Singapore must have a strong Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) to defend its interests, and the appointment of private-sector lawyers Lucien Wong and Hri Kumar Nair to the top positions will make the institution stronger, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.
He made no bones about his endorsement of Mr Wong, his former personal lawyer who was appointed Attorney-General in January, or Mr Hri Kumar Nair, a former People's Action Party MP who became the Deputy Attorney-General in March.
He also rebutted suggestions by the opposition that the two men might find themselves conflicted because of their background, and pointed to what they brought to the table for Singapore.
"The role (of Attorney-General) is becoming more complex and we need the most capable people to defend our interests," he said, noting a recent application by Malaysia to challenge the International Court of Justice's judgment over Pedra Branca.
"We are confident of our case. We think the Malaysian case has no merit. But unless we have a top-notch team, we may mishandle the case with very serious consequences. Do you want to take a chance?" he said.
He told Parliament he had "endorsed (Mr Wong) with confidence" after his name came up as a candidate to succeed Mr V.K. Rajah as Attorney-General, as he was a good lawyer: "I was even more confident because I had direct personal experience working with him on (the Oxley) case."
He also told Cabinet that though Mr Wong was his lawyer and the opposition may make an issue of it, he would not consider it an impediment. "Everyone involved in the appointment was fully aware that this was the basis on which I was recommending him," he said.
President Tony Tan Keng Yam was notified of Mr Wong's relationship with PM Lee, and after the appointment was approved, the Law Society welcomed it, PM Lee added.
Similarly, with Mr Nair, PM Lee said his experience as an MP and lawyer gave him confidence that he would make a good Deputy Attorney-General.
On Monday, several Workers' Party MPs had questioned the propriety of appointing Mr Wong and Mr Nair to their positions earlier this year.
The appointment of Mr Wong had been cited by PM Lee's younger brother Mr Lee Hsien Yang as an example of abuse of power in relation to the dispute over 38, Oxley Road.
PM Lee reiterated that it is normal for lawyers to have existing clients and connections, and to encounter potential conflicts of interest when they change jobs: "In fact, lawyers with no clients and connections probably have no jobs."
He added that it is standard practice for professional lawyers to recuse themselves when matters come up that they had previously dealt with in another capacity.
"So, there is no problem of conflict at all in Lucien Wong or Hri Kumar becoming AG and DAG. If matters come up which they had previously handled as private lawyers, they just recuse themselves and let others deal with it," he said.
This would be the case with the house, he added.
"Lucien Wong was my lawyer, but now he is the AG, I have lost a good lawyer, he is not advising me anymore in this matter and in the AGC, the Government cannot use Lucien Wong either to advise it on this matter because he is conflicted... So, on this matter, another officer in AGC takes charge, Lucien Wong is out of it," he said.