Dr Chee Soon Juan said Singapore needs to adopt full democratic best practices and widen the rules on freedom of expression, in order to become an international legal centre, in a speech he made at the International Bar Association conference in Tokyo today.
The secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party said that Singapore had to make significant progress in order to be part of the international legal framework.
He noted that between 2007 and 2012, legal services in Singapore expanded 46 percent from S$1.5 billion to S$1.9 billion. The country also recently moved to allow foreign judges to hear cases in the jurisdiction, but only for commercial cases in cross-border disputes.
He also said that the Legal Profession Act was amended to make it an offence for the Law Society of Singapore to comment on statutes passed by Parliament.
“To partition the practice of law in Singapore – one for the international business community where commercial law remains untouched, and another one where the law is continually manipulated to strengthen the power of the ruling party – is not viable for the future of Singapore”, he said.
He said the international legal community, and especially organisations like the IBA, have a unique responsibility to ensure that the rule of law is upheld.
Dr Chee also highlighted the need for Singapore to widen the rules on freedom of expression, citing various examples where such freedoms are curtailed in relation to the rule of law.
These include the introduction of the Public Order Act; threat of legal action to bloggers, filmmakers, activists, and students; the continued denial of entry to several Singaporeans presently living in exile, some for decades; current cases of police investigating activists for conducting protests at Speaker’s Corner; and the increasing restrictions placed on online media.
The Singapore system is undergoing a groundswell of discontent, said Dr Chee, who also made reference to the protests in Hong Kong.
“The political unrest that is enveloping Hong Kong presently is under-girded by more than just discontent with the voting system. Unhappiness with income inequality and equal opportunity are equally potent motivators for the protest. These issues are not unfamiliar in Singapore. The only difference is that while Hong Kongers have retained their fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly and association and a free media, Singaporeans enjoy none of these.”