Extradition Amendment Bill – Speech by Sylvia Lim

According to MinLaw’s press release of 7 March, this Bill seeks to amend the Extradition Act to update and modernize Singapore’s statutory regime.  It was further stated that the amendments would “cement Singapore’s role as a responsible global citizen”.   

At the outset, it should be noted that the Bill preserves the simplified regime between Singapore and Malaysia for extradition based on mutual recognition of arrest warrants.  Similar arrangements exist with Brunei, and I understand that these have worked well overall.  However, apart from Malaysia and Brunei, the Bill is proposing notable changes to the existing framework for extradition to and from declared Commonwealth countries and foreign states.  

Overall, I find the changes in the Bill to be an improvement, being rational and less technical than the current scheme.  In particular, I agree with the removal of the distinct Parts of the Act covering declared Commonwealth countries and other foreign states, in favour of many common provisions that will apply to all treaty countries.  The other change I support is the threshold approach to determine what offences are extraditable, instead of the current scheme of looking at a positive list of extraditable crimes.  Once the Bill is effective, the threshold for an extraditable offence will be simply set at offences attracting a maximum imprisonment of two years or more, subject to a list of exclusions.  There is also a new provision to enable the fugitive to consent to extradition, saving time and costs.  

I am overall supportive of the Bill.  That said, I have some queries and an observation to make.  My speech today will cover whether the government’s general approach to extradition has changed; clarifications on safeguards for persons in Singapore against unjustifiable extradition requests; and finally, an observation about why compromises to secure extradition are justifiable.

Any Change in the Government’s General Approach to Extradition?

At a general level, I would like to clarify whether this Bill is a signal that the government is changing its traditional somewhat guarded approach towards entering extradition treaties.   Four years ago, during the Ministry of Law’s Committee of Supply debate, I had raised a COS cut on Extradition.  The specific case used for discussion was that of Mr David Roach, who had committed robbery at a bank at Holland Village. Members may recall that Mr Roach could not be extradited to Singapore when he was in nearby Thailand, but only when he travelled through London on the way back to his home country, Canada.  

The then Senior Minister of State Ms Indranee Rajah explained at the COS the government’s general approach to extradition.  She said that while the government was open to entering new extradition treaties, such negotiations were complex.   Relevant considerations included whether such an arrangement would be mutually beneficial and whether any divergence in legal systems could be rationalized.  She also highlighted that if there were inadequate protections, there would be risks to people in Singapore, including our citizens.  

In this Bill, the provisions relating to extradition from non-Commonwealth countries are being brought closer to those available to Commonwealth countries.  May I ask if the government has evolved its thinking such that Singapore sees an interest in concluding more extradition treaties, including with non-Commonwealth countries? 

Safeguards for Persons in Singapore, including Citizens

In terms of safeguards against unjustified extradition requests, the Bill provides more protections by enhancing the restrictions on the surrender of persons.  Under the Clause 6 of the Bill, the new Sections 8 to 10 set out the restrictions on the surrender of persons in Singapore to other countries, as well as restrictions on the Minister’s powers to authorise the apprehension of fugitives in Singapore.  There are overall more safeguards in this Bill than currently, such as not extraditing someone if he was convicted in that foreign state in his absence or if the offence alleged is one which, under Singapore law, would only be an offence under military law.  I agree that enhancing safeguards is prudent.

Passage of Time / Time Bar Issues

I have a specific query regarding the protections against extradition for offences that may have taken place many years prior to the request.  For extradition from Malaysia and Brunei, my understanding is that there is no time bar, hence we read of persons wanted in Singapore who are apprehended in Malaysia three or four decades after the event.  As for countries other than Malaysia and Brunei, some protections already exist in the current Act for the Minister to refuse extradition to Commonwealth countries if there has been a passage of time; these protections are re-enacted and expanded in the Bill to apply to all treaty countries. There will also now be a specific prohibition in the proposed Section 8 against the extradition of a person if his alleged offence is time-barred based on the law of the foreign State.  

The issue of the passage of time or time bar appeared to be a live issue in the negotiations of the recently-concluded extradition treaty between Singapore and Indonesia.  Historically, we know that there has been strong interest from Indonesia to conclude a treaty with Singapore after the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-1998.  Shortly thereafter, in 1999, then Law Minister Prof S Jayakumar told Parliament that the Indonesians had made a request for such a treaty, which Singapore was considering.  It is widely-known that the Indonesian government wishes to prosecute Indonesians who may have embezzled billions of dollars during the crisis and fled here thereafter.  I can only assume that some of those who came to Singapore may have acquired Singapore citizenship by now.  A prior bilateral extradition treaty was signed around 2007, but it was not implemented due to hurdles in the domestic approval process in Indonesia.  

Sir, I recall reading in media reports that there was an 18-year time bar for criminal prosecutions under Indonesian law.  In February this year, SM Teo Chee Hean told the House that the new extradition treaty contained a provision to allow for retrospective application to extradite fugitives for crimes committed 18 years ago.   I am still unclear about how this would operate. 18 years prior to this year would bring us back to the year 2004.  Could the Minister explain how this year’s treaty would facilitate the extradition of fugitives who fled here after the Asian Financial Crisis, after a passage of 34 years? I am not knowledgeable about the requirements of Indonesian law, and the government’s clarification of this would be useful for public understanding.  Earlier the Minister mentioned that when this year’s treaty with Indonesia is in force, Indonesia and Singapore can extradite fugitives based on the terms of that treaty.  Can he confirm whether this Bill will affect those arrangements and if so, how? 

Extradition Necessitates Compromise

Before I end, I wish to comment on a matter that has arisen in recent public discussions on extradition.  In the case of Mr Roach, mentioned earlier, the Singapore government had secured his extradition from the UK after giving an assurance to the UK government that he would not undergo the punishment of caning.  After Mr Roach was duly convicted of robbery in Singapore and sentenced to the mandatory six strokes of the cane, the government advised the President to exercise her constitutional powers to remit the sentence of caning, so as to honour its assurance to the UK government.  Some members of the public did not find this to be a fair outcome, as Mr Roach did not suffer the full punishment ordered by the court.   A similar situation had arisen in the earlier case of Mr Michael McCrae, who was extradited from Australia in 2005 to face trial here for murder which carried the death penalty.  In that case, the Singapore government also had to assure the Australian government that the fugitive would not face the death penalty, in order to secure his extradition to Singapore.  

It is not wrong for members of the public to expect that anyone who commits an offence in Singapore face the punishments prescribed by Singapore law, even if they have absconded abroad.  Nevertheless, a fundamental principle of sovereignty is that countries need not concern themselves with offences committed in other countries.   After all, going after criminals on behalf of another country requires time and expense, and burdens the country’s legal system.   

If a country has entered an agreement for mutual extradition, it is entitled to set qualifications to its obligations.   This reality is, no doubt, a compromise on certain principles, but it is certainly better than letting offenders escape justice altogether.