Parliament passed a motion filed by Workers’ Party chair Sylvia Lim on Singapore’s criminal justice system just before midnight on Wednesday (4 November) after amendments were made to the motion to remove a call for a review of the system.

The original motion read:

“That this House affirms that fairness, access and independence are cornerstones of Singapore’s justice system, and calls on the Government to recognise and remedy its shortcomings in order to enhance justice for all, regardless of means or social status, including facilitating a review of the justice system.”

The motion was amended to:

“This House recognises that fairness, access and independence are cornerstones of Singapore’s justice system and affirms the Government’s continuous efforts since independence to build a fair and just society, and remedy any shortcoming in order to enhance justice for all, regardless of race, language, religion, economic means or social status.”

People’s Action Party (PAP) Member of Parliament (MP) Murali Pillai, in moving the amendments, said he is not of the view that “anything is taken away (in) the amendments that I’ve proposed”.

Citing nearly three decades of experience with the law as a former police officer and a current lawyer, Mr Murali said that the “hallmark of the law” in Singapore is “independence and transparency of the judiciary” since the Republic’s early days as a sovereign nation.

One of the points the Bukit Batok SMC MP raised involves the question of multiple stakeholders in the administration of justice, from the police to the Deputy Public Prosecutors and the judiciary itself.

While there is still room for improvement in the system which should be debated, Mr Murali said that it is also crucial to balance the interests of the victims and that of state resources.

He also said that in none of the cases he dealt with as a lawyer did he feel that the justice system has been skewed in favour of “connected persons” over vulnerable parties.

All 10 WP MPs and two Non-Constituency MPs from Progress Singapore Party opposed the amended motion.

Ms Lim said that the party cannot support the amended motion as it does not recognise that there are shortcomings and that there will be no review of the justice system as a result.

The original motion, she said, was not raised out of a desire for “heads to roll” in the wake of the Parti Liyani case, but to work towards the “strengthening of the system so that it is built to last for the future”.

Noting that the public has raised questions ranging from those involving miscarriages of justice to whether the prosecution aims to win cases at all costs, Ms Lim said: “Even if the Government and the ruling party are not convinced that the system has shortcomings, the fact that the public is asking such questions should not be ignored.”

It is “sad”, said the Aljunied GRC MP, for the Government to not accept that the system has any shortcomings “after all of the points made today on where improvements can be made or in fact are due”.

Mr Leong Mun Wai stated that PSP is of the view that there needs to be an independent review of the Parti Liyani’s incident, as various matters that may be uncovered by such a review would suggest systemic problems with the justice system.

Poverty and access to justice, issues with law enforcement agencies and justice for crime victims key issues raised by Sylvia Lim in motion

In her motion, Ms Lim drew attention to three key areas: The plight of the poor in obtaining justice, concerns relating to law enforcement agencies, and justice for crime victims.

She raised questions on the extent to which Singapore’s justice system places people on equal footing, “whether CEO or domestic worker”, referencing the Parti Liyani case.

“Have there been domestic helpers, work permit holders and even poorer Singaporeans who believed they were innocent, but have pled guilty to charges because they did not know their rights or could not afford to fight their cases? If we are being honest, we should not ask whether there have been such persons but rather how many there have been,” she said.

Addressing the 2020 Rule of Law Index compiled by the World Justice Project, in which Singapore ranks 12th out of 128 countries, Ms Lim noted that in certain sub-factors, Singapore’s have fallen every year since 2015.

“Singapore was found below average in having effective checks by non-government entities such as the media and civil society and below average in having effective checks on government by Parliament.

“Under the factor of open government, the Rule of Law Index ranks Singapore 28th out of 37 high-income countries on the question of whether there are effective complaint mechanisms for citizens,” she noted.

Singapore, Ms Lim added, is also below the global average on civic participation, which includes the protection of the freedoms of opinion and expression, assembly and association.

Singapore’s criminal justice system, however, has excelled in sub-factors such as the effectiveness of criminal investigation and being free of corruption, she said.

Ms Lim stressed, however, that Singapore ranks poorly among high-income countries in terms of whether the criminal system is free of improper government influence — at 30th place out of 37 among such countries, and globally ranked at 47th.

“The picture for Singapore is thus more mixed than the overall ranking suggests,” she said.

While these rankings were not cited “as gospel truth”, Ms Lim said that it draws attention to the multiple aspects deemed important in assessing a justice system.

“By filing this motion, the Workers’ Party is not saying that the system is broken or ineffective. But we believe we should strive to do even better. There is room for improvement in any system,” she stressed.

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