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Gerald Giam on criticisms of the judiciary.

Judging the judiciary

Gerald Giam

“People must have confidence that the judiciary is independent…In order to make sure that we protect the integrity of the judiciary, and to make sure that people’s confidence in the judiciary is not affected, you have to be very, very strict about anyone who attacks the judiciary in scurrilous ways, or calls into question its independence.”

These were the words of newly-minted Law Minister K Shanmugam, when asked for his opinion on the recent convictions of political activists Chee Soon Juan and Chee Siok Chin for contempt of court. (The Straits Times called their actions “attacks on the court”.)

Shanmugam was quoted mentioning “independence” in reference to the judiciary at least two more times. He also talked about Singapore being “based on democratic principles”.

I am not a lawyer but I do subscribe to democratic principles (albeit probably of a different form than PAP cabinet ministers do). Personally I find it quite an anachronism that in a democratic society, there can be a particular public institution that seems to be legally protected from any criticism.

The Minister has warned that the government will be “very, very strict about (sic) anyone who…calls into question (the judiciary’s) independence”, otherwise the people’s confidence in the judiciary will be affected.

Does that mean that if — heaven forbid — the judiciary really becomes corrupt and partisan, Singaporeans would be sent to jail if they question its integrity? And would jailing these critics somehow restore citizens’ trust in the judiciary?

That is foolish, ivory-tower logic that is based on the assumption that Singaporeans are unthinking sheep who believe everything the Government tells them.

I once asked a former Supreme Court judge why the courts always ruled in favour of PAP ministers who were suing opposition members. His reply was that most of those cases should have never been brought to court. Once they were, however, the judges had no choice but to judge according to the letter of the law, which in Singapore is very strict when it comes to defamation.

Is it then the judiciary’s fault if Singaporeans think — rightly or wrongly — that the courts are less than independent when opposition figures are sitting in the dock? In some cases, blame might lie with the powerful ministers who use the courts to settle their political disputes.

Political defamation suits aside, I would say that I have full confidence in the integrity and independence of our judiciary. (Well, at least I haven’t seen any YouTube videos of influential lawyers fixing judicial appointments in Singapore yet.)

The PAP leaders who have been bringing lawsuits against their political opponents all these years never cease to boast about the independence of our judiciary. Unfortunately, what they don’t seem to realise is that every frivolous lawsuit they launch only serves to chip away at ordinary Singaporeans’ confidence in the judiciary.

At the end of the day, it is the court of public opinion that they have tried, but failed to convince.

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