There should be no issue with the fact that Deputy Attorney-General (DAG) Hri Kumar Nair was a former People's Action Party (PAP) MP, Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah said yesterday.
She cited a number of countries that had attorneys-general with political affiliations, and pointed out that the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) needed the best legal talent Singapore could offer.
She was responding to Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC), who said appointing a party politician to the post could undermine "public confidence in the AGC's stated mission of fair and independent prosecution".
Ms Lim said this was because the AGC, as an organ of the state, should be independent and ready to rein in the Government if it "acts unlawfully or is abusing its power". Appointing a former MP to the DAG post is "not ideal" in such a context, she added.
Mr Nair, a senior counsel, began his three-year term as DAG this month. He was MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC from 2006 to 2015, and is no longer a PAP member.
In her response, Ms Indranee said that in countries such as Britain, the United States and Australia, the attorney-general was a sitting MP or politician. She pointed out that the current attorney-general in the US, Mr Jeff Sessions, was a Republican senator. "As a matter of systems design, many countries see it perfectly proper to have an A-G who is a politician," she said.
But Singapore has a slightly different model, where the attorney-general and AGC officers are neither politicians nor political party members.
Even so, it would be going too far to suggest that AGC officers must not have had any links with political parties, she said. This is because it is the courts that decide on innocence or guilt - the attorney-general decides whether or not to prosecute.
She said the talent pool for the highest legal appointments is small. Of all the senior counsel appointed in the past decade, only 16 were in private practice.
One of them was Mr Nair, who is "among the top six to seven litigators" here, said Ms Indranee, adding that Mr Nair accepted his appointment despite the personal and financial cost.
"He loses the privacy he enjoyed in private practice. He also now earns significantly less than what he used to earn," she said, adding that Mr Nair's spirit of public service should be welcomed.
Of the top lawyers here, two - Senior Counsel Davinder Singh and Alvin Yeo - were former PAP MPs, and Senior Counsel Edwin Tong is currently a PAP MP for Marine Parade GRC.
Ms Lim then pointed out that even though ultimately, the decider in legal cases are the courts, by deciding which cases to prosecute, the attorney-general has "very wide prosecutorial discretion". Could the Government not find another candidate from the legal service to fill the post?
Law Minister K. Shanmugam rose to ask if Ms Lim would be more comfortable with Mr Singh or Mr Yeo in the post, noting that both these top lawyers were linked to the PAP.
He pointed out that there was "no question" as to Mr Nair's abilities. It is precisely because the AGC holds such powers of discretion that the Government chooses people of character and competence, he added. Such a philosophy has left Singapore's legal institutions - the judiciary, AGC, legal service and the Bar - "much better" than when the country was under British rule.
"This is a Government that builds up institutions, not pulls them down," said Mr Shanmugam.
In reply, Ms Lim said: "My reservations remain. Nevertheless, I do respect that the AGC has to continue with its work."
She also asked why the AGC's headcount had increased dramatically - at 594 this year, 42 per cent higher than its size seven years ago.
Ms Indranee said the rise was a move to "right-size" the AGC, as the complexity and volume of work it handled have gone up significantly.