Prosecution to keep apace with evolving public interest: Attorney-General Lucien Wong

Attorney-General Lucien Wong noted that more news is now being delivered through social media, messaging apps and blogs where stories are written anonymously. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

SINGAPORE - Emerging problems in Singapore's society, such as fake news and offences against elderly victims, must be tackled with "resolute prosecutorial action", said Attorney-General Lucien Wong at an event on Thursday (Oct 19).

Making his first major speech since taking the post in January, AG Wong listed these areas as examples of how the goals of the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) will have to change as public interest, which permeates all its decisions, evolves over time.

Explaining the menace from fake news, AG Wong, speaking at the annual Singapore Law Review Lecture, noted that more news is now being delivered through social media, messaging apps and blogs where stories are written anonymously.

"Not only are many stories untrue, but they are often deliberately fabricated to achieve a specific end," he added. "To make them sensational, so that more people visit the blog on which they are published, generating more money for the blogger. Or to make them controversial to stoke xenophobia and racism."

Underlining the "vital public interest to stop the flow of lies", AG Wong added that the AGC will continue to use existing laws to act firmly and decisively against those who seek to distort the public narrative for their own ends.

He referred to the recent action taken against fake news purveyors like the proprietors of the now-defunct The Real Singapore socio-political website.

Singaporean Yang Kaiheng, 28, and his wife Ai Takagi, 24, an Australian of Japanese descent, who were behind The Real Singapore, were convicted under the Sedition Act last year for deliberately sowing discord between Singaporeans and foreigners through a series of articles on their website.

Yang was sentenced to eight months' jail while Ai received 10 months.

On protecting elderly victims, AG Wong said the rapidly ageing population made for a "highly vulnerable group" as many seniors who had worked hard and amassed substantial savings for retirement are ripe targets for fraudsters.

"We will robustly prosecute those who exploit the elderly, in order to deter such offences and give the full protection of the law to some of the most vulnerable members of our society," he added.

AG Wong's remarks came in a talk titled " Prosecution in the Public Interest" held at the National University of Singapore's Law Faculty, which provided snapshot insights into how prosecutorial discretion is used for the good of the public, which involves who to charge, the appropriate charges and the sentence that prosecutors should call for.

"Prosecution of a crime is more than just to punish the wrongdoer or offender - each prosecution is done with the public interest in mind," he said.

AG Wong defined prosecuting in the public interest in four ways: prosecutions are conducted in the name of the public; offences are prosecuted for the good of the public; proceedings are held according to values expected by the public; and action is taken in the eye of the public.

But he was quick to add that even as prosecutors pursue important objectives like maintaining a secure Singapore environment or promoting a culture where rights are respected, this did not mean that every offence must be prosecuted.

Prosecutors take a solution-centric approach in dealing with crime which means considering diversionary programmes to deal with young offenders instead of pressing charges in court.

"The upshot of all this is that prosecutorial decisions are complex and difficult. There are many different interests that we are balancing in every case," he added.

Underlining that there is no single, "right" answer in many "difficult" cases, he said "many exercises of the prosecutorial discretion reside along a continuum of credible, good-faith decisions made by my deputies, on the basis of evidence put before them".

"If the correct guiding principles are followed, I accord my officers a 'margin of appreciation' - in short, no one person unilaterally 'determines' the public interest in my Chambers," added AG Wong.

"We discuss our cases critically, and at times debate with each other vigorously, over the decisions we have to make every day. We do so precisely because it is only through that process of open engagement that we can arrive at fully considered decisions."

- Additional reporting by Nur Asyqin Mohamed Salleh

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