An ombudsman should be set up to handle investigations on complaints made against public agencies, said The Workers’ Party (WP) Member of Parliament Leon Perera.
Speaking in support of his fellow WP MP Sylvia Lim’s motion on Singapore’s criminal justice system, the Aljunied GRC MP said that an ombudsman “would function as an independent office to investigate complaints about unfair administrative decisions or actions of a public agency, including delay, rudeness, negligence, arbitrariness, inconsistency, oppressive behaviour or unlawfulness”.
Noting that the Parti Liyani case has raised the question of wider access to the criminal justice system and avenues of redress for those with lesser means, he added: “An ombudsman would provide access to an independent public office with the remit and resources to investigate potential wrong-doing, errors, lapses or weaknesses in the conduct of public officials.”
This should also extend to the conduct of public servants, including the police and the prosecution service, said Mr Perera.
However, it should not have authority to investigate complaints against the judiciary “so as to protect the vital tenet of judicial independence from any potential for inappropriate external interference”.
Noting that the idea of creating an office of the ombudsman in Singapore is not a new one, Mr Perera detailed the various times such a proposal was brought up in Parliament over the years.
First, the 1966 Wee Chong Jin Constitutional Commission recommended instituting an ombudsman. While the government then did not reject the proposal, it stated that it was not the right time as citizens had not yet developed a clear understanding of their rights and obligations.
Mr Perera quoted then-Law Minister EW Barker who said that such an institution would be “flooded by complaints by people who do not know what are the limits of his jurisdiction”.
The idea was raised again in 1990 by then-MP Davinder Singh who said that it was in Singapore’s interest to “develop a system of accountability”.
A few years later, current Law Minister K Shanmugam himself — who was then not yet a minister — also raised the proposal in Parliament in 1994, Mr Perera highlighted.
Mr Shanmugam, Mr Perera quoted, said that an ombudsman “might actually help retain the confidence of the people in the system… to have an intermediate institution which can provide for a quick and effective remedy, and reserving the final appeal to the Minister for extreme cases”.
Later in 2011, current Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh — chief of WP and Mr Perera’s fellow Aljunied GRC MP — called for the establishment of an ombudsman. He did the same in 2012.
The issue was then raised regularly by other MPs, NCMPs and NMPs since then in 2013, 2016, 2017, and 2018.
Though not addressing Mr Perera specifically, Mr Shanmugam said that investigations into the Parti Liyani case have been opened in different branches of the system, from the police to the Attorney-General’s Chambers.
He said this in response to Potong Pasir MP Sitoh Yin Pin’s question on whether an ombudsman can be appointed for government agencies.
Mr Shanmugam said that an ombudsman would have done the same thing that current authorities are already doing.
“The question is whether an ombudsman takes you further for good governance,” he added.
Edwin Tong: Will an ombudsman improve S’pore’s systems?
In response to Mr Perera’s call to establish an ombudsman, Second Minister for Law Edwin Tong said that Singapore already has many external review panels set up for such a function.
“In Singapore, we have our public institutions with its governance, we have internal reviews, and to the extent that some members have said internal reviews are not sufficient because they are all conducted by internal people, then on occasion where necessary, there is the external review as well,” he said.
For cases where there is a complaint on a lower level concerning rude behaviour, Mr Tong added later that there is also the Meet-the-People sessions for residents to bring up concerns and complaints.
While agreeing with the intention behind setting up an ombudsman, Mr Tong said that the proposal has to be considered in the context of Singapore’s current systems and outcomes.
Instead of “just citing the experiences of these other countries”, he said that it is crucial “to put it in the context of where this system operates” and “the people who operate this system as well”.
“Ask ourselves: What is that reality?” Mr Tong questioned.
In his speech, Mr Perera pointed to several countries that have established ombudsman and quoted a 2018 OECD Working Paper which said that almost 30 per cent of governments have included independent institutions such as ombudsman offices to foster a more “open state”.
To this, Mr Tong said that it is important to not only look at countries that have set up such a system but also the impact it has had on their legal systems after years or decades.
He went on to note that Singapore was ranked 12th in the latest World Justice Report, which is in contrast to some of the neighbouring countries Mr Perera pointed to — Indonesia ranked 59, Malaysia ranked 47 and the Philippines ranked 91.
Mr Tong did not, however, provide rankings for other countries cited by Mr Perera such as Hong Kong (16), Australia (11), and the UK (13).
Mr Perera pointed out this omission, asking: “I’m wondering if the minister is making the argument that having an ombudsman actually lowers the quality of justice and is there any evidence to that effect?”
Mr Tong responded that he is not generalising.
“I think if you did the research, which I’m sure you did, you would have seen numerous articles about the ombudsman system in Australia, UK and the failings it has,” he said.