Parliament yesterday voted to amend a motion moved by Workers' Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) on the criminal justice system in the wake of the acquittal of former maid Parti Liyani.
The motion, which saw 13 MPs and six office-holders join the debate, originally stated: "That this House affirms that fairness, access and independence are cornerstones of Singapore's justice system, and calls on the Government to recognise and remedy its shortcomings in order to enhance justice for all, regardless of means or social status, including facilitating a review of the justice system."
But towards the end of the debate, Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) suggested amendments to the original motion, which Parliament then voted on and passed.
The WP MPs dissented against the amendments, which changed the motion to state: "That this House recognises that fairness, access and independence are cornerstones of Singapore's justice system, and affirms the Government's continuous efforts since independence to build a fair and just society and remedy any shortcoming in order to enhance justice for all, regardless of race, language, religion, economic means, or social status."
In explaining his changes, Mr Murali, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Home Affairs and Law, said the debate reflected "broad agreement" from both sides of the House about the importance of fairness, access and independence being essential to Singapore's justice system.
He also noted that there is recognition from both sides of the House that there are continuous efforts to improve the justice system.
On deleting the last part of Ms Lim's original motion about facilitating a review of the justice system, Mr Murali said this was to leave the motion in "broad terms" so that the Government would remedy any shortcomings that are brought up and take further steps needed in Parliament. "At the end of the day, the buck stops with this House. It is this House that has to make the political decisions to pass legislation to move amendments to the Constitution in relation to the justice system," he said.
"So the buck must stop here and this motion reflects that reality."
Ms Lim said her party did not support the amended version proposed by Mr Murali as it implied there are no shortcomings in the system, and that there will be no review of the system-key aspects of the original motion.
Mr Murali replied that it was not his intention to suggest that the Government does not admit to any past shortcomings.
He said: "The point I was stressing in my speech was that there were shortcomings in the past but the Government continues to expend effort to improve the system, and to ensure justice for all."
Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam had delivered a ministerial statement on Ms Parti's case before Parliament debated Ms Lim's motion.
Ms Parti's acquittal by the High Court of stealing from her former employers, the family of former Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong, had sparked a public uproar and raised questions about the criminal justice system.
People's Action Party MPs who joined the debate upheld Singapore's justice system, but also underscored the importance of constantly improving this system.
Some, like Mr Xie Yao Quan (Jurong GRC) and Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC), said that in spite of the acquittal and any lapses in investigations, Singapore's law enforcement and justice system remains one of the best.
Mr Xie cautioned against casting aspersions on the entirety of Singapore's justice system based on some malpractices found in Ms Parti's case. Other MPs like Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) said amendments are continually made to Singapore's justice system to ensure it remains as robust and fair as possible.
Political office-holders also chimed in during the debate to respond to the WP MPs.
For instance, Mr Leon Perera (Aljunied GRC) had called for the setting up of an ombudsman that will function as an independent office open to all Singaporeans to investigate complaints about unfair administrative decisions or actions of a public agency.
Second Minister for Law Edwin Tong said ombudsmen in other countries have their failings and that Singapore currently has a number of external review panels, though he agreed that there is room to refine the justice system.
WP chief and Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh had called for the prosecution's duty to the court to disclose relevant material not favourable to its case to be codified in the Criminal Procedure Code.
Mr Shanmugam said the Government has had internal discussions on this since early this year.
Mr Singh also reiterated an earlier call for the Attorney-General's dual roles as public prosecutor and the Government's legal adviser to be separated.
Responding, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Indranee Rajah said there are constitutional safeguards to ensure the Attorney-General is protected from political pressures and able to discharge both roles without fear or favour.