Upholding Singapore’s rule of law goes beyond the realm of jurisprudence and criminal justice — it will also impact the nation’s economic future, said the Workers’ Party (WP) Member of Parliament (MP) Jamus Lim.
Voicing his support on his fellow WP MP Sylvia Lim’s motion to review Singapore’s justice system in Parliament on Wednesday (4 November), Dr Lim said that the overall efficacy of Singapore’s judicial system is a “bread-and-butter” issue that has implications for business competitiveness and the country’s economic viability.
He went on to talk about the erosion of the rule of law globally in the past decade, including in Singapore.
“Because the success of the rule of law relies on the confidence of those who participate in it, it is critical that our judicial system does not merely provide for its reliability, but actually be perceived to be so,” said Dr Lim.
In order to illustrate his point, Dr Lim told the story of a city called Nagoles in the state of Sonora and another city of the same name in the state of Arizona.
Upon the erection of a permanent border between the two states following the First World War, the now-split city ended up on different paths.
Where one city had higher household incomes, life expectancies, and education, the other did not.
As a result, residents in Nagoles, Arizona fared better and enjoyed more economic stability and quality of life while the city of Nagoles, Sonora suffered worse health, more crime, and a significantly weaker economy.
The story, said Dr Lim, underscores the importance of legal-political institutions, such as the rule of law, in shaping economic outcomes.
Bringing it back to Singapore, Dr Lim said that the choice of the republic to adhere to the “sophisticated legal system” inherited from the British has served the country well, both in terms of natural justice and because the rule of law has been a cornerstone in the country’s business and commercial activities.
However, he warned that this inheritance should not be taken for granted.
“Globally, the rule of rule is in retreat. According to the World Justice Project, adherence to the rule of law has fallen for the third consecutive year since 2017,” said Dr Lim.
Like other nations, Singapore has also seen a decline in the rule of law, said Dr Lim, quoting the World Justice Project’s assessment of the quality of civil and criminal justice here. He also highlighted the World Economic Forum’s assessment of Singapore’s judicial independents which “continues to slide from its peak in 2008.”
Explaining that the rule of law will succeed when people believe that it works, Dr Lim argued that this is why careful reviews of the system are important.
He said: “The objective is to ensure that there is consistency between the intent of existing laws on the books—what is sometimes referred to as the de jure system—and the perceptions of how the law is practiced, the de facto system.”
“If the gap in perceptions becomes too large, the rule of law risks becoming disconnected and hence discounted by the public, to the detriment of much more than just justice per se,” said Dr Lim.
Citing empirical evidence, Dr Lim posited that “when the rule of law is compromised, economic performance suffers”.
As an example, he noted that the city of Seoul in South Korea produces 10 times the economic product of the entire economy of North Korea, despite the fact that the latter country seemed to be more prosperous in 1945 at the time of the partition.
“Now there are, of course, many reasons for the ultimate difference in economic outcomes of the two regions. But one major factor was that the North chose to pursue an institutional path that failed to respect the importance of the rule of law, while the South continued to do so,” said Dr Lim.
“Put simply, when people feel insecure about the rule of law, they invest less. They produce less. And even when they work and invest, they are less productive,” he said.
Therefore, flagging concerns on the perception of fairness, access and independence of Singapore’s justice system extends beyond the Parti Liyani case or other similar cases, said Dr Lim.
“It is also about the divergent fortunes of the Nogales and Koreas of the world. And when we underscore the importance of the rule of law, we are not only trafficking in the realm of our shared notions of justice, but in our common economic future as well,” he concluded.