S’pore courts “ought to play a larger role in protecting minority rights”: law prof


Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday emphasised the need for Singapore's legislature to have a "much more cautious approach towards social issues" – such as LGBT equality and same-sex marriage – compared to the US, whose recent Supreme Court (SCOTUS) ruling made same-sex marriage legal across all states.

"It is nine men. And the nine men decide the important issues. And in this case it was 5 to 4. So actually one man decided the issue. But that is their system. ... It is how they resolve social, political, economic, racial, all kinds of important issues. Congress, the parliament, doesn't have the last word, it goes to the Supreme Court," he said of the SCOTUS ruling while speaking at the Ho Rih Hwa Leadership in Asia Public Lecture Series organised by the Singapore Management University.

"It is not our system. Our system the parliament decides. The executive, through the Parliament, takes the lead, legislates, and legislates on behalf of the population," he added.

PM Lee then reiterated his previous stance on LGBT equality, saying that Singapore is "really a conservative population" and that it is necessary to "let the views evolve with time."

"I think that we have to have a good sense of the ground, a good sense of how people feel, and reflect the values and attitudes of the population, rather than try to impose your own on them," he said.

"I think he was able to say this because the courts have hitherto been reluctant to engage in a robust form of judicial review, preferring instead to defer to the political branches of government (the executive and legislature)," said Dr Jack Lee, an assistant professor of law at SMU.

"It comes down to how the court sees its role. [The ruling for the constitutional challenge to Section 377A] shows the court feels that its job is only to find the most egregious breaches of fundamental liberties to be unconstitutional. So long as the government comes up with at least one reason for a law which the court regards as not arbitrary (a standard very favourable to the Government), the law will be regarded as constitutional," Dr Lee added.

"Personally, I think the court ought to play a larger role in protecting minority rights, and subject legislation and executive action to more stringent scrutiny. After all, it is theoretically a co-equal branch of government, and supposed to exercise judicial review to ensure that the Constitution is upheld. This is particularly important for minorities as the Government arguably has less interest in enacting laws that would benefit them," Dr Lee said.