SINGAPORE - There is no conflict of interest in appointing former personal lawyer Lucien Wong or former People's Action Party MP Hri Kumar Nair to the positions of Attorney-General and Deputy Attorney-General, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Parliament on Tuesday (July 4).
He also gave a ringing endorsement of the two men's qualifications, adding that it was important to "get the best that there are" in the Attorney-General's Chambers.
"The role is becoming more complex and we need the best people to defend our interests," he said, noting a recent application by Malaysia to challenge the International Court of Justice judgment over Pedra Branca.
"We are confident of our case, we think the Malaysia case has no merit, but unless we have a top notch team, we may mishandle the case with very serious consequences. Do we want to take chances?" he said.
On Monday (July 3), several Workers' Party MPs had questioned the propriety of appointing Mr Wong and Mr Nair to their positions earlier this year (2017).
The appointment of Mr Wong had been cited by PM Lee's younger brother Lee Hsien Yang as an example of abuse of power in relation to the dispute over 38, Oxley Road.
Mr Lee reiterated Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah's explanation on Monday that it is "perfectly normal" for lawyers to have existing clients and connections and to encounter potential conflicts of interest when they change jobs.
"In fact, a lawyer with no connections will probably have no job," he said.
He added that it is standard practice for professional lawyers to recuse themselves, when matters they had previously dealt with in another capacity come up.
"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 said. "Lucien Wong was my lawyer. But now he is the AG, I have lost a good lawyer, he is not advising me on the matter. And in the AGC, the Government cannot use Lucien to advise it on the house anymore... So another officer in AGC takes charge," he said.
Mr Lee added that when Mr Wong's name came up as a candidate to succeed Mr V. K. Rajah as AG, he "endorsed him with confidence", as he is known as one of Singapore's top lawyers.
" I was even more confident because I had direct personal experience working with him on this case. I had also consulted him informally on Government matters before, when we worked on the Points of Agreement dispute with Malaysia," he said.
He said Mr Wong was a very good lawyer, adding: "Everyone involved in the appointment was fully aware that this was the basis on which I was recommending him."
PM Lee said he 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.
He said he told President Tony Tan Keng Yam the same thing, and after the President approved Mr Wong's appointment, the Law Society welcomed it.
Similarly, with Mr Nair, Mr Lee said his experience as an MP and lawyer gave him confidence that he would make a good DAG.
He added that while there are outstanding officers in the AGC coming up the ranks, the Government also seeks to bring in private-sector lawyers "both to reinforce our team, and also to benefit from their experience with private sector work".
"We have a good team in AGC today. They hold their own with the very best to fight for Singapore's interest, and the appointments of Lucien Wong and Hri Kumar will contribute to building this team and make AGC an even stronger institution," he said.