Commitment of Government critical for rule of law, good governance: Chief Justice

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon at the second Constitutional Commission hearing on the elected presidency.
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon at the second Constitutional Commission hearing on the elected presidency.ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

Detention case highlights Govt's compliance with law pronounced by judiciary

A few weeks after the Court of Appeal freed alleged match-fixing kingpin Dan Tan from detention without trial, the Ministry of Home Affairs reviewed its legal position and released three others who had been similarly detained.

Citing the case in a speech he gave recently in the United States, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said the apex court released Tan on the ruling that detention is permitted only if the detainee's activities caused harm in Singapore. But the grounds for Tan's detention failed to show how his activities did this.

Tan was later re-arrested and detained on fresh grounds that set out the relevant threat in Singapore.

Noting that the Home Affairs Minister then reviewed the detention of three other detainees and revoked it in the light of the court's ruling, CJ Menon said it is critical to have the commitment of the Government in complying with the law pronounced by the judiciary, to have rule of law and good governance.

In his address to the American Law Institute in Washington, DC last week , he focused on the instrumental role played by the courts in upholding the rule of law. CJ Menon is the only Singaporean to be elected a member of the institute, an independent organisation established in 1923 that produces scholarly work to clarify, modernise and improve the law.

In his speech, The Rule Of Law: The Path To Exceptionalism, he said that despite the vast differences in the legal systems, history and culture of the US and Singapore, both nations share a commitment to the rule of law, although the application could differ in practice.

DIFFERENT ENVIRONMENTS

If the American republic was born out of pursuit of high ideals, Singapore was the progeny of an austere and existentialist necessity.

CHIEF JUSTICE SUNDARESH MENON

LAST LINE OF DEFENCE

Judicial review is the sharp edge that keeps government action within the form and substance of the law.

CJ MENON

After taking a broad look at how conceptions of an independent judiciary upholding the rule of law had evolved in the US, CJ Menon turned to the Singapore story.

"If the American republic was born out of a pursuit of high ideals, Singapore was the progeny of an austere and existentialist necessity."

Singapore's founding fathers, he said, understood the need for a clean, efficient and independent judiciary in an environment that sought to attract investment from abroad to drive economic growth.

He noted that Ms Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund had cited Singapore as an example to emulate for its honest and competent public institutions.

CJ Menon said Singapore's fidelity to the rule of law has "coexisted comfortably" with an emphasis on communitarian - involving dialogue, tolerance, compromise and placing the community before self - over individualist values.

In a case in which the Court of Appeal was asked to review a decision by the Commissioner of Labour involving a controversial doctrine, the court made no decision on the doctrine but provided guidance to the Government on the issues to look out for in future cases.

"What underlies this approach is the belief that a court which is respected by the other branches of government can effectively shape the debate and ensure the legality of government actions by setting out its concerns openly and potentially obviating a binary clash between the judiciary and the executive," said CJ Menon.

"Having said that, confrontation may be inevitable and then, the judiciary must stand firm as the last line of defence," he went on to add. "Judicial review is the sharp edge that keeps government action within the form and substance of the law."

The CJ said: "In the final analysis, the robustness of a nation's rule of law framework depends greatly on how the other branches view the judiciary and whether it, in turn, is able and willing to act honestly, competently and independently."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2016, with the headline 'Commitment of Govt critical for rule of law, good governance: CJ'. Print Edition | Subscribe