Letters written by Members of Parliament on behalf of residents are commonplace enough for them to remain under the radar. The Attorney-General's Chambers alone got about 400 such letters last year, and many more would have been sent to various other agencies at the request of residents facing problems. It is natural for people to seek the intercession of an MP for a variety of reasons. Those in a financial squeeze would want some community help. Others affected by rules might be unable to present their cases well due to their educational level, age or disability. Some faced with complex issues or difficult personal circumstances might be at a loss when dealing with officialdom or large organisations.
As the representatives of voters, MPs have traditionally offered social assistance directly to people at Meet-the-People Sessions in their constituencies. This practice has value in offering face-to-face interaction, a listening ear and a degree of support when citizens are perplexed at dealing with a web of schemes, the application of general rules to individual cases, and the vast infrastructure of government. Such human touchpoints offer some recourse to ordinary people.
Of course, there is potential for abuse and misrepresentation if there are no guidelines to ensure that undue influence is not exerted, and official processes are not interfered with in an improper manner, among others. An MP's letter that relates to ongoing official investigations or the administration of justice, in particular, could attract adverse comment. Though rare, one instance of this was when a judge found it "somewhat troubling" that a People's Action Party MP's letter to the court included information supplied by a resident that inaccurately downplayed the accused's culpability. The PAP has since affirmed a retired judge's comment that this was not allowed by the party in founding premier Lee Kuan Yew's time. The rule still stands, it said.
Clearly, it is unwise for any MP to write to a judge on a matter before the courts. The independence of judges must be safeguarded to maintain public confidence in the judicial system. The separation of the powers of key institutions, like the judiciary, executive and Parliament, is implicit in the Constitution and has been underscored by the courts. However, as in Britain, there is no complete separation. Under the party system here, the executive and legislature are joined to the extent that the upper echelons of the Government and the leadership of the ruling party are one and the same.
All the more, it is vital that the protocol for MPs' letters, laid down by political parties, makes explicit the boundaries of action, especially when it relates to matters before the courts and investigative agencies. The rule of law requires all cases to be treated without fear or favour.