The building of a fair, respected and efficient legal system by upholding the rule of law has been a key pillar of Singapore's survival and prosperity, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
And playing a key role in ensuring this - for 150 years - has been the institution of the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC).
Speaking at the AGC's 150th anniversary dinner at Gardens by the Bay yesterday - with judges, ministers and attorneys-general past and present listening - he elaborated on how the rule of law has shaped the country.
Everyone, whether an individual or the Government, is treated equally, he said.
"Individuals can get redress for their grievances, be it against their peers, persons in high positions or the Government," he said. "And wrongdoing is punished firmly and fairly, with mercy and compassion shown in deserving cases."
ON ELECTED PRESIDENCY
In the last 30 years, we have amended the elected president provisions in the Constitution multiple times, to make the system work properly as intended. The recurring theme has been striking the right balance between the Government's need for operational flexibility with the president's duty to exercise effective oversight. Most recently, AGC helped to translate the Constitution Commission's recommendations on the elected presidency into law, in particular, introducing reserved elections to safeguard minority representation in the elected presidency.
PRIME MINISTER LEE HSIEN LOONG
ON PEDRA BRANCA CASE
The litigation over Pedra Branca was unprecedented in its scale and complexity. The disputed facts between the parties spanned 300 years. The AGC officers who worked on the case displayed professionalism and dedication to the highest degree. The outcome in our favour reflected their efforts and capabilities... Malaysia is now taking steps to revise that judgment. They are entitled to try, but it is our Government's duty to defend Singapore's interest in accordance with international law. I am confident of the eventual outcome, because we have a capable and experienced team in AGC and a strong case.
PM LEE, on the AGC's role in protecting Singapore's interests.
It also means upholding individual rights and freedoms while carefully balancing them against society's need to maintain law and order. "This has helped maintain social cohesion among people of diverse races and religions who call Singapore home," he said.
The rule of law also ensures a transparent business environment, where contracts can be enforced and investments are protected.
"Because we emphasised all these aspects of the rule of law, Singapore distinguished itself from other developing countries... Internationally, the rule of law among nations is also a vital national interest of a small state like Singapore," he added. "We say what we mean, and we mean what we say. We honour agreements we enter into, and we expect others to honour agreements they enter with us."
The AGC, together with the judiciary, he explained, is critical to upholding the rule of law.
Delving into the institution's history, he spoke of how the AGC had traditionally been staffed by expatriates, with the AG himself an Irishman. It was only after Singapore achieved self-government in 1959 that the first Singapore AG, Dr Ahmad Ibrahim, was appointed. Since then, AGC has played its role in shaping the nation's journey.
"As public prosecutors, you ensure that everyone is accountable for their actions," said PM Lee. " Because our laws are enforced, Singaporeans and foreigners know that here in Singapore, they are safe and secure."
He said the AGC advises the Government not just on its legal rights and obligations, but also on the limits of its powers. And as the legislative drafter, it advises the Government when the laws need to be updated, or new laws need to be introduced.
This requires close work between the AGC and the ministries. And even creativity when the law is new and has no precedent in other countries.
In such cases, there is a need to recognise that the laws may need to be amended later "as we gain experience with them, to deal with unanticipated issues or react to a changing environment. That is what we have done with the institution of the Elected President".
"In the last 30 years, we have amended the Elected President provisions in the Constitution multiple times, to make the system work properly as intended. The recurring theme has been striking the right balance between the Government's need for operational flexibility with the president's duty to exercise effective oversight."
As Singapore's international lawyer, AGC also protects the country's interests abroad. The best example of this, PM Lee said, was the Pedra Branca dispute with Malaysia.
He pointed out how the AGC worked for many years to prepare for the 2007 case in front of the International Court of Justice, which eventually ruled that Singapore, not Malaysia, has sovereignty of Pedra Branca. " Malaysia is now taking steps to revise that judgment, he said. " They are entitled to try."
"I am confident of the eventual outcome because we have a capable and experienced team in AGC and a strong case," he added.
Attorney-General Lucien Wong also spoke at the event. Going forward, he said the AGC will have to adapt to a changing world by deepening its skills. But officers have to remain guided by its core principles of upholding the rule of law, he added.
In Chambers: 150 Years Of Upholding The Rule Of Law, the first book to fully record the AGC's history, was launched yesterday as part of the anniversary celebrations .
Said its author, Straits Times senior writer Cheong Suk-Wai, who was a construction lawyer from 1994 to 1999: "I have a love for unsung and seldom-sung heroes and, as I discovered in writing this book, the men and women of the AGC are such heroes."