Saturday, 30 September 2023

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Controversy unleashed: Reappointment of Singapore’s oldest Attorney General

The reappointment of Lucien Wong to a third term as Attorney General (AG) in January this year has raised serious questions regarding political cronyism, potential conflicts of interest, and age-related concerns about his appointment.

Upon the conclusion of his term in 2026, Wong will be 72, an age significantly beyond the traditionally recommended retirement age of 60 for this role.

Intriguingly, Wong, despite his prolific career for over 40 years, has never argued a case in court, raising questions about the decision to extend his tenure rather than tapping into the vast talent pool within the legal fraternity. This prompts us to scrutinize the transparency of the appointment process and potential conflicts of interest more closely.

The Attorney General in Singapore plays the crucial role of public prosecutor and legal adviser to the Government. As stipulated in Article 35(4) of the Constitution, the appointment of an AG is entrusted to the President, who acts on the advice of the Prime Minister.

Wong was first appointed by former President Tony Tan, who previously served as a People’s Action Party (PAP) Minister. His subsequent reappointments have been made by the current President, Mdm Halimah Yacob, a former PAP Member of Parliament.

However, Wong’s former role as a personal lawyer to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in the handling of the 38 Oxley Road property has understandably raised some concerns. This property dispute has been a contentious chapter in Singapore’s political narrative.

Opposition parties were swift to question the impartiality of Wong’s position, given his previous association with the Prime Minister.

Furthermore, his potential role in advising the government and cabinet on matters pertaining to the Lee family’s property or ongoing police investigations involving PM Lee’s younger brother and his spouse presents a troubling overlap, considering his prior representation of PM Lee in the dispute with his siblings.

Wong’s appointment brings a deeper issue into focus – the intertwining of personal, professional, and political relationships within Singapore’s highest legal office. His longstanding professional association with the Home Affairs and Law Minister, Mr K Shanmugam, within Allen & Gledhill, adds a further layer of complexity.

During the debate on the 38 Oxley Road issue, Workers’ Party chairman Sylvia Lim questioned whether Wong, in his capacity as AG, was essentially serving as PM Lee’s personal lawyer in his private dispute with his siblings. Similarly, former WP chief Low Thia Khiang underscored the importance of public perception of independence and impartiality when it comes to such high-profile appointments.

Although Minister Indranee Rajah, from the Prime Minister’s Office, stated that the Prime Minister consulted with the Chief Justice, the Chairman of the Public Service Commission, and the incumbent Attorney-General during Lucien Wong’s appointment, and that due process was observed with no issues in the current appointment, the perception of a conflict of interest still lingers in the public’s view.

In a democratic society, public institutions derive their legitimacy from the trust and confidence of the people. While there may be no legal prohibition against the appointment of close friends or party comrades as AG or Deputy AG, such appointments must be evaluated based on their potential impact on public confidence in the impartiality and independence of the office.

Finally, the question of age demands attention. While age does not inherently impede capability, the existence of a recommended retirement age underscores the importance of rejuvenation and succession planning in pivotal public roles. Particularly since his predecessor, Mr V. K. Rajah, who was younger than him, left his appointment after reaching the age of 60.

Article 35(4) of the Singapore Consitution provides that the AG may be appointed for a specific period of time and it also says that, subject to his being removed, he shall vacate his office at the expiration of the period but subject as aforesaid, meaning subject to the removal clause, he should otherwise hold office until the age of 60 years.

On this issue, Ms Lim had previously asked the Government if it “would, in good faith, to clarify this matter, apply to the court for an interpretation to see whether the Government’s view is correct.”

However, in response to Ms Lim’s question in 2017, Mr Shanmugam said that the Government has taken a view and also taken advice from AGC, asking that Ms Lim to apply to court herself.

The appointment of Lucien Wong as AG illuminates the delicate balance between legal provisions, institutional integrity, and public sentiment. It gives rise to valid concerns regarding potential cronyism, conflict of interest, and age-related considerations.

Ensuring public trust is crucial, necessitating that such appointments be transparent, impartial, and in line with the spirit of constitutional provisions. As Singapore continues to evolve as a democratic nation, maintaining the sanctity and independence of public institutions must be paramount.

With Wong’s term renewal due in the future, these are considerations that the incoming President may well need to mull over.

This is 7 of 60 articles written for the S$30k fundraising of Terry Xu’s contempt of court fine and cost. To see the full list of the 60 articles, visit this page.

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