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Would President Tharman also permit Lucien Wong to remain in office till 75 years old as AG?

On 14 January 2017, Lucien Wong who was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s former lawyer, started his first 3-year term as Singapore’s 9th Attorney-General. He was Singapore’s first AG without prior experience on the Bench or in the Attorney-General’s Chambers.

Wong, who was acting on behalf of PM Lee as his personal lawyer prior to 2017, was first mentioned by PM Lee’s siblings, Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling, in their joint public statement published on 14 June 2017. Wong had acted on behalf of PM Lee over their family feud with regard to their father’s house at 38 Oxley Road.

Conflict of Interest?

When news came out in 2017 that the newly appointed AG Wong was PM Lee’s personal lawyer, SDP immediately wrote to then-President Dr Tony Tan urging him to revoke Wong’s position as AG.

“The association of Mr Wong with PM Lee prior to his becoming the AG has created an acute conflict of interest which cannot be ignored. It is important that President Tan does the right thing in the interest of the people of Singapore and revokes Mr Lucien Wong’s appointment as AG,” urged SDP. “Any further delay or refusal to act will cause even greater erosion of confidence in our public institutions.”

Low Thia Khiang, former chief of WP — said that Wong was representing PM Lee’s in his private dispute against his siblings over the Lee family’s private property, and then — as the AG — had the power to advise the Government and the Cabinet on matters related to said property and their late father Lee Kuan Yew’s will pertaining to the house.

“Is there also a conflict of interest here? Was this consideration taken into account when (Mr Wong) was appointed the AG? Can the PM clarify the role of the Law Minister and the AG in this matter, and explain to the House whether there’s any conflict of interest,” Mr Low asked in Parliament.

Ms Sylvia Lim, chairman of the WP, also noted how Law Ministers in the past had expressly endorsed the need for there to be a distance between the Government and the AGC.

“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?” she asked the House.

PM Lee: No conflict of interest

However, on 4 July 2017, PM Lee defended Wong’s appointment in Parliament, saying that it’s “perfectly normal” to have potential conflicts of interest.

“It is perfectly normal for lawyers to have existing clients and connections, and to encounter potential conflicts of interest when they change jobs. In fact, lawyers with no clients and connections probably have no job,” PM Lee replied.

“There is no problem of conflict at all for Lucien Wong or Hri Kumar to become AG and Deputy AG. If matters come up which they had previously handled as private lawyers, they just recuse themselves and let others deal with it and so it is with the dispute with my siblings on the house,” PM Lee said.

“Lucien Wong was my lawyer. But now he is the AG. I have lost a good lawyer. He is not advising me anymore on this matter. In the AGC, the Government cannot use Lucien Wong either to advise it on this matter, because he is conflicted, he used to represent me. So on this matter, another officer in AGC takes charge. Lucien Wong is out of it.”

But of course, since Wong is the in-charge of the whole of AGC, all officers in AGC will ultimately report to him. PM Lee also said that he has confidence in Wong as AG because he has had direct personal experience working with Wong before in his personal case.

“I told the Cabinet – Lucien is my lawyer, he is a very good lawyer. But the Opposition will make an issue of this. But I do not consider this an impediment, because there is no difficulty of conflict of interest. I recommend him.”

In addition, PM Lee also told the House that he had briefed President Tony Tan before the matter formally went to him. “He (The President) consulted the CPA (Council of Presidential Advisers). The CPA recommended that he approved the appointment. He did. Indeed, after the President approved Lucien Wong’s appointment, and it was announced, the Law Society welcomed it,” PM Lee said.

“It is very difficult to find people of the right calibre and range of experience. You can take my word for it. I have been involved doing this, looking for suitable people to be Attorneys-General for quite a long time. And I have had to do it several times. It is important that we get the best that are there to become the Attorney-General.”

Lucien Wong – Oldest AG in Singapore

Lucien Wong’s predecessor V K Rajah SC — who was appointed AG on 25 Jun 2014 — ended his service as AG on 14 Jan 2017 upon reaching the retirement age of 60 years. Wong was 63 years old at the time of his appointment in Jan 2017. That was his first appointment as AG and he was already 3 years older than the retiring V K Rajah.

Subsequently, Wong’s tenure as AG was extended twice. His 2nd term started from 2020 to early 2023.

Last September, it was announced that Wong would serve a 3rd term as AG at the age of 69 for a further 3 years, from 14 Jan 2023 to 13 Jan 2026.

By the end of his 3rd term in 2026, Wong would be at least 72 years old, making him the oldest AG since the independence of Singapore.

According to the Singapore Constitution, Article 35(4)(b):
“the President, if he, acting in his discretion, concurs with the advice of the Prime Minister, may permit an Attorney-General who has attained the age of 60 years to remain in office for such fixed period as may have been agreed between the Attorney‑General and the Government.”

That is to say, the President using his or her discretion can “concur” with the PM to permit the AG to continue to remain in office even after 60 years old. Wong’s 3rd term was therefore “permitted” by President Halimah, with the “advice” of PM Lee and obviously she must have “concurred” too, acting in her “discretion”.

Hence, President Halimah sees no issue letting Wong work as AG to a ripe old age of at least 72 years old.

Mdm Halimah has already indicated that she would not want to run for President in the upcoming Presidential Election.

At the moment, Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has come forward, stating his intention to contest. Assuming Tharman becomes the new President, would he agree to permit Wong to remain in office for another three years till 75 years old come 2026?

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