Last Thursday night, I met three representatives of the Harvard Law School who are doing legal research about Singapore. Over dinner, which comprised local delicacies such as ‘laksa’ and ‘nasi goreng’, we discussed a range of issues about the Singapore legal system. Here are some highlights of the discussion – Part 2.
It does not matter if a reader chooses to read Part 1 first followed by Part 2 or vice versa, as both parts can be read independently.
INDEPENDENCE OF JUDICIARY
I have no doubt that our judiciary is an independent one. Our judges go out of their way to be whiter than white, especially since we are such a small country and word does get around.
Judges across the Commonwealth have on different occasions spoken highly of Singapore. Recently, there was a case in Canada (Enernorth) where the court there expressed confidence about the impartiality of our judiciary in commercial disputes.
In fact, I have no qualms inviting people to use Singapore law and our dispute resolution mechanisms to resolve their business disputes here.
Of course, the case made certain observations about how judges rule in non-commercial cases. But what you must understand is that, in such cases, the judges are driven by the prevailing norms of society, and they are especially sensitive about not creating divisions in society.
I had the honour of interviewing David Marshall, a prominent lawyer and political leader of Singapore before he died. Marshall, in his lifetime, was highly critical of the party in power. Something he impressed on me during that interview is how independent our judiciary is.
There were reservations expressed when Singapore decided to go on its own and cut off the right of appeal to the Privy Council in the early 1990s. There was criticism about the political nature of this reaction.
For me, it was a positive development. It marked the coming of age of our legal system and displayed the high level of confidence we had in it. It was also a reinforcement of the sovereignty of this little red dot, which is very critical for a small country.
And I think it has made us freer. The quality of our legal thinking has also improved.
We no longer just limit ourselves to English law. We are more willing to look across the Commonwealth for good precedents, which can valuably apply to us. Thus, for example, our insurance law is influenced by Australian insurance law.
It has also improved the international outlook of our legal profession.
In fact, we are so confident about Singapore law that there is now a movement, led by a sitting judge, to promote of the use of Singapore law in commercial transactions in the region as opposed to the currently preferred English or New York law.
As a legal professional, I am both proud and absolutely excited about this development.
Plus, to deal with the potential increase in demand for legal services and also the present shortage of lawyers, a new local law school has been announced. The curriculum of the new law school is going to be quite different. A student will get to study non-law subjects, undertake internships in legal practice and even do community service - which will all count towards the award of the law degree.
OTHER HOPES & ASPIRATIONS FOR LEGAL SYSTEM
I think we need to bring our criminal law to the level where our commercial law is, that is at the cutting edge! The President of the Law Society of Singapore colourfully reflected not too long ago that some aspects of our criminal law needed to urgently catch up with the rest of the world.
There is a practical reason for this: we have focused on our economic priorities over the last three decades and our commercial law has developed in tandem. Those priorities are still there. Nevertheless, we are at a stage of development where we can afford to better look at other aspects of our society and legal system. Hence, the on-going review of our Penal Code.
I also hope that our legal system can be made more accessible, especially to those who cannot afford to hire lawyers. In this regard, I was happy to learn that there is a plan where every practising lawyer in Singapore will commit to do slightly over 20 hours of pro-bono work for such individuals.