TODAY: ‘Conspiracy theory’ revived and rebutted

DERRICK A PAULO
derrick@mediacorp.com.sg

SOME 20 years ago, former Workers’ Party (WP) chief J B Jeyaretnam was fined for abusing his privileges as a Member of Parliament, by alleging executive interference in the judiciary.

Yesterday, Non-Constituency MP Sylvia Lim once again raised the spectre of possible influence by the Government.

Arguing against an amendment to the Constitution, which would allow the Prime Minister to nominate up to two members of the Legal Service Commission, the WP chairman said the change could “undermine public confidence in the neutrality of our courts”.

The commission, which sits at the apex of the Legal Service, is in charge of personnel management issues, including the dismissal and disciplining of legal service officers.

Presenting the Bill to Parliament, Deputy Prime Minister and Law Minister S Jayakumar explained that the Prime Minister’s powers would be consistent with his role in recommending appointees to the Public Service Commission and “his retaining responsibility of the Civil Service”.

Added Prof Jayakumar: “Once (the Prime Minister) has nominated two members and they’re appointed, his role ends there. Neither he or the other nominating members can direct the nominees to act or decide in any particular manner.

“They take decisions in concert with other Legal Service Commission members.” The commission can have up to nine members.

However, Ms Lim, who as an NCMP is unable to vote on constitutional matters, questioned the rationale for the change.

“(This) potentially gives the executive branch of the Government even more influence over critical career decisions of our judicial officers. My concern is that this can be interpreted as a regressive step for judicial independence,” she said.

Her comments drew a sharp rebuke from Prof Jayakumar.

“Ms Sylvia Lim, through her speech, is in fact resurrecting … a conspiracy theory,” he said.

“As she was speaking, I was reminded of a previous Workers’ Party MP, Mr Jeyaretnam, who made all sorts of allegations about our existing system and raised the spectre of executive interference in the subordinate courts judiciary.”

Mr Jeyaretnam’s remarks led to a commission of inquiry into those specific allegations, as well as a committee formed by Parliament to look into whether he had abused his parliamentary privileges.

Both groups found him to be “wrong and unjustified in making those allegations”, Prof Jayakumar reminded Ms Lim.

The most important test of the legal system, he added, is “the leadership in the Government, and whether the Government respects the integrity and independence of the judiciary”. In the case of Singapore’s judiciary, he said, the results can be seen in international rankings, which “year after year” place the Republic “among the top in the world”.

Said Prof Jayakumar: “We have the system, it works. We’re now fine-tuning it to work even better … I say, let’s keep what works and let’s not besmirch the reputation we have so carefully built up over the years.”

Offering a different perspective, Nominated MP Thio Li-Ann noted that although the Prime Minister would be given new powers, there would also be a “series of checks and balances” – the Elected President would have to approve those appointed by the Prime Minister.

The new laws also prevent MPs, trade unionists and office-holders in political associations, among others, from becoming members of the Legal Service Commission, noted Prof Thio, a constitutional law expert.

Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Indranee Rajah, a practising Senior Counsel, also singled out the President’s role.

In remarks directed specifically at Ms Lim, who wanted security of tenure for Subordinate Court judges, like their High Court counterparts, Ms Rajah said: “We have no issue with the appointment of our High Court judges … each and every one of them is appointed by the President acting in his discretion, on the advice of the PM.”

Parliament voted 75 to 2 in favour of the changes. Both Opposition MPs Low Thia Khiang and Chiam See Tong voted against the Bill.

Advertisements

ST Digital Life: More netizens open up to BLOG scene

Will politician bloggers and groups sorting through heaps of posts on local issues open up the social and political awareness space? FENG ZENG KUN looks at the changes

The local blogosphere has evolved in the past year – not just growing in numbers but also in opening up public discussion spaces.

A survey released in March by Singapore’s Infocomm Development Authority estimated 862,000 bloggers and 958,000 blog readers currently in Singapore. The same survey last year tabulated the blogging population at 502,000.

The new converts include at least 21 politicians, compared to four blogging politicians before last June. (See ’24-hour Hotline To Ministers’)

The move from personal blogs to more public and social ones also involves more blog aggregators and group blogs, like Ping.sg, Intelligent Singaporean and Singapore Angle.

Aggregators collect posts on personal blogs onto a single site, while group blogs are authored by teams of writers.

The power of the masses provides more breadth and depth of online conversation, according to those sites’ editors.

For this work, Ping.sg averages about 100,000 page views monthly and Intelligent Singaporean, 45,000. Singapore Angle gets about 50,000 monthly hits. In comparison, popular blogger mr brown gets 150,000 monthly page views, as does veteran aggregating site Tomorrow.sg.

Associate professor Ang Peng Hwa, chair of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, does not think this expansion is surprising.

Dr Ang, 50, said: “With bloggers like mr brown and Xiaxue going mainstream by appearing in widely-read newspapers, there was more curiosity about blogs.”

Mr Benjamin Koe, 27, a new media specialist at public relations firm Hill and Knowlton, also noted that the changes here reflect the patterns abroad.

He cited the recent embracing of new media like blogs and YouTube, a video aggregator, by United States presidential candidates like Democrats Hillary Clinton and Chris Dodd, and corporations like General Motors and Marriott International.

Mr Koe said: “When more people inhabit the blogosphere it becomes more important to do so.”

What difference it makes

Like many, however, he was less concerned with the causes of the local changes than with their effects and potential.

Dr Bernard Leong, 32, editor of group blog Singapore Angle, thinks that a larger blogosphere makes for better social debate. And that, he said, is where aggregators and group blogs have a role to fill.

Dr Leong cited the recent controversy over local playwright Alfian Bin Sa’at. When Mr Alfian was dismissed as a relief teacher for undisclosed reasons in May, hot heads led conspiracy charges against the Ministry of Education on their personal blogs, before cooler ones pointed out the lack of proof and information.

The aggregation of these posts on Tomorrow.sg and elsewhere put forward a more balanced picture, and prevented the blogosphere from degenerating into a link-to-link echo of conspiracy.

Mr Andrew Loh, editor of group blog The Online Citizen, also said that these more public sites provide an equally loud voice to all Singaporeans.

He pointed to the Derek Wee incident last year as one such instance.

Last October, Mr Wee, 36, blogged about his economic insecurities of growing old in Singapore. These were dismissed as laziness on the part of the insecure, by teenage blogger Wee Shu Min on her blog, which in turn, brought both views to national attention.

Mr Chua U-Zyn, 24, founder of aggregator Ping.sg, added that multi-author sites have a wider catchment than personal blogs.

Mr Chua cited the breadth of discussion on his site, which ranges from the local blind-dating scene to issues of meritocracy.

For all these reasons, Mrs Kerlyn Yang is glad for these sites. An avid reader of Tomorrow.sg and Intelligent Singaporean, the 28-year old banker said: “They show important alternative views of Singapore.”

Others, however, still rely mainly on newspapers for their information. Like 42-year old taxi driver Bala Jaganathan.

He said: “These sites are good, but they lack resources newspapers have, like access to information and full-time writers.

“So, right now, I think they’re playing catch up with the mainstream media, although they might be better at exploring less well-known topics.”


Free speech on the Net

A Digital Life check on the blogosphere found that no fewer than 21 politicians have set up blogs within the past year, their ranks ranging across the political spectrum.

These include the People’s Action Party MPs Michael Palmer and Jessica Tan, Young PAP members Elaina Olivia Chong and Donald Aw, Workers’ Party members Yaw Shin Leong and Perry Tong, and Nominated Member of Parliament Siew Kum Hong.

Previously, there were no dedicated PAP bloggers, while the Workers’ Party had only three.

Where the PAP bloggers are concerned, the surge is not surprising as Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, the Second Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, had said during a media gathering in March that the Government intends to “move into cyberspace in a big way in order to further government-citizen engagement”. As it stands, seven in 10 homes have Internet access, and seven in 10 netizens are bloggers.

The politicians said that their blogs, which do not espouse official party lines, aim to inject personality into politics, give insight into the politicians’ views, and act as a platform for citizens to voice their views.

There is no censorship.

NMP Siew Kum Hong, 32, said that his only censor is time.

Nor are their posts vetted in any way, said Mr Teo Ser Luck, Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports.

Ms Elaina Olivia Chong, who posts on the Young PAP blog, said: “We write about anything and allow all comments in order to spur discussion.”

So far, their posts have ranged from local issues like foreign talent and transcripts of Parliament sessions to the personal lives of the politician bloggers.

Some have also written about their colleagues’ work and their own.

NMP Siew Kum Hong, for example, writes evaluations of his speeches, as well as comments on several instances where he felt that ministers had not answered his questions during Parliament question and answer sessions.

In March, for example, he asked Dr Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Manpower, how many of the new jobs created in 2006 were taken up by Singapore citizens, permanent residents and foreigners, and if the Government did not have these figures, whether it could derive them from income tax and CPF data.

Dr Ng replied they did not have such figures, and did not answer the second question, prompting Mr Siew to write in a March 27 post that “the Minister basically dodged the question”.

On viewership, most of the bloggers said they do not track numbers. But judging by the number of comments left, the Young PAP blog is the most popular.

Straits Times: Sylvia Lim ticked off for questioning courts’ integrity

BY SUE-ANN CHIA


UNJUSTIFIED COMMENT: DPM Jayakumar rebuked Ms Lim for doing a “disservice” to the Legal Service’s reputation.

NON-CONSTITUENCY MP Sylvia Lim was ticked off yesterday for her insinuations about possible executive interference in the judiciary through appointments made to the Legal Service Commission (LSC).

Deputy Prime Minister S. Jayakumar said the Workers’ Party chairman was resurfacing similar allegations made by one-time WP MP J. B. Jeyaretnam in 1986.

That led to a Commission of Inquiry into alleged executive interference in judiciary and a committee of privileges – a parliamentary disciplinary panel – being set up by Parliament.

Both found Mr Jeyaretnam had been wrong and unjustified in making the allegations.

“Ms Sylvia Lim through her speech is in fact resurrecting…a conspiracy theory,” he said during a debate on amendments to the Constitution to reflect changes affecting the legal service.

He said he was surprised she was raising “this spectre of possible executive interference in the judiciary”.

If she felt the changes were going to undermine the judiciary’s independence, she should spell out how this was so, said Professor Jayakumar, who is Law Minister.

“I think it does a disservice to our system; it does a disservice to our Legal Service Commission and it does a disservice to our reputation,” he said of her comments.

At issue was a provision allowing the Prime Minister to nominate up to two members of an enlarged LSC, subject to the veto of the President.

Ms Lim argued that this “carries a real risk of undermining public confidence in the neutrality of our courts”.

“To now have two members specifically nominated by the PM potentially gives the executive branch of the government even more influence over critical career decisions of our judicial officers. My concern is that this can be interpreted as a regressive step for judicial independence.”

She added that with the Prime Minister’s nominees, the public could think judicial officers would need to consider the interests of the executive branch of Government when reaching their decisions.

But Ms Lim’s assertions were rebutted by Prof Jayakumar and by Ms Indranee Rajah (Tanjong Pagar GRC), who reminded her that current LSC members were appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister.

So why was it not all right to have two additional nominees by the Prime Minister, Ms Indranee asked.

Ms Lim’s charge “unjustifiably denigrates…the people who are appointed because it assumes they will not act without fear or favour”, she added.

Prof Jayakumar said the Prime Minister was not doing anything different from when he makes other appointments which are also subject to a veto by the President.

“The Prime Minister retains overall charge of the civil service, of which the legal service is a part, and it is only logical and necessary that (he) has a role. But once he has nominated two members and they’re appointed, his role ends,” he said.

He added that regardless of the structures in place for a judiciary or legal system, the test of its integrity lay in “the people operating the system, and most importantly, on the leadership in the Government and whether the Government respects the integrity and independence of the judiciary…”

Said Prof Jayakumar: “So to Ms Sylvia Lim and others who are ready to raise the spectre of lack of judicial independence, let me say that our system works. It has gained for us a very valuable reputation.

“That reputation can be maintained for so long as we get good people in the legal system, in the judiciary and I say as important, good people in Government and in Cabinet who will ensure that this system of integrity and incorruptibility is maintained.”