Madam Speaker, in the President’s speech, he mentioned five key aims that the Government hopes to fulfil in this coming term:
- to keep Singapore safe and secure
- to renew our economy
- to foster a more caring society
- to transform our urban landscape; and
- to engage and partner with Singaporeans in nation building.
I will like to touch on the fifth aim: to engage and partner with Singaporeans in nation building.
Engage and Partner with Singaporeans in Nation Building
2015 is now behind us. While we are thankful of much that we have achieved and gone through in the last 50 years, the next 50 years will likely be more challenging. We cannot rest on our experience of last 50 years. As the world becomes more complex and people more mobile, it is important that Singaporeans feel rooted and committed to Singapore.
There are many elements in nation building, and for today, I would like to focus on just three points: (i) social justice, (ii) rule of law and access to justice, and (iii) strengthening governance and our national institutions.
(I) Social justice
The President talked about a caring society and treating one another with warmth and dignity. Before we can move ahead together, we must continue to have a Singapore that looks after its people regardless of their economic means. Ultimately, how we treat our people reflects very much on ourselves. How we care about the less well off, the less fortunate, will speak very much about ourselves. We must have compassion and empathy for our fellow Singaporeans who are less privileged. We should desire to grow together as a nation and as a people.
Recently, I had a poignant conversation with an experienced social worker who shared her deep concerns about families she worked with where both the parents and subsequently the grown up children in the families continue to rely on state welfare assistance. Yes, we have to take care of such Singaporeans when they are in need. But like the social worker, we must have empathy with even the most difficult of cases and at the same time, we must not easily give up on trying to find ways to help needy Singaporeans get out of their financial spiral.
In a small city state like Singapore, we cannot afford to be a society where every man lives for himself. This is especially so in a place like Singapore where a large part of our population is made up of transient residents. Like pilgrims on the same journey, we have to watch out for one another so that we can all arrive together.
(II) Rule of law and access to justice
Rule of law is the lynchpin of developed nations. It is the knowledge of the rule of law that informs citizens their rights, what to do, how to conduct themselves, how to lead happy, orderly and lawful lives. The rule of law also helps the government of the day and our national institutions to manage and run the country in accordance with the laws of the land. And rule of law must come with access to justice.
(a) Early access to lawyer
Recently, the President of the Law Society, Mr Thio Shen Yi, had in his speech at the Opening of the Legal Year on 11 January 2016, brought up the issue of a suspect’s rights of access to legal counsel before the suspect’s statement is recorded by the police. As Mr Thio puts it succinctly (and I quote): “Justice and fairness are served because it is that lawyer’s job to advise the suspect to tell the truth, to articulate any defences they may have, to co-operate with the police; to advise if no defence is available, but also to advise on the privilege against self-incrimination”. He mentioned that (and I quote) “an accused may be detained for days or weeks without access to a lawyer” and “we need to re-evaluate whether this is fair or desirable”.
Mr Thio stated that the Law Society’s Criminal Practice Committee has recommended that a suspect be allowed to consult a lawyer privately for up to 1 hour before statements are recorded by the police.
I agree with the President of the Law Society’s call for the Government to accept this recommendation. In our legal system, where the accused is innocent until proven guilty, we must give the accused an opportunity to have early access to legal counsel. Until he is proven guilty, the accused has all rights as every other citizen. As a democracy, we must value the rights of every Singaporean and guard them jealously. These rights must include his right to early legal advice in a situation where the end game is potential punishment by the court. Just as the accused’s failure to abide by the law shall have consequences, equally we must give the accused an opportunity to understand his rights and defences at the onset.
(b) Disclosure in criminal proceedings
Moving to another point regarding access to justice, I would like to refer to the Attorney-General’s speech at the Opening of the Legal Year. The AG made proposals for early disclosure of evidence in criminal cases by both the prosecution and defence. I support this proposal. This is a step in the right direction for our criminal justice system. Fair disclosure of evidence in criminal cases in common law countries are usually taken seriously. Discovery obligations under our civil procedure rules have been in place since time immemorial. As the Attorney-General said (and I quote): “Disclosure may or may not affect the outcome of the case, but the fairness and openness of the process is important”.
Disclosure and, particularly, early disclosure of evidence promotes a transparent process and also potentially reduces legal costs. The accused is aware of the case he has to meet. Indeed, in some cases he may be advised, from the disclosure made, that he has a weak case, and he may be advised earlier to take a certain course of action. Transparency in the criminal justice system will also demonstrate to our citizens that evidence is taken seriously and that in fact, evidence is submitted early and efficiently. This knowledge will surely strengthen public confidence in our criminal justice system.
(c) legal aid, pro-bono
We have to ensure that our legal system is readily accessible to all Singaporeans, regardless of their economic means.
It is heartening to see the continuing increase in the number of cases that were handled by volunteer lawyers under the Law Society’s Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (also known as CLAS) in recent years. It is also heartening to see many lawyers volunteering at our community legal clinics all over Singapore, giving legal advice to many needy Singaporeans and also lawyers volunteering their services to do pro-bono legal work under various auspices such as the Law Society, NGOs, the Community Justice Centre, etc. But I think there is still a shortage of lawyers who are able to provide pro-bono representation work. Many people need lawyers to assist them beyond giving advice for 20 minutes in the manner that we see at community legal clinics.
I would like to ask the Ministry of Law to consider reviewing the limits under the means test for all applications for legal aid under the Legal Aid Bureau (LAB). I believe that the current limits of $10,000 disposable income is still too restrictive and a moderate increase on the limits may provide much needed assistance to many more low income earning Singaporeans who are caught by the current limits.
Many lawyers in private practice are already doing pro-bono work. May I also suggest that the AGC and the government ministries consider allowing their lawyers to spend at least some time doing some form of pro-bono work? The AGC has a big pool of lawyers who are called to the bar. This will not only help to increase the assistance that can be rendered to Singaporeans who cannot afford legal assistance, it may also help government lawyers, being public servants, to better understand the challenges that many needy Singaporeans requiring legal assistance may face.
(III) Strengthening governance and our national institutions
In the next 50 years, we need to work towards further strengthening our national institutions including our civil service and statutory boards. We have a highly talented civil service which we have built over time and one which is known for its integrity. Until now, our civil service has only worked with one ruling party. In the next 50 years, we must ensure that our civil service will always remain one of the key stabilisers of our country, regardless of which political party is in power.
The independence and political neutrality of the civil service and statutory boards must be fiercely maintained so that Singaporeans will always have complete confidence in the non-partisan nature of these institutions.
The President mentioned that the government will work closely with the people. We must remember that Singaporeans are the masters of our country. In this connection, Singaporeans must feel engaged in the country, that they have a right and a say in the governance of the country; they must not feel resigned to being a mere digit in the country, helplessly dependent on those in authority to make all decisions for them. Singaporeans must feel empowered about their future and in giving them a voice and a role in nation building, so that they will be engaged and vested in the country.
(a) access to information
To this end, access to information is important for all. It is important because every citizen needs access to information in order that they can make informed decisions concerning the matters around them, concerning matters which may need their comment and input in nation building. The engagement of Singaporeans does not stop at giving them a platform to speak, they must be given the background and information so that they can make informed choices and give constructive input on nation building. Correspondingly, transparency is also one of the features of a good government.
For these reasons, I would echo the previous call for the introduction of a Freedom of Information Act by my colleague, Mr Pritam Singh, who spoke about this in his speech during the debate for the President’s address in 2011.
(b) Office of Ombudsman
The government should consider setting up an Independent office of Ombudsman. Such an office can review any allegation of wrongful decision-making as well as to investigate any allegation of wrongdoing on the part of a public servant. Such a process may also avoid legal costs that may come with judicial review.
(c) judicial review
Although our laws provide for judicial review, this avenue remains underdeveloped. It is important for us to develop the area such that the people have confidence that they are able to challenge any questionable decision-making process of any public authority. As an eminent English judge, Lord Hoffman, puts it succinctly: “the principles of judicial review gives effect to the rule of law” (R (Alconbury) v Environment Secretary  UKHL 23).
The average Singaporean must also be able to afford reasonable legal fees to commence a judicial review application or the rights under the law would be merely academic. To this end, it is also important that provision be made for sufficient legal aid to be extended to applicants of judicial review such that legal costs will not be a deterrent to Singaporeans who have a genuine case that he wishes to bring up.
Finally, whatever political changes the government may have in mind will probably have important consequences on our nation building. Singaporeans must be amply consulted and Singaporeans must be happy with such changes before any decision is made for their introduction.
Madam Speaker, the Workers’ Party will provide a platform for Singaporeans to have a strong say in the direction in which Singapore will progress. Singaporeans must feel secure about our country and where we are going from here in the next fifty years and be confident of the governance and institutions of this country.
With that, Madam Speaker, I support the motion of thanks.