The best man to advise the Government on the law

A recent debate between the Law Minister and an opposition MP has focused attention on how the Attorney-General is appointed

A recent passing of the baton in the Attorney-General's post has cast the spotlight on one of the most crucial roles in Singapore's legal system.

In Parliament on Jan 10, Law Minister K. Shanmugam and opposition Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim debated whether the appointment of Singapore's latest Attorney-General - Mr Lucien Wong, 63 - was constitutional because of his age.

Ms Lim, an MP for Aljunied GRC and a lawyer, had asked if Mr Wong was legally eligible to succeed Mr V. K. Rajah as the new Attorney-General. She cited Article 35(4) of the Constitution which states the Attorney-General may be appointed for a specific period and, if appointed, shall vacate his office at the end of that period. Otherwise, he shall hold office until he turns 60. Among other things, the law also states an Attorney-General turning 60 can stay in office for a period agreed on by the Government and the Attorney-General.

Replying on behalf of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Mr Shanmugam said Mr Wong's appointment is in accordance with Article 35 of the Constitution.

But Ms Lim said the law "does not seem to contemplate the appointment of a new Attorney-General who is more than 60 years old" and suggested that the Government apply to court to clarify the matter.

The age eligibility factor raised by Ms Lim, however, is moot as the law is clear that the Government can appoint someone aged above 60 on a specified term. There was also a precedent in Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin, who was 63 when appointed as Attorney-General for a two-year term.

The outgoing Attorney-General, Mr Rajah, also added in a farewell interview recently that age is not an issue, pointing out that "constitutionally, the Government is allowed to appoint anyone so long as he meets the criteria of having been at the Bar for more than 10 years".

More details on the selection process might educate the public on the role of an attorney- general, the challenges faced in drawing up a shortlist and enable better appreciation of the Government's efforts in landing the best man for the job.

While the debate between Mr Shanmugam and Ms Lim provided instructive clarity on an Attorney-General's age eligibility, the issue that matters more is candidate suitability.

Some light could have been shed on how the best man is identified and selected for the job.

This issue of process appears invisible in the public domain, leaving unanswered questions, such as how the shortlist of candidates is drawn up before the final recommendation is made and the appointment inked.

To be sure, there is no doubt Mr Wong is, like his predecessors, eminently well-placed for the post.

In his stellar career of more than 30 years, Mr Wong, who was chairman and senior partner of Allen & Gledhill LLP, has also sat on several law review committees in Singapore and was conferred a Special Award for his outstanding contribution to the legal profession at the Chambers Global Awards in London in 2007.

Mr Rajah also described his successor as "a lawyer of great ability, great experience, who has run for the last decade and a half, a law firm that I regard as outstanding".

Also, there is no doubt that the Government is well-placed to make the call on the suitability of the candidate, based on its assessment of the trajectory of the legal system's future development and its needs.

As stipulated in the Constitution, the Attorney-General is appointed by the president, on the advice of the prime minister, from among persons qualified to be judges of the Supreme Court.

The appointment is one of the two most important positions in Singapore's legal system, the other being that of Chief Justice, said then Deputy Prime Minister and Law Minister S. Jayakumar in Parliament in April 2006.

"They are responsible for setting the directions for our legal system and high standards for the administration of justice in Singapore," he said.

The Attorney-General is the Government's chief legal adviser and advises ministries and agencies on increasingly complex and highly specialised issues. Doubling as public prosecutor, he also oversees and sets the standards for criminal prosecutions.

Attorneys-general have been appointed in unusually regular succession in the last 11 years - six including an acting attorney-general - compared to three in the preceding 41 years since independence.

Indeed, the longest-serving Attorney-General - Mr Tan Boon Teik - served more than twice as long as all the last six put together.

The experience with Mr Tan - who was 39 years old when appointed in 1966 and the youngest to date - suggests circumstances can also dictate the length of term served and choice of candidate.

Singapore's 150-year history with Attorney-General appointments suggests little movement in the practice of appointments.

Like the current incumbent, the first Attorney-General appointed here in 1867 for the Straits Settlements was from a private practice law firm - Logan & Braddell - which he partnered.

Singapore, Malacca and Penang were then grouped together as the Straits Settlements and ruled directly from the British Colonial Office in London and Attorney-General Thomas Braddell was stationed in Singapore. Braddell's pioneering role and his myriad contributions in relation to the local populace perceptibly placed him as a veritable lord of the laws that he helped craft to administer the colony.

The string of attorneys-general post-Braddell, based on records preserved in the National Archives in London, indicates appointments were at times made by committee and at other times by the incumbent head of state.

For instance, in 1929, a dozen candidates were considered by a promotions committee to succeed then Attorney-General Michael Whitley. Ten were attorneys- general from other British jurisdictions like Zanzibar, Cyprus and Hong Kong and two others were a legal adviser from Malta and a judge in the Straits Settlements.

The judge - F. G. Stevens - was regarded as the strongest candidate of the five local judicial officers shortlisted for the post "which needed the best man available without undue regard for the claims of seniority". But the promotions committee chose Walter Huggard, who was then Attorney-General in Kenya, with no reasons given.

Consider also the choice made by Cecil Clementi, Governor of the Straits Settlements in the colonial Singapore of 1933, when he made a U-turn and opted for a locally-based Englishman after initially having made clear he wanted an outsider for the post that fell vacant. The promotions committee demurred to his choice despite other preferences, in the interest of not making the issue more controversial.

Not all Attorney-General appointments drew excitement in that era, such as the case where, faced with two candidates shortlisted to fill a vacant post, a member of the selection committee settled for one but not without adding the rejoinder, "neither of them being first rate", according to records at London's National Archives.

No one here expects the system to evolve to the type in the United States where congressional hearings are staged to grill prospective candidates.

But more details on the selection process might educate the public on the role of an attorney-general, the challenges faced in drawing up a shortlist and enable better appreciation of the Government's efforts in landing the best man for the job.

Also, what makes for a good attorney-general, in terms of attributes and background, is open to discourse and debate.

"It is easier to decide who is the ablest than to predict who has the character to measure up to the job," said founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in his memoirs when writing about a suitable choice for the post of chief justice. Ditto for the role of attorney-general.

In a way and with respect, that the recent debate in Parliament focused and ended solely on the age eligibility issue was an opportunity lost - an opportunity to inform and educate the public on the care and consideration that go into the making of an attorney-general.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 25, 2017, with the headline 'The best man to advise the Govt on the law'. Print Edition | Subscribe