Strong, trusted judiciary the bedrock of rule of law: Shanmugam

A strong and trusted judiciary is the bedrock of rule of law, and is worth defending vigorously, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday.

"When the quality of the judiciary suffers, the rule of law suffers. When the rule of law suffers, the country suffers," he added.

He was responding to a parliamentary question by Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC), who referred to a news article about Britain's crisis in recruiting judges and asked about the situation here.

The March 5 article in The Times attributed the problem to "a perception that judges are not valued", and also cited a disagreement between the judiciary and the government over judges' pension arrangements.

While the same could easily happen here, said Mr Shanmugam, it has not because Singapore had chosen a different path from Britain in some ways.

One is to ensure that its judges are not unfairly attacked by the public and the media, he said.

Such "attacks have undermined the standing, prestige and morale of the judiciary" in Britain, where judges are labelled as "enemies of the people" or "fools" by media outlets, he noted.

Stressing the importance of having a government that is strong enough to protect the standing of the judiciary, Mr Shanmugam held up the City Harvest Church case as an example.

He said the Government was of the view that the sentences of the church leaders, who misused millions in church funds, were inadequate.

It was clear this dovetailed with public sentiment and it would therefore have been politically expedient for the Government to join in the criticism of the judiciary, but it did not do so, he said.

Instead, he had made a statement in Parliament to defend the judges' freedom to decide on the case, asking the public to refrain from attacking the judges.

Referring to this, he said: "I think it is most unlikely that you will get a situation where the Law Minister will stand here and say: 'Well, we disagree with the final result, nevertheless, judges ought not to be attacked. They ought to be respected, they ought to be supported, they ought to be given the freedom to decide.'"

The Government also takes a strict view of the offence of scandalising the judiciary, and had taken steps to tighten the law on contempt of court when the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act was passed in 2016, he added.

Another way in which Singapore differs from Britain is that judges here are compensated fairly, said the minister.

While Singapore's judges experience a pay cut when they move from the private sector to the Bench - ranging between 10 per cent and 80 per cent - this is not as steep as in Britain, where the pay cut can be as high as 90 per cent.

"We have to make sure that, while there is a cut, we cannot come to a stage where judges feel that they are paid so little that they do not want to take it up," he said.

Quoting a survey by his ministry in 2015, Mr Shanmugam said more than 90 per cent of respondents had said they had trust and confidence in Singapore's legal system and agreed that Singapore was governed by rule of law.

But this state of affairs is "not cast in stone" and Singapore could well find its "judges being under attack, distrust generally pervading, and inability to attract top legal minds to take up positions on the Bench" if the Government had compromised on contempt of court laws, he said.

"It can easily happen to us if we are not careful," he warned.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2018, with the headline 'Strong, trusted judiciary the bedrock of rule of law: Shanmugam'. Print Edition | Subscribe