Restoring the Singapore Law Society’s Power to Comment

By Yap Shiwen

The Singapore Law Society represents the collective professional body of lawyers in Singapore. During the tenure of Lee Kuan Yew as Prime Minister, the Law Society had its ability to comment upon legislation and its passage in Parliament barred, through amendments to the Legal Profession Act. Now is the time to review this amendment and repeal it, to restore the Law Society its power, privilege and pre-eminent place amongst the civic groups in society.

In 1986, Mr Francis Seow was elected the President of the Singapore Law Society. The government introduced amendments to the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA), the Newspaper and Printing Presses Amendment Bill 1986, to restrict the circulation of foreign newspapers in Singapore. Mr Seow, along with the Law Society council, opposed this and spoke up on the danger of granting the government excessive powers over the media.

The response from Mr Lee was to introduce amendments to the Legal Profession Act that barred the Law Society from commenting on legislation. Mr Lee also convened a parliamentary select committee hearing to seek feedback on the proposed amendments. The Law Society was invited to make representations at the hearing, which was televised live. The outcome was not one that resonated positively with Mr Lee.

Governance & Law

To ensure good governance, we need civic groups actively involved in governance. A more sophisticated, informed and vocal citizenry desires participation, greater consultation and greater engagement.

Engaging the public for ideas can defend against group-think, optimise resource allocation and improve public policy outcomes. Public engagement serves to expand the available support base, reduces political risks and increases the legitimacy of outcomes, including lessening political liability by distributing ownership of the decision to multiple stakeholders. This can lead to more robust solutions, with greater benefits for society.

As we transition into a post-Lee Kuan Yew Singapore, there will be a rise in both CSOs (civil society organisations) and NPOs (non-profit organisations), catering to the multiple niches and needs of the varied segments of society. The Law Society is in an especially powerful position to contribute positively, if granted the ability to comment upon legislation and the debate surrounding it once more.

With laws able to affect all sectors of society, from the largest businesses to the individuals on the street, legal professionals are the best-placed to comment and share their opinions on the laws of Singapore and their formulation, given their expertise. They also understand the realities of its impact on the economy and society, for they deal in the realities of its impact as part of their work.

It would also benefit the government to utilise fully the resources and expertise of the CSOs , to enhance its policies and laws. Meaningful public engagement, such as with the Law Society, would only serve to enhance their credibility, as well as policy outcomes.


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