land in the 1960s, it was not for its own private gain, but to ensure there would be substantial home ownership here. The result is that home ownership here has crossed the 90 per cent mark.

Mr Shanmugam also touched on Singapore's 'tough' approach to crime, adding that the Republic made no apologies for this.

'The result is an entire city-state of primarily law-abiding people; a safe city; children can take public transport on their own; women can travel alone anywhere, any time,' he added. 'That is a very important right and privilege that Singapore has had, compared to most places in the world.'

The two-day symposium is organised by the Singapore Academy of Law, and the law schools of the National University of Singapore and Singapore Management University.

K Shanmugam attends law symposium
By Sharon See, Channel NewsAsia, 14 Feb 2012 

Minister for Law K Shanmugam said while Singapore is committed to the Rule of Law, the application of it must be adapted to each society.

Mr Shanmugam was speaking at a two-day symposium attended by various legal experts and scholars.

Mr Shanmugam said the Rule of Law must be implemented in a way which recognises each society's particular needs and practical realities.

He pointed out that commentaries of Singapore often take the US Constitution as the golden standard without any qualification or adaptation for a different society.

"Frequently, commentaries of Singapore and other countries take the American Constitution and apply it," Mr Shanmugam said. 

"That is the golden standard, and we have to be judged with reference to that golden standard, without any qualification or variation or adaptation for a different society." 

On the Internal Security Act (ISA), Mr Shanmugam said while it is an exception to due process, which is the presumption of innocence, there is a good reason for it.

The ISA allows for preventive detention, without trial, on grounds of national security.

Mr Shanmugam acknowledged there is a potential risk of abuse, but the Act has safeguards built in to minimise this.

Mr Shanmugam noted other nations approach the issue differently.

For example, he said the war on terror was approached as an armed conflict, and not a law and order issue like in Singapore.

Terrorists, he said, are treated as enemy combatants.

Ultimately, he said each jurisdiction needs to find its own balance between preventing threats and risking abuse.

On checks and balances, Mr Shanmugam said Singapore adopts a different system that has fewer checks and balances than the US.

He said in the US, there are various structures set up to check one another because of a deep distrust in the power of government. 

This means things are not always able to move quickly as it takes time to get consensus.

Mr Shanmugam said Singapore's decision making process is more streamlined, and the ultimate check and balance includes free and fair elections as well as a highly educated electorate which is able to decide for itself on the policies.

But Mr Shanmugam noted even with the strictest laws, there will still be individuals who fall short from time to time.

So, what Singapore needs is to follow up with effective and strict enforcement, and even harsh enforcement when it comes to public servants.

When offenders are caught and dealt with severely, Mr Shanmugam said this builds a culture of intolerance towards corruption, resulting in a relatively clean system.

He said: "If you break the law, action will be taken against you. No matter that you are a Cabinet Minister, a senior civil servant, or a public official of a lower rank, or someone in the private sector. 

"And the way we try to minimise the reaches of corruption is to have careful selection of people. But that and everything else we have will not eliminate wrongdoing because no system can guarantee saints." 

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