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05 Jul 2013
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Former Deputy Prime Minister S Jayakumar and former Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong

While Singapore is well-known for its strict and robust legal system, critics have also questioned the transparency and autonomy of its courts. Yet amidst these mixed views of Singapore’s legal system, it is an undeniable fact that the rule of law has been central to Singapore’s post-independence success. And at the core of Singapore’s rule of law is former Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

What is Mr Lee’s conception of rule of law as a statesman and lawyer, and how did this factor into Singapore’s governance and success?

Having served as Deputy Prime Minister and prior to that, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs, Law and Labour, Professor S. Jayakumar gave a detailed overview of Mr Lee’s rule of law that was peppered with personal anecdotes based on his experience in government.

Issues of race and religion proved particularly important, given that Mr Lee had set out to differentiate Singapore neighbours by establishing a rule of law that ensured non-discrimination of minorities. The law provided for a tough stance on those who disrupted racial or religious harmony.

Professor Jayakumar also noted that Mr Lee often went beyond laws to ensure racial equality, citing an instance whereby Mr Lee took a transport minister to task for a lack of racial diversity in a Singapore Airlines flight crew which he had personally encountered. The rule of law was also critical in the international realm, given that Singapore’s survival was contingent upon international law and third party adjudication over conflicts.

Professor Jayakumar also dispelled views of Mr Lee’s dictatorial style in cabinet as well as the perceived bias of judges in Mr Lee’s favour during libel suits. In reality, Mr Lee is “intellectually honest” in his willingness to listen to cogent arguments that made sense.

Former Chief Justice Mr Chan Sek Keong said that fundamentally, Mr Lee believed that the rule of law was meant to serve the needs of society and at the same time reflect reality.

Mr Chan noted that “laws are made by people”, and that Singapore’s success has been based on a willingness to adjust the legal framework to international demands and the domestic situation.

On criticisms of Mr Lee’s rule of law, he noted that much of these criticisms were based on a bias towards liberal democratic ideas. Furthermore, Mr Lee’s rule of law has been widely seen as a serious competitor to the liberal democratic version of the rule of law in the global marketplace of ideas. Such criticisms steeped in the liberal democratic tradition do not do justice to Mr Lee’s focus on societal needs, national security, and social stability. In other words, Mr Lee’s formulation of the rule of law is based on“integrity of purpose” that requires law to serve the good of society.

The question and answer session also showed that Mr Lee’s approach to the rule of law is one that was attuned to societal needs and realities. This continues to permeate Singapore’s rule of law, with Professor Jayakumar noting Mr Lee’s “fundamental ideas of the rule of law are deeply ingrained, and that is good for Singapore”.


by Woo Jun Jie

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