V. K. Rajah: The 'reluctant' A-G and his ethos of fairness

Mr V. K. Rajah, who retired as Attorney-General last Saturday, hailed the work of AGC staff who work long hours in the belief of "serving a wider cause". An AGC initiative for lawyers to work with abused foreign workers was also introduced under his
Mr V. K. Rajah, who retired as Attorney-General last Saturday, hailed the work of AGC staff who work long hours in the belief of "serving a wider cause". An AGC initiative for lawyers to work with abused foreign workers was also introduced under his watch.ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

Retired Attorney-General reviewed AGC sentencing positions to avoid 'disproportionate' punishments

Before he became the Attorney-General in 2014, Mr V. K. Rajah twice declined the offer in 2007 and 2013.

"I was a reluctant A-G, but once I decided to be A-G, I put my heart and soul into it," he said in an interview with The Straits Times at his office last Friday. "I put in 110 per cent, and as long as I held office, I wanted to discharge my responsibilities to the best of my ability."

In a wide-ranging interview, Mr Rajah, who left the post last Saturday, said one of the changes he implemented soon after taking the job was a reporting mechanism to review the prosecution's sentencing positions. If the position was excessive or disproportionate, the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) would inform the defence counsel to go ahead and appeal, and prosecution would not object.

Mr Rajah, 60, said prior to this, prosecutors reported to the senior leadership matters that might attract media or public attention.

"I was more interested in (other) matters and our sentencing position that would affect the larger swathe of the population, from shoplifting to property, offences of any sort... and I wanted us to review our sentencing position on every possible area of criminal activity," he said.

  • V. K. Rajah on two cases of significance

  • WHY AGC DID NOT PUSH FOR A HEAVIER SENTENCE FOR DAD WHO KILLED SON

    Banker Philippe Marcel Guy Graffart, then 42, had killed his five-year-old son last year amid a bitter custody battle.

    The charge was reduced from murder to culpable homicide as the Belgian national was assessed to be suffering from a major depressive disorder.

    His estranged French wife had engaged lawyers to press for a higher sentence.

    The Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC), said Mr Rajah, would use the full force of law to prosecute cases that were cold-blooded and premeditated.

    "Where homicide takes place as a result of mental issues, it's unpremeditated, where there is a momentary loss of control, we appraise the facts differently," he said.

    He also observed that the case arose out of a bigger divorce squabble.

    This is why family law should be practised in a more collaborative and amiable way, he said.

    Mr Rajah added: "Unfortunately after reading the file - and I went through it very thoroughly - I felt that the lawyers advising the couple added fuel to the fire."

    WHY PROSECUTION APPEALED TO REDUCE CYCLIST'S SENTENCE

    Mr Rajah said the public might not be aware but the AGC has informed counsel to appeal when a sentence is excessive or disproportionate after reviewing the case.

    The 2015 case involving Mr Lim Choon Teck, then 35, was different as he did not have a lawyer. Mr Lim had received a jail sentence of eight weeks for knocking down an elderly pedestrian while cycling on a pavement. After a review, Deputy Public Prosecutor Prem Raj Prabakaran appealed to have the sentence reduced, arguing that the prosecution believed the original sentence was disproportionate to his culpability and the fact that he had pleaded guilty at the first reasonable opportunity.

    "If (Mr Lim) appealed, there was no certainty that the High Court judge might agree with him... So I directed my colleagues, and they were taken aback that we should appeal," said Mr Rajah. Mr Lim's jail term was cut to three weeks.

    Mr Rajah said: "I'm glad the case was publicised because it also assured the public that AGC was trying to do right rather than to punish people excessively."

    Ng Huiwen

All cases that were concluded were reported in the form of a summary report and Mr Rajah would review these cases every evening.

In one unusual case, the AGC even appealed for a sentence to be reduced. The accused, a cyclist who had knocked down an elderly person, did not have his own lawyer.

Originally sentenced to eight weeks' jail in 2015, his sentence was reduced to three weeks after the Deputy Public Prosecutor appealed to have it slashed.

Mr Rajah said his "obsessiveness for looking at things granularly" boiled down to a need to exercise the power of the prosecution carefully. Not all were on board at first with the decisions he made, including the move to appeal to have the cyclist's sentence reduced.

Some colleagues had told him the decision would not have been possible in the AGC a decade ago, because "that's not part of our culture".

"But having said that, I think all of them were immediately on the same side because they realised and appreciated that this accorded with their role as ministers of justice.

"My operating ethos in every ... office that I held is to ensure fairness. And fairness includes, apart from due process, proportionality. It's in no one's interest for individuals to be punished harshly," he said.

Another initiative launched in his time involved lawyers in the AGC who volunteered to work with abused foreign workers. They halved the time it took to resolve cases that otherwise would require the foreign workers to stay for months or even years in Singapore to resolve their situation in court.

Mr Rajah hailed the work of AGC staff. "Many officers in the AGC and in the public service work anonymously as they should and get very little credit.

"They put in long, long hours of work over weekends, over holidays, and they do this not because they are looking for recognition, but they do this because they believe it's the right thing and they are serving a wider cause."

Mr Rajah spent 20 years in the private sector, becoming managing partner of law firm Rajah & Tann. In 1997, he was among the first lawyers to be appointed Senior Counsel.

V. K. RAJAH...

ON HIS ROLE AS ATTORNEY-GENERAL

I was a reluctant Attorney-General, but once I decided to be A-G, I put heart and soul into it. I put in 110 per cent and, as long as I held office, I wanted to discharge my responsibilities to the best of my ability. There is no point having a half-hearted A-G.


ON UPHOLDING FAIRNESS

My operating ethos in every appointment or office that I held is to ensure fairness. And fairness includes, apart from due process, proportionality. It's in no one's interest for individuals to be punished harshly.


ON SELECTING HIS TEAM

I pay particular attention to the way people interact and I am less than impressed by people who manage upwards and are all brown-nosed... I rather let the work speak for themselves.

He was then on the Bench for 10 years, first being appointed Supreme Court justice in 2004 and then Judge of Appeal three years later. It was then, in 2007, that he first declined the Attorney-General post.

"I enjoyed my work. Further, I was keen to continue working with Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong, whom I greatly respected. I regard him as the finest legal mind who has held public office in Singapore."

Outside of his office, Mr Rajah reads extensively on social and political issues that affect Singapore and the wider world, as well as the sciences, such as psychology and neuroscience. "But since I became A-G, I've read only a handful of books," he said, as he spent more time reading up on ongoing cases, even the minor ones, such as shoplifting.

Mr Rajah said: "I could leave my law firm when I wanted to and the fact that it continues to thrive 13 years after I left it means that I left it with good foundations and in good shape." Former defence minister Howe Yoon Chong, in a conversation with Mr Rajah years ago, called the same quality a "walking capital" and the term stuck with him.

He entered the role as the "reluctant A-G", but with his retirement, he said: "I made sure everything that I've done, every institution I've done, I have left it in better shape."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2017, with the headline 'The 'reluctant' A-G and his ethos of fairness'. Print Edition | Subscribe