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Sylvia Lim: “Defend our organs of state, before it’s too late”

Speech by Ms Sylvia Lim, Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC on the 38 Oxley Road issue (Lee Family Saga) in Parliament on 3 July 2017.

The Lee siblings have stated that their Big Brother has misused his position and influence over government agencies to drive his personal agenda, and that they feared the use of the Organs of State against them.  These are serious charges and deeply troubling.

But to be fair to the Prime Minister – are the allegations outrageous?  Are they merely a figment of the Lee siblings’ overactive imagination?  We in this House will not be able to get down to the bottom of these questions during this debate, for one simple reason – there is no natural justice in the procedure adopted. With due respect to the PM, we are only hearing the PM’s version, the government’s version, today.  What else there is, we do not know.  Indeed, allegations have been made today that the Lee siblings have been selective in documentation, and may not have been truthful.  They are not here to defend themselves.

I am not accusing the PM of lying.  I am simply stating what we all know – that we simply do not have full information to confidently decide on who and what to believe.

Notwithstanding the limited value of this session, I wish to raise one matter that should be of concern to every Singaporean who wishes to see Singapore as a bastion that upholds the rule of law.  And that is – how fundamentally precious it is that we defend with all our hearts and minds the independence of our Organs of State.  We must protect the Organs of State as professional bodies with a national mission.  The government should never seek to interfere with or to influence those Organs of State set up to ensure good governance.

For instance, take the Auditor-General’s Office (AGO).  The AGO is an Organ of State.  The AGO prides itself in its Core Values of Independence and Integrity.  In elaborating on its Independence, the AGO states that it carries out its audits without fear or favour.  In explaining its Integrity, the AGO pledges to strive to uphold the public trust in its work.  Such a lofty mission is fleshed out in the AGO’s annual reports, which document publicly the financial management shortcomings of Ministries and the PMO.   The significant contribution of the AGO towards good governance and public accountability is clear to all of us.

I now turn to another Organ of State, the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC).  According to the AGC website, the AGC recognises that “As principal legal adviser to the Government, the Attorney-General plays an important role in upholding the rule of law in Singapore, and thus contributes to one of the key aspirations of her people: to build a democratic society based on the fundamental ideals of justice and equality”.

Make no mistake – the AG is a fiercely powerful State actor, more powerful than our Judges.  When Judges decide cases, they are constrained by the laws passed by Parliament, and their decisions are public and appealable.  By contrast, the AG as the Public Prosecutor has almost absolute prosecutorial discretion – he can decide not to charge a person who has committed an offence, to let an offender off with a warning, to reduce charges and so on – these decisions are most weighty, yet they are not public and not appealable.  It is not an exaggeration to say that all of us are at the mercy of the AG.  But each of us should be fairly treated by him, since under the Constitution, all of us are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law.

Even though the Attorney-General is constitutionally a member of the Executive, he is expected to work independently.  It is stated in the AGC website that the AG, in his role as public prosecutor, “is vested with the power to institute, conduct or discontinue proceedings for any offence. The Attorney-General is independent in this role, and not subject to the control of the Government”.  These are the AGC’s own words.

Indeed, past Law Ministers had expressly endorsed the need for there to be distance between the government and the AGC.  For instance, Professor S Jayakumar recently gave an interview for a book marking AGC’s 150th Anniversary.  There, he recalled how when he was appointed Minister of State for Law in 1981, he was given an office located at the AGC, then in High Street. Prof Jayakumar then recounted as follows: ‘I told the then Attorney-General Tan Boon Teik that it was not proper for a minister of state for law to be housed in the AGC because it would raise all sorts of questions about the AGC’s autonomy.”

Fast forward to today. In prior debates this year, I had raised questions about the appointment of the current AG and his newest Deputy AG.   The role of the newest Deputy AG as an immediate past MP is well-known.  As for the AG, it was also well-known that he had been a senior partner in the same firm as the Law Minister for a long time.  They probably understand each other intimately.  We now learn from the Lee siblings that the AG also happened to be PM Lee’s personal lawyer, and that he had advised the PM specifically on the matters relating to the Lee estate.

Now, there is no legal prohibition on appointing the government’s close friends and former party comrades as the AG or Deputy AG.  But, from a system point of view, do these appointments instil public confidence that the AGC will act independently in matters where the government, or worse, the PM, has an interest in the outcomes?   At the time when the appointments were being considered, were there no other qualified persons to take up the posts?  What about the many career legal service officers who had dedicated their lives to public service?  Was there no one there good enough?

Coming back to facts at hand, I am concerned about the conflicts of interest.  How will the AGC act in advising the government on any decisions it wishes to take on 38 Oxley Rd?  Has the AGC already been giving advice to the Committee, and who within the AGC is giving the advice?  Has the AG recused himself from even touching the file, since he had represented PM Lee in his personal capacity as a beneficiary?  What about the Deputy AG?  I understand that he only recently resigned as acadre member of the PAP.  When was this? Will he recuse himself from the matter too, since his former party leader, the Secretary-General, is personally involved?

Madam, Singaporeans are upset over this saga for a multitude of reasons.  One consistent theme is embarrassment at the public airing of family disputes and that family matters should be settled privately.  Another thread is whether the Prime Minister, other Ministers and the Attorney-General had exercised their powers properly in handling matters touching on the Lee estate. My concern is on the latter, particularly how we protect the rule of law and our institutions.  Let us be most alive to the risk of a slippery slope that erodes public trust in the independence of our Organs of State.