SINGAPORE - The building of a fair, respected, and efficient legal system by upholding the rule of law has been a key pillar of Singapore's survival and prosperity - ensuring justice for all and fostering social harmony.
This was stressed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday (March 31), as he addressed 450 guests at the Attorney-General Chambers' (AGC) 150th anniversary dinner.
Speaking to former attorneys-general, judges and ministers, he said the rule of law means everyone is be treated equally, whether he is an individual or the Government. "Individuals can get redress for their grievances, be it against their peers, persons in high positions, or the Government," he said. "And wrongdoing is punished firmly and fairly, with mercy and compassion shown in deserving cases."
It also means upholding individual rights and freedoms while carefully balancing them against society's need to maintain law and order. "This has helped maintain social cohesion among people of diverse races and religions who call Singapore home," he said.
The rule of law also ensures a transparent and stable business environment, where contracts can be enforced and investments are protected.
"Because we emphasised all these aspects of the rule of law, Singapore distinguished itself from other developing countries... Internationally, the rule of law among nations is also a vital national interest of a small state like Singapore," he added. "We say what we mean, and we mean what we say. We honour agreements we enter into and we expect others to honour agreements they enter with us."
Some may fault Singapore for being rigid and inflexible, but Mr Lee went on, "it is absolutely critical for our words to count and for us to hold others to what they have undertaken to us".
The AGC, together with the judiciary, he explained, is critical to upholding the rule of law. He highlighted the body's four key roles - as an independent public prosecutor; as the Government's legal advisor; as the drafter of laws; and as the country's international lawyer.
"As public prosecutors, you ensure that everyone is accountable for their actions," he said. " Because our laws are enforced, Singaporeans and foreigners know that here in Singapore, they are safe and secure."
He said the AGC not just advises the Government on its legal rights and obligations, but also on the limits of the its powers. And the legislative drafter, it advises the Government when the laws need to be updated, or new laws need to be introduced.
This requires close work between the AGC and the ministries. And even creativity when the law is new and has no precedent in other countries,
In such cases, there is a need to recognise that the laws amy need to be amended later "as we gain experience with them, to deal with unanticipated issues or react to a changing environment. That is what we have done with the institution of the Elected President."
"In the last thirty years, we have amended the Elected President provisions in the Constitution multiple times, to make the system work properly as intended. The recurring theme has been striking the right balance between the Government's need for operational flexibility with the President's duty to exercise effective oversight."
As Singapore's international lawyer, AGC also protects the country's interests abroad. The best example of this, he said, was the Pedra Branca dispute with Malaysia.
He pointed out how the AGC worked for many years to prepare for the 2007 case in front of the International Court of Justice, which eventually ruled that Singapore, not Malaysia, has sovereignty of Pedra Branca. " Malaysia is now taking steps to revise that judgment,: he said. " They are entitled to try.
" I am confident of the eventual outcome, because we have a capable and experienced team in AGC and a strong case."
Attorney-General Lucien Wong also spoke at the event. Going forward, he said the AGC will have to adapt to a changing world by deepening its skills. but amid the technology disrupters and other future challenges, officers have to remain guided by its core principles of upholding the rule of law, he added.
In Chambers: 150 Years of Upholding the Rule of Law, the first book to fully record the AGC's history was launched yesterday as part of the anniversary celebrations .
Said its author, Straits Times senior writer Cheong Suk-Wai who was a construction lawyer from 1994 to 1999: "I have a love for unsung and seldom-sung heroes and, as I discovered in writing this book, the men and women of the AGC are such heroes."