DERRICK A PAULO
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.