mollymeek (mollymeek) wrote,

Controversial Constitutional Amendment Sparks "Debate"

There is an amendment to the Constitution, and amendments to the Constitution are always a serious matter, that would give the Prime Minister of Singapore to nominate up to two members of the Legal Service Commission. In Parliament, NCMP Ms Sylvia Lim, as one might expect, was not in favor of the amendment. She believes that the amendment could "undermine public confidence in the neutrality of our courts." (Today; emphasis Molly's.)

And as you would expect from any argument raised by the near-extinct oppositional presence in the Parliament, it was met with strong, fierce, vehement but inherently empty pseudo-rebuttals. Kinda like the last time you saw a gang of kids jeering at another kid who happens to have a different fashion sense.

The story, one further spread by our world-class 146th-going-169th press, is that Ms. Lim is reviving a conspiracy theory which was first created by J.B. Jeyaretnam. Well, to be fair to the press, the journalist writing the report found it necessary to put the words "conspiracy theory" in inverted commas. But it would have
actually been more pertinent to the issue had the title of the article been "Controversial Amendment: PM to Nominate Members of Legal Service Commission."

Or maybe not. One does not see much controversy. Parliament voted 75 to 2 in favor of the changes. But practically any headline would sound better than "
'Conspiracy theory' revived and rebutted." You see, you don't rebut an argument by simply claiming otherwise. You rebut an argument with sound reasoning and proof. And the focus should not be one some supposed conspiracy theory but on the constitutional amendment itself.

This is what Law Minister S Jayakumar, who is currently very concerned by the fact that a convict was given extra caning but who is probably not concerned by the existence of the practice of caning, has to say:

"Ms Sylvia Lim, through her speech, is in fact resurrecting ... a conspiracy theory. 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."

There are two things to note here. Firstly, insofar as the news report goes, the person who brought up the so called conspiracy theory ironically seems to me to be none other than Prof Jayakumar himself. And Molly will discuss the possible reasons for doing so later. Secondly, we have to note that, unlike what is alleged of Jeyaretnam, Ms. Lim did not claim that the judiciary is not neutral.
Methinks the Minister doth protest too much.

Ms. Lim was saying that the constitutional amendment could "undermine public confidence" on the judiciary. In other words, she was specifically talking about the impression the move might give. She did mention the potential for the executive to have some kind influence over the judiciary and this is fair enough (I will say why later); she did not claimed that the judiciary is lacking in neutrality. She also emphasized that her main concern is that  the amendment might not be seen too positively by the public. Look at her words as quoted by the press:

"[The amendment] 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."

Ms. Lim is a smart person who phrases her words carefully and she is a lawyer by profession. (The news report fails to mention her occupation though it notes the legal training of all those who "rebutted" her, as if to lend authority to their speeches.) I believe the MIW in the Parliament aren't stupid either. Molly believes that they knew what she was specifically talking about. Otherwise she might already be given a first class ticket to bankruptcy.

Prof Jayakumar says in response:

"Once [the Prime Minister] has nominated two members and they're appointed, his role ends there. Neither he nor the other nominating members can direct the nominees to act or decide in any particular manner."

Of course, that is sounds good on paper. But then no one is saying that the constitutional amendment will allow the PM to directly tell the members of the Legal Service Commission what to do. Nevertheless, who can guarantee that the PM (not only the current one, but ALL future PMs) will NEVER nominate members who already have a tendency to make decisions that are favorable to the executive or even to a particular party, thus undermining the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary. In places where the principles of democracy are held sacred, such an issue would be the subject of intense scrutiny. The constitutional amendment certainly not a non-issue as the MIW members in the Parliament seem to me to be suggesting that it is.

Ms. Lim's concerns are legitimate as far as Molly can see and in no way reeks of conspiratorial paranoia. There is a concern that one day, perhaps a thousand years into the future - or perhaps even just a few years into the future, a Prime Minister might nominate members that are known to have certain outlooks. This might motivate certain people to express certain outlooks. Also, given that the Legal Service Commission has "disciplinary control over officers in the Legal Service," the worry is that officers in the Legal Service who are more sympathetic towards different outlooks might be deemed to have violated the discipline of the Legal Service if they express such sympathies. Could this encourage a "better avoid trouble lest I lose my rice bowl" attitude? Perhaps this was why Ms. Lim "wanted security of tenure for Subordinate Court judges, like their High Court counterparts" (Today's paraphrase.)

[ As a non-reply to Ms. Lim's concern, MP Ms Indranee Rajah, a practicing Senior Counsel, said: "We have no issue [Molly: that doesn't mean others 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." (Emphasis Molly's.) Apparently, Today journalist Derrick Paulo has a sense of humor - he says that Ms. Rajah's remark is "directed specifically at Ms Lim." Good one, Derrick.]

It is also interesting to note that it is either not stated or not reported why there is a need to make the particular constitutional amendment. Yes, you can say that this bad thing won't happen and that bad thing won't happen as a result of the amendment. But what's the purpose of the amendment in the first place??

Prof Jayakumar's support for his stance isn't exactly convincing. He claims that the most important test of the legal system is "the leadership in the Government, and whether the Government respects the integrity and independence of the judiciary." According to the news report, Prof Jayakumar then said that the integrity of Singapore's judiciary can be seen in international rankings which consistently place Singapore "among the top in the world."

Dear Prof, if the best test of the legal system is the leadership in the government (presumably the executive branch), then why don't you cite international rankings that rate the executive's leadership instead? Why refer to international rankings for the judiciary? And we are talking about a constitutional amendment here. It's something permanent. We don't even have to quarrel about whether the executive branch of the government currently respects the independence of the judiciary. No matter how much it respects the independence of the judiciary now, we can't assume that the executive branch of the government five years later, ten years later, two hundred years later will do the same.

In any case, as far as Molly remembers, international human rights and democracy reports have also consistently questioned the independence of Singapore's judiciary, particularly in defamation cases involving oppositional politicians. The constitutional amendment isn't going to impress the people doing these reports and this is partly the concerned that Ms. Sylvia Lim has raised.

Another of those "my-claim-is-it's-own-proof" statements:

"We have the system, it works. We're now fine-tuning it to work even better ... I say, let's keep what works [Molly: works for whom?] and let's not besmirch the reputation we have so carefully built up over the years."

Well, maybe what really needs to be changed is the system of not changing a system that is supposed to work.

But, Prof Jayakumar, who is besmirching the reputation of the system? Do the people who are insisting on making a controversial constitutional amendment that be interpreted as a compromise of the separation of powers or does the person who is raising a concern about the amendment besmirch the reputation of Singapore's political and legal system?

But it's refreshing to see a minister concerned about reputation. After all, our none too wonderful reputation for having caning, for having the death penalty and for having opposition politicians lose defamation suits every time they are slapped with one - and our dubious reputation for having the world's best-paid ministers - haven't affected the gahmen's stance much, if at all.

But, still, what's up with accusing Ms. Lim of reviving a conspiracy theory? (It's a conspiracy theory because you call it one??) Why bring up J.B. Jeyaretnam at all? Bringing up the poor bloke at this time could serve a couple of purposes though Molly is not claiming that these purposes are necessarily intended:

1. The press can embark on a nice character assassination. The "look at what that guy did 20 years ago, according to us" tactic. A good time to do so since that old man is setting up a new opposition party.

2. Warn Ms. Sylvia Lim to stay in place. Give her the "Do you want to end up like JBJ?" vibes. Insinuate or claim that she was doing what JBJ was doing. And if she's doing what JBJ was doing, she could well end up like JBJ . . .

Other MIW provided their two-cents' worth, with Prof Thio Li-Ann, a constitutional law expert, claiming that there will be a "series of checks and balances." Molly doesn't know what the "series" of checks and balances are for the news report mentions only one. Molly doesn't know if Prof Thio mentioned more than one.

And what's the one check and balance mechanism mentioned? Molly is afraid that it might sound like a joke, but she has to say it anyway. Rest assured though that it wasn't meant to be a joke.

The Elected President would have to approve those appointed by the Prime Minister!

Never mind that the Elected Presidency itself comes with its own controversies. When was the last time we elected a President? And when was the last time the list of presidential candidates was free-for-all? We shouldn't be raising these questions. We should not be paranoid asses imagining conspiracy theories all day long.

Even if this is Animal Farm, we need unquestioning sheep, not talkative asses, lest The Great System be besmirched.

Tags: constitution, constitutional amendment, judiciary, non-debate, pseudo-rebuttal, separation of powers

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