Monday 19 May 2014

K Shanmugam: Doing the right thing

Law Minister K Shanmugam is passionate about serving and protecting society
By Michelle Quah, The Business Times, 17 May 2014

SIX years ago, K Shanmugam - then one of Singapore's top litigators and an intensely private man - consented to giving this paper a rare interview in the weeks before he would be appointed Law Minister; the buzz at that point was much about why he would give up a lucrative and high-profile career to serve in public office. He told The Business Times then that, as much as it would represent a financial sacrifice, he was drawn to the job because it would allow him to serve society - rather than just his clients - in a meaningful way.

Six years on, almost to the day - still intensely private, or as much as his public role would permit him - he has proven that he was not just uttering a mere platitude. Mr Shanmugam, now 55, has made numerous changes - to Singapore's judicial and legal framework - in his efforts to better protect the rights of individuals, especially those who cannot protect themselves, and has shown that the impulse to better society remains one of his guiding principles.

He says: "Law can impact society in many ways. Let me highlight three: The law can provide a powerful tool or framework to help people - it's very powerful and can have a tremendous impact on society. Second, the law is the foundation for a sound criminal justice system. And third, my years in practice had shown me the importance of law in creating a framework to support business and commerce.

"Previously, (when I was in practice,) I would act for one client, who might have tens of millions of dollars, or his liberty, at stake. Today, as minister, I have the opportunity to positively impact on society and make people's lives better."

He explains: "You create the right framework, Singapore becomes the legal business centre for all of Asia - and a lot of people will benefit, not just lawyers, but the entire society benefits. You create the right criminal justice system, it helps a lot of defendants and it helps society as well because it's a fairer system.

"In the past, my job was limited to arguing cases. Now, my mode of thinking, constantly, is: how do I position Singapore internationally, how do I put in laws in this field or help this group of people?"

And that thinking has translated into much action. One of the most notable initiatives recently was the introduction of the Protection from Harassment Act 2014, which beefs up existing penalties and breaks new ground by introducing new offences such as stalking.

He has also done much to better safeguard the interests of women and children, for example, by setting up the Family Justice Committee to change laws, procedures, and reduce the acrimony in family disputes.

But, in perhaps the best indication of just how passionate he is about serving and protecting society, especially its more defenceless elements, he shared - for the first time ever - that he is hoping to pass laws which will impose the severest penalty on those who sexually assault women or harm children and cost them their lives.

"My thinking is that there should be a default death sentence for those who rape or sexually assault women, resulting in the victim's death, and for those who hurt a child and the child ends up dead. The accused in such cases should face the death penalty, unless he can prove why there shouldn't be such a penalty," he says, the conviction clear in his voice.

He says that his view goes further than what has been proposed by a committee - set up by MinLaw - currently reviewing Singapore's law on homicide.

There have also been several moves to improve Singapore's criminal justice system - moves which have gone down well with practitioners.

The Criminal Procedure Code 2010 was tabled in Parliament that year - it contained the Criminal Case Disclosure Procedure that makes for greater transparency in criminal proceedings and greater communication between the various players in the system. Amendments to the Evidence Act were also introduced to ensure all relevant evidence is before the court hearing the matter and that the court's discretion in considering such evidence is enhanced.

"The way criminal trials are conducted has changed," the minister says.

And, the government is now directly supporting the Law Society's Criminal Legal Aid Scheme, with funding, to ensure that quality legal aid is accessible to all.

Says Wendell Wong, a director at Drew & Napier and chairman of the Criminal Law Practice Committee of the Law Society: "The legislative changes and reform have been beneficial to our criminal justice system. (And) the direct support by the government for Criminal Legal Aid provided by the Law Society will strengthen access to criminal legal aid and representation for the needy in our society."

When Mr Shanmugam is asked why he was motivated to bring about so many changes in a relatively small amount of time, he says matter-of-factly: "You're a minister; you're there to get things done. And you do what you need to do."

Among the things that needed to be done was the promotion of Singapore as a legal services hub, to support its aspirations to be the premier international business and commercial centre in Asia and, eventually, the world.

Concerted efforts over the last six years have now made Singapore a world-class international arbitration centre.

"We're now the third-most preferred destination for international arbitration, the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC) is the fourth most preferred seat, and Maxwell Chambers (the world's first integrated dispute resolution complex, based in Singapore) is one of the most sought after," Mr Shanmugam says.

Almost as if to prove his point, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer - a leading international law firm headquartered in London, and the international arbitration market leader in Europe and the Americas - recently relocated its global head of international arbitration, Lucy Reed, to Singapore.

Cavinder Bull, a highly regarded arbitration lawyer with Drew & Napier and the deputy chairman of the SIAC, says the various arbitration practices based in Singapore, both local and international firms, have benefited immensely.

"Those who in tandem with the government's efforts have invested in securing and developing talent in this field have seen their arbitration caseload increase. As the complexity of the work has increased, arbitration practitioners in Singapore have risen to the challenge and this experience is shaping a generation of lawyers with well-honed skills in international arbitration," Mr Bull says.

Mr Shanmugam adds: "This is what I mean by law supporting and creating an excellent business environment and, in its own way, also helping to make Singapore the best centre for law in the entire region - we are now well ahead of Hong Kong."

Given the very international scope of his considerations when it comes to the legal industry, it makes sense that this Law Minister's second portfolio is that of Foreign Affairs Minister - an appointment he describes as "a lot of work, a lot of travel, and requires very active thinking".

The reverse is also true - his legal training has aided him in his diplomatic capacity. This was referred to by Bob Carr, formerly Australia's Minister for Foreign Affairs, in his recent book, Diary of a Foreign Minister. Mr Carr referred to Mr Shanmugam as "a smart lawyer, good brain" and said the latter's legal training allowed him to suss out the intricacies of certain situations straight away.

For his part, Mr Shanmugam shares the key points in diplomacy that Singapore needs to always remember.

"We are small - that will forever carry with it consequences. So, internally, you need to be strong, or you're finished; no one is going to come and save you. Then, in terms of foreign policy, you need to make sure that the platforms - such as, Asean - are there for your regional neighbours to come together on, merge your differences, discuss, so that not every issue turns into a dispute; then, you overlay that with an active international network of friendships and alliances that make sure that your economic space and your political, strategic space is preserved.

"For us, our diplomatic policy has to be an active one. And for a small country, you have to think ahead - if things happen and you're reacting, that's not great. You want to be predicting what is likely to happen next year, the year after. There are very many dynamics not within your control - China's growth, China's interactions with Japan, China's interactions with the US, Japan's interactions with Korea, all of their interactions with South-east Asia - so many dynamic pieces, and they depend on the internal dynamics of these countries as well. And you need to try and judge the rough trajectories, and figure out how we are going to land - because we always want to land on our feet - on all of these things."

Aside from his ministerial duties, Mr Shanmugam is also Member of Parliament for Nee Soon GRC and involved in a number of causes outside the scope of his two portfolios, and even that of his own constituency. Anyone who reads the papers or follows his social media posts would know that Mr Shanmugam champions certain animal rights issues, and has spoken out on matters ranging from Anton Casey to religiosity.

Not everyone appreciates his ubiquity.

"I know, they (the critics) say I'm a busy-body," he quips.

Certainly, many do question why he feels the need to stick his nose into so many things. I ask him why he chooses to speak up on so many causes, when he already has enough on his plate.

"Because it's the right thing to do," he says simply.

"You're in some position of leadership in society. You take a position, you take a stand, and you say it.

"Ministers are not just technocrats; you speak up also to try and say what kind of society is ideal, what is decency, what is the right thing to do."

The sentiment has not gone unappreciated by his constituents - and reportedly even by those who are not his constituents, who come from other wards seeking his help.

One of his constituents, Low Su Hua, chairman of the Wah Sua Keng Temple in Yishun, says that Mr Shanmugam connects well with his base, even though they are predominantly Chinese, "because of his sincerity and actions".

"He goes out of his way to help any resident of any race with difficulties. He once helped an old lady who sold vegetables illegally at a bus stop to obtain a proper stall. Another time, he helped a pregnant lady who could have been jailed for an offence. She was worried that the stress of jail would make her lose her baby. She had already lost one baby. The minister appealed and found legal help and she was eventually fined instead of being jailed. That is why his MPS (Meet the People Session) are always very well attended. People know he never turns anyone with a valid case away and will help all he can," Mr Low says.

I close by asking him if he feels he made the right choice taking this path six years ago, and he says without hesitation: "I have an opportunity to change things, to do something. Compare that with acting on a case - it just doesn't compare. Of course, you make a lot more money (being a lawyer), but that's not it, now, is it?"

No comments:

Post a Comment