We often see the issue of professional conduct of lawyers being raised in the context of the Singapore legal system. For some years now, I have been meaning to generate a discussion about judicial conduct in Singapore. I had faced some resistance from the mainstream media when I sought to raise this issue in the past. Given this sensitivity, I also felt it was not appropriate to raise it in alternative media. I finally mooted this issue in a series of letters between me and the Chief Justice's office published in The Straits Times Singapore. In personal conversations, several lawyers expressed surprise that there was an avenue for clients to directly provide feedback on issues of judicial conduct. I hope more people will utilise this avenue to improve the Singapore judicial organ.
LETTER PUBLISHED IN THE STRAITS TIMES ON 2 AUGUST 2015
I welcome the formation of the study committee by the Singapore Academy of Law, with the Law Society's participation, to look into the issue of lawyers' professional conduct ("Lawyers told to stop behaving badly in court"; July 19).
In a similar vein, this may also be an opportune time for the Singapore Academy of Law, where the Chief Justice is its current president, to seek feedback on the issue of judicial conduct from lawyers, the Law Society and other stakeholders of the legal profession.
I note that the Law Society president has relied on anecdotal feedback about lawyers from members of the State and High Courts. Anecdotal accounts of lawyers may well suggest that Singapore could do with a body to look into issues of judicial conduct.
Several world-class common law jurisdictions, such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and England, now have an independent body of some sort that receives and considers feedback or complaints about judicial conduct.
Such a procedure does not, and cannot, provide a mechanism for disciplining a judge. However, it can offer a process by which complaints by a member of the public or a lawyer about judicial conduct can be brought to the attention of the Chief Justice and the judge concerned, and provide a platform for a complaint to be dealt with in an appropriate manner.
Such a body can be empowered to receive feedback about, among other things, racial or religious discrimination by judges, general rudeness of judges, misuse of judicial status for personal gain or advantage, failure to fulfil judicial obligations or duties, or failure by a judge hearing a matter to declare a potential conflict of interest.
In jurisdictions where such a body exists, it has been found that it has helped to enhance public confidence in and protect the impartiality and integrity of the judicial system. Such a body is even more necessary, given the statutory codification and enhancement of Singapore's contempt of court framework by Parliament in recent years.
Indeed, the Singapore Academy of Law may be best positioned to propose such a body through the work of its current study committee. I also hope it will use this opportunity to provide a responsible and constructive platform for a frank and candid discussion about the professional conduct of both lawyers and judges.
RESPONSE FROM THE OFFICE OF THE CHIEF JUSTICE PUBLISHED IN THE STRAITS TIMES ON 9 AUGUST 2015
We agree with Mr Dharmendra Yadav that there are benefits in having in place a process to receive and consider complaints of judicial misconduct ("Set up body to look into judicial conduct issues"; last Sunday).
This will safeguard public confidence in and protect the impartiality and integrity of the judicial system.
The Singapore judiciary has put such procedures in place with a view to ensuring that any feedback and complaints concerning judicial conduct are brought to the attention of the relevant presiding judges and the Chief Justice, investigated and dealt with appropriately.
At the Supreme Court, the Office of Public Affairs (OPA), under the charge of the chief executive, now serves as a single point of contact between the Supreme Court and the public. The OPA is a channel to receive and process feedback and complaints from lawyers and other court users. Where any feedback pertains to judicial conduct, the chief executive and OPA provide the Chief Justice with the necessary fact-finding and administrative support.
The Family Justice Courts and State Courts also have frameworks in place for handling and investigating feedback and complaints against judges.
Substantiated complaints against judges will be brought by the presiding judges to the attention of the Chief Justice to determine whether and, if so, what further action may be required.
As head of the judiciary, the Chief Justice is ultimately responsible for judicial conduct and standards in Singapore.
Complaints against the conduct of our judges are rare. Most of the complaints received were from litigants seeking the intervention of the Chief Justice in relation to the unfavourable outcome of their court proceedings, for which the appropriate recourse is to lodge an appeal.
The system that we have established balances the demands of public accountability and judicial independence.
Juthika Ramanathan (Ms)
Office of the Chief Justice
RESPONSE TO THE OFFICE OF THE CHIEF JUSTICE PUBLISHED IN THE STRAITS TIMES ON 24 AUGUST 2015
I welcome the appointment of the Office of Public Affairs (OPA) of the Supreme Court to serve as a single point of contact between the Supreme Court and the public on matters of judicial conduct, among other things ("System in place to handle feedback on judicial conduct" by the Office of the Chief Justice, Supreme Court; Aug 9).
Unfortunately, unlike the courts in other common law jurisdictions, hardly any information about such an initiative is available publicly.
I suggest the OPA take immediate steps to enhance the websites of the Supreme Court, Family Justice Courts and the State Courts, and include guidance sections on providing feedback to the Chief Justice about judicial conduct. Similarly, guidance material can be made available at the courts.
Such guidance can go some way towards reducing complaints from litigants on the unfavourable outcome of their court proceedings, for which I agree the appropriate recourse is the appellate process.
Perhaps, the role of the OPA can be expanded to receive feedback on similar matters in the Family Justice Courts and State Courts.
After all, it is the OPA that now administratively supports the Chief Justice in exercising his ultimate responsibility for judicial conduct and standards in Singapore.
This is better than the current modus operandi of leaving such critical matters to these lower courts to deal with, for which little information exists.
In time, I am hopeful that such guidance can help procure feedback on judicial conduct, and it will help enhance the public perception that the Chief Justice takes such feedback on judicial conduct seriously.
Monday, March 23, 2015
I never got to meet him but I am a beneficiary of all that he did for Singapore. I have been educated extensively about him through different media.
Today, in honour of all that he did for my loved ones and me, I mourned his loss by laying flowers for him at Speakers' Corner in Hong Lim Park, Singapore.
I have written at least twice about him and I believe the views I held then about his legacy to be even more relevant today:
Singapore Not Just Story Of One Old Man
A Cabinet Without Lee Kuan Yew
Rest In Peace, Mr Lee. I will miss you.
Friday, March 06, 2015
LETTER PUBLISHED IN THE STRAITS TIMES FORUM ONLINE ON 3 MARCH 2015
National University of Singapore (NUS) law dean Simon Chesterman has suggested that the eight law schools dropped from the approved list are among the lower-ranked law schools in Britain and their graduates often find it harder to get jobs ("Shorter list of approved UK law schools welcomed"; last Thursday).
He then urged parents and students as follows: "Instead of spending tens of thousands of pounds on a law education at a lower-ranked school, they could be better off pursuing other degrees locally."
I have had the benefit of studying at NUS Law School, the Singapore Management University (SMU) Law School and Leicester Law School. I gained far more from my experience in a year in Leicester than I have in a year in the other two law schools.
It is not accurate to imply that graduates of the University of Leicester find it harder to get jobs. Recent alumni of the law school include at least one justice's law clerk and a leading investment banker. Several of us started our careers in top Singapore law firms, and most of us are now in offshore law firms, multinational corporations or financial institutions.
By narrowing the list of approved schools to high-cost areas of England like Oxford and London, the Singapore Institute of Legal Education has made the pursuit of an English law degree more expensive and a preserve of the rich. My parents had to sell their HDB home to send me to law school.
If the decision was made purely on rankings, the University of Bristol, which was ranked lower than the University of Southampton in the 2014 Guardian League Table for law schools, should have been struck off.
Many students choose to study law overseas because they desire to study law but are not able to secure a place in the local law schools. To suggest that they do something else is a fundamental failure to understand a person's motivation for studying law. Not all who choose to study law do it to become lawyers. This is a traditional mindset we should shift away from.
Stakeholders of the legal profession could have been better consulted before the recommendations were made. The eight law schools could also have been given an avenue to respond to the recommendations, rather than wait five years for the next review to take place.
Wednesday, January 21, 2015
I dismissed his response and I said it was for the President to one day tell young Singaporeans like me what he had done for our country. I now wish I had held my tongue then.
Since leaving the Istana, Nathan, at 91, has been indefatigable. He would put many younger Singaporeans like me to shame simply by his sheer energy.
He is fighting back to ensure that Singaporean 'ingrates' like me will not forget the great contributions he has made to Singapore with a series of publications.
Given the chiding I received, I made it a point to read two of these publications recently.
The first is a publication that goes to the bookshops this week: S R Nathan in Conversation.
When I picked it up to read the night I bought it, I wondered what could he say that I didn't already know about him or Singapore.
I started with his views of the divide we see in contemporary Malaysia today and he painted vivid a picture of how the well-intended roots of United Malays National Organisation, which should have evolved into a United MALAYANS National Organisation, has put Malaysia on a polarised path.
Of course, one could perhaps argue that he is looking at Malaysia from the tainted lens of battle-hardened Singaporean who toiled restlessly to bring Singapore from a colony to sovereign state, driven by a motivation to be all that a less divisive Malaysia should have been.
Ironically, Nathan makes clear his agenda at the start of the book: "My concern is not political debate, but simply the future growth, prosperity and wellbeing of Singapore and its people."
In the pursuit of his agenda, he weaves together a series of stories from different stages of his life in shaping contemporary Singapore. He shares his stories with a diplomatic candour clearly burnished through his sensitive sojourns.
Indeed, the strength of his story-telling made it such a difficult book to put down that I finished it in one sitting.
From time to time, he also refers to his autobiography, An Unexpected Journey: Path to the President, to fill in the gaps in his stories. This makes the reason for reading his autobiography even more compelling, which became the second book I read about Nathan.
Reading both books you realize how invaluable Nathan's expansive contributions have been to Singapore.
Here was a man with a ringside view of change in independent Singapore, who was happy to assert his influence whenever called upon to do so in sheer defence of such developments; something he felt was necessary to feed millions of mouths in Singapore.
Hence, his involvement in reforming both the printing press and the diplomatic corps to enable each of these institutions to stay relevant to a government that became increasingly sensitive to negative criticism and bourgeois idiosyncracies.
The relevance of his books can be best summarised in Nathan's own words, "History never repeats itself exactly, but a close study of it can alert us to dangers. Experience of the past can prepare us for contingencies."
Through his publications, Nathan has effectively silenced those who criticised his quiet ways of getting a job done.
My President Nathan, thank you for doing the best you could.
Sunday, January 18, 2015
NOTE SENT TO THE HONOURABLE MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT FOR TANJONG PAGAR GRC, CHAN CHUN SING, ON 18 JANUARY 2015
My Minister Chan,
I write to you in my capacity as an ordinary voter of your constituency.
About two years ago, I moved to take up residence in the area you have been tasked by your political party to care for, having lived for over a decade in an area where the Honourable Tharman Shanmugaratnam was elected to care for.
I write to express my disturbance at your recent comments concerning a politician of a different party. I believe the contents of your comments reflect the kind of politics that constituents like me do not wish you to pursue. I am sure you mean well for our country but you risk turning off voters like me with every less than helpful comment you make on personalities that may not necessarily matter to your constituents.
As we celebrate 50 years of independent statehood, leaders like you tasked to take us into our next 50 years can certainly be more gracious and, at any opportunity you can, forgiving of the shortcomings of our fellow citizens, especially those that may hold and express divergent viewpoints.
Rather than dedicating your time to such less than savoury purposes, I would like you to convince me on the basis of your constructive work and the strength of your arguments on issues of the day affecting our country.
Indeed, I came from a constituency where my sitting Member of Parliament impressed my neighbours and me with a great, undivided sense of purpose and attention. Even though appointed at the highest levels of the Executive and holding positions valuable to our little red dot on international bodies, he often used his constituency for important announcements and other key national initiatives. His single-minded focus has always been on the issues that matter to Singaporeans and not personalities. From all that I know of him, he has never indulged in the kind of politics that pains me to see you pursue.
I am sure many Singaporeans will agree that he is the kind of leader we would like to see in Singapore for the next 50 years and I hope, as a fellow member of his party, you will find it worthwhile to perhaps follow his example.
At this point, I will only say that my experience has been contrastingly different as a resident of your constituency.
Purely to illustrate my point, some of my neighbours tell me that they have not met you since the last general elections, where you were elected through a walkover. While I am appreciative of the national contribution you are making as a sitting Minister, I hope you will come meet your constituents more regularly.
I am not sure if you will seek to be re-elected from my constituency but I am sure you will agree that there is much more to be done in the area that comes under your care and from which your party is likely to seek a re-election.
Thank you in advance for your kind consideration.