Delivered in Parliament on 5 October 2021
The Bill seeks to make two changes to the investigations of deaths that are defined as reportable. I have concerns about both provisions and would like the Ministry’s clarifications.
First, it is proposed by Clause 2 that Section 12 be amended to make the viewing of the body by the Coroner optional i.e. when the Coroner is conducting his preliminary investigations into a reportable death, he can decide not to view the body at all. As for the rationale for this change, it was stated in a MinLaw release that this would “expedite the process of the body to the family, and will also save resources for the Police, the Health Sciences Authority and the Coroner”.
It would thus appear that the move to make viewing of the body optional is motivated, at least in part, by resource constraints. However, we must ask: to what extent will this change result in a compromise of investigations of deaths? Despite what the Ministee has said, it is clear on what basis or in what kinds of cases the Coroner will decide that viewing the body is not required. Can Minister elaborate further on how will the Coroner be supported to ensure that he or she does not inadvertently miss or overlook important evidence that further investigations into the death are warranted?
The second change brought about by this Bill is to give the Minister for Law the power to issue a certificate for the release of the body of a deceased person at the request of a foreign state. Clause 3 of the Bill will introduce a new Section 17A to the Act, to provide if a foreign State has requested release of the body of a deceased in Singapore, then the Minister can consider issuing such a certificate in two situations – first, where the deceased had sustained an injury, contracted a disease or suffered a condition outside Singapore that appears to have caused the death; and second, where the deceased person was or formerly was a head of state, head of government, government minister, government official or spouse of child of these persons or of a diplomatic agent of a foreign state. If the Minister sees it fit to issue such a certificate for the release of the body of the deceased, then all investigations into the death must stop, post mortem should not be carried out and any Coroner’s Inquiry into the death should cease.
According to the media release by MinLaw on 13 September, one of the reasons is that the foreign State “may wish to conduct its own post-mortem examination on the citizen or the resident who happened to die in Singapore after sustaining an injury, contracting a disease or suffering a condition outside of Singapore”.
I have two observations to make.
First, it should be noted that the proposed Section 17A phrases the conditions of (a)(i) and (a)(ii) as alternatives – so for example, if the deceased happens to be an incumbent or a former head of government, it is not necessary that the deceased should have sustained an injury or illness outside of Singapore that appeared to lead to his death; the deceased’s very status as a current or former head of government is enough to bring such a case within the new regime, even if the cause of death has no overseas nexus.
Secondly, there could well be circumstances where a foreign state could request the return of the body of a deceased government official because it does not want a post-mortem or inquiry to be done by an independent party. This could be motivated by a desire to preserve the dignity of a former leader, but could also be motivated by less noble reasons e.g. to cover up a death deliberately caused to a political opponent. We cannot dismiss this possibility, and it is certainly not far-fetched that political adversaries could be killed through poisoning or other nefarious means. The likelihood of the death of a foreign leader occurring in Singapore is not low, as Singapore is a noted destination for medical treatment. It goes without saying that when a death occurs in Singapore, important evidence surrounding the death may well be located in Singapore. Furthermore, such evidence may not be immediately available after the death, as the police may need time to uncover it. Thus, there are risks associated with a quick handover of records and evidence to the foreign state.
I note that under the Bill, the Minister retains a discretion whether or not to issue the certificate to release the body to a requesting foreign state. He can order investigations in Singapore to continue if he believes it to be in the public interest to do so. He can also subsequently revoke his certificate for release. These are important provisions. As a member of the international community, we have a part to play to ensure that history is accurately recorded and that the world is not misled by fake news about the death of national leaders and officials. The Minister will need to be alive to this risk, even as he will likely face pressure from the requesting foreign state.