In NCMP Lina Chiam speech, which she delivered in Parliament last afternoon during the debate on the Community Disputes Resolution Bill, she called upon the Government to do more to strengthen the mediation process to retain the ‘kampong spirit’.
She drew reference to the words of Law Minister K Shanmugam to illustrate how the introduction of this bill seems to be a “policy u-turn”.
Her speech culminated in a idealistic note where she stated, “We have built a beautiful Singapore, now we can also forge stronger bonds between Singaporeans from the ground-up. We can, we must, and we will.”
You can read her speech in its entirety below.
Madam Speaker, thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak on this bill.
“In a society where most of us live in close proximity to one another, community disputes are bound to happen. Some of these disputes won’t be simple and straightforward. For such difficult cases, it may be tempting – or even logical – to call on the strong arm of the law to bring an end to such difficult cases. There is a time and place for the legal framework to come into play, and I firmly believe that it the legal framework must only kick in as a last resort
I would like to draw the attention of the House to the words of the Honorable Minister Shanmugan where he posed a question which read,
“How should the law deal with such disputes? Should it deal with it at all?”
He then added,
“The trouble is the traditional legal framework may not always be the most appropriate or adequate. The legal process can be long drawn out. It’s adversarial in nature and it’s not easy to get amicable solutions. The proceedings may themselves also not be the most cost effective to deal with day to day disputes between neighbours.
So if you want to think of an effective framework, it has to go beyond what is traditionally available in the law. I think one important component of our current framework is, of course, community mediation, where volunteers are trained as mediators. They try and bring parties together to reach a common understanding.”
I couldn’t agree more. In fact, the Minister then proposes a three-stage process for dealing with such disputes. It would be important to note that even he, as our Law Minister, is, or maybe was, of the opinion that the sanctions would only be imposed as a final resort.
MCCY has consistently emphasised in all its media statements leading up to this debate that:
“The legal recourse established by this Bill is intended as a last resort for resolving difficult disputes between neighbours after all other efforts have failed.”
From the various statements, one can safely deduce that the MCCY clearly intends for the tribunal to be a last resort. However, to my surprise, I do not see any provision in the Bill which prevents anyone from filing a claim against his neighbour as a first recourse.
Madam Speaker, I am aware of Section 30 of the Bill which empowers the court to refer a claim commenced in a tribunal to a CMC with or without the consent of the parties. But Section 30 only kicks in after a claim has commenced in a tribunal.
On the other hand, in Section 20 of an earlier version of the Bill contains such a statutory pre-requisite. In gist, section 20 of the draft bill dictates that a claim must not be lodged unless the disputing parties have attended mediation at least once; or the respondent was given at least two invitations to attend mediation with the claimant but the respondent refused or failed to attend the mediation on both occasions.
The aim of such a statutory pre-requisite is clearly is to disqualify claims which have not exhausted the preferred remedy of mediation. However, that provision was deleted in the Bill we now debate before the House.
Madam Speaker, this raises 2 questions.
Firstly, why was Section 20 of the draft bill removed from the final version?
Secondly, in the absence of such a provision, how can we ensure that the legal recourse to the tribunal would be the last resort after all other efforts have failed?
It is important to ensure that the Tribunal is only used as a last resort so as to uphold good neighbourliness, or as it is known in our vernacular tongue, “gotong royong” In so far as it is possible to do so, disputes between neighbours should be settled through mediation. This would not only result in a mutually-accepted win-win solution for both parties, but it would also help preserve relationships between neighbours. This is to be contrasted from a case before the Tribunal where the solution is not one that is mutually accepted but one that is meted out by the Judge which usually leads to a situation where one party gains and the other concedes. Therefore, in the interests of upholding the kampong spirit, I submit a dispute must only go before the tribunal where other methods of dispute resolutions have been exhausted.
I have misgivings that when the Bill becomes law, aggrieved parties will dispense with the trouble of seeking alternative remedies like exploring mediation, and go straight to the Tribunal.
Madam Speaker, I am of the opinion that we should enact new laws only if we are convinced that we have maximised all efforts to enhance Community Mediation as the preferred remedy for community disputes.
In analysing the question of whether CMC had exhausted all avenues to enhance mediation as the primary recourse for community disputes, I am heartened to note that in 2013, to enhance its attractiveness, CMC reviewed its processes to shorten the waiting period for a mediation session from 28 calendar days to 7 working days.
Are there no further ways to make Community Mediation more attractive and more effective?
From 2009 to 2013, CMC’s caseload has declined even as population of Spore has increased.
In 2009, there were 742 mediated cases;
In 2013 – 525 mediated cases.
What more can be done to encourage people to bring their disputes to CMC?
Currently CMC operates from two locations: premises at the State Courts and MinLaw premises at The Treasury. Both locations are in the CDB. I do not think either locations are appealing or convenient to the general public. Could the CMC consider venues be located at more accessible places such as void decks which have a higher population density?
Madam Speaker, I also note from the 2014 Annual report that for 2013, 45% of its 525 cases were referrals for compulsory mediation from the Magistrates’ Courts. Thus, a large proportion of the CMC’s caseload is derived from the Courts.
Are there ways to promote the rate of voluntary mediation?
Can’t the MCCY – with its grassroots connections – do more to enhance the CMC’s attractiveness, usability and appeal to the general public? I am also intrigued by the MCCY’s statement that “the CMC receives a total of about 1,500 applications each year. However, attendance is not mandated and the no-show rate is about 60%.”
Strangely, in none of the CMC Annual Reports have I seen any citation of no-show rate statistics or of any concern being expressed by CMC of the no-show rates.
- If the CMC has been concerned with the no-show rate, why didn’t the CMC raise this concern in any of the Annual Reports?
- More importantly, what efforts has CMC made to address the no-show rate?
- Does CMC make any effort to encourage reluctant or unresponsive respondents to attend Mediations
At this juncture, I would like to go back to the words of our Law Minister, who, as I have mentioned earlier, provided a 3-step approach to the problem of community disputes.
- Firstly, strengthening the mediation process – where we get people to mediate their disputes, and then getting them to abide by the understandings that have been reached.
- Second approach is to try and develop norms of conduct between neighbours, which need to be specific enough to be meaningful, but also take into account the complexities of urban life and that includes proximity.
- And then, encourage the residents to abide by these norms, and introduce effective and properly calibrated sanctions if the norms are breached.
According to Mr Shanmugam, besides strengthen the mediation process, the second approach is to try and develop norms of conduct between neighbours. I would like to know whether any agency is working on the development of such norms of conduct; and if so how far along has such norms of conduct been developed and what are plans to publicise the set of norms to the general public.
It is rather disappointing that barely three years after the Law Minister’s suggestions were presented in this House, we are reverting back to expedience by means of the sanctions provided for in this bill. I’m saddened to see this policy U-Turn.
In closing, I reiterate my argument that we should not enact these new laws unless we are convinced that we have maximised all efforts to promote mediation as the preferred remedy for community disputes.
Madam Speaker, we must retain the importance of mediation by improving the process and ensuring that it is exhausted before proceeding to the tribunal. Legal prosecution must strictly be reserved as the last resort as it may not necessarily solve the root of the problem and may even escalate problems between neighbours, who, more often than not, will continue to live near each other.
If we have the capability to build awe inspiring structures like Project Jewel and Terminal 5, there is absolutely no doubt that we can build a good foundation for our people by strengthening bonds and norms between neighbours. We have built a beautiful Singapore, now we can also forge stronger bonds between Singaporeans from the ground-up. We can, we must, and we will.
Madam Speaker, this bill leaves much to be desired in the way we deal with disputes between neighbours. I welcome the introduction of this bill as nothing less than an avenue for the final resort in dealing with community disputes.