Not so much a ‘Hallelujah’ but a big ‘Huh?’ was my first reaction to Justice Woo Bih Li’s eyebrow-raising act of disqualifying himself from presiding over defamation suits against Opposition politicians, Chee Soon Juan and Chee Siok Chin, who are represented by counsel, M. Ravi.
This must be the first time that a judge in Singapore disqualified himself from a case, moreover one with such political undertones. (Refer to Vignes Mourthi case in 2003 for background to Ravi’s claims of bias). It is usually the case that the application for the judge to be disqualified is based on bias against the litigant, not the solicitor. Justice Woo’s move thus comes as a surprise.
Ravi’s allegation of perceived bias is, in my opinion, a mere sideshow to a more fundamental concern. What is underlying the legal case is a far more disconcerting question of whether the Singapore Judiciary is at all independent.
For sure, the Judiciary in Singapore is not without its critics.
Asia Forum for Human Rights and Democracy, for one, censures the “use of the Judiciary by the government to repeatedly constrict opposition politicians by imposing heavy fines and jail terms”. (See Asia Forum for Human Rights and Development, “A Shadow on Singapore’s Judiciary: Use of Defamation and Contempt of Court on Government Critics”) Former Opposition politician, Francis Seow has also made condemning remarks about the ‘politics of judicial institutions’ in Singapore. (See article, “The Politics of Judicial Institutions in Singapore”) The US State Department had in Mar 2006 questioned the independence of the Judiciary in defamation cases targeting opposition leaders. In Jun 2006, the Singapore courts came under scrutiny in a case in Canada (EnerNorth Industries asked the Ontario Court of Appeal if legal decisions made in Singapore are fair and impartial enough to meet Canadian standards of justice; the appeals court reserved judgement after hearing the case.) In its Jul/Aug 2006 publication, FEER carried a write-up “Singapore’s Martyr, Chee Soon Juan”. FEER alleges that “Singaporean officials have a remarkable record of success in winning libel suits against their critics”. It questions, “How many other libel suits have Singapore’s great and good wrongly won, resulting in the cover-up of real misdeeds?”
Despite the criticisms, Singapore has, for long, pride itself on having an independent and impartial Judiciary. The Chief Justice and other judges of the High Court are appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister. They are appointed for life and transcend the political fortunes of the government-of-the-day.
I do not doubt that justice is very much alive in Singapore. One recent case best exemplifies this – Opposition politician James Gomez was hauled up by the police after his election form fiasco in May 2006 and the buzz was that the ruling government would once again employ scare tactics against the Opposition and Gomez would be charged in court. This would have happened if the Judiciary was under the direct control of the executive.
However, as it turned out, Gomez was only rapped with a “stern warning” for using “threatening words” against a civil servant and allowed to return to work in Sweden. One may quibble over whether Gomez was liable of wrongdoing. But I am certain that the decision was the right one, in view of evidence in the case and taking into consideration mitigating factors. Justice is certainly not blind to anyone who is deemed to be an adversary of the incumbent government. As the declaration in the Magna Carta dictates, “to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice”.
My understanding is that the Judiciary is an important bulwark of democracy and bastion of civil liberties. It checks and balances other pillars of state power, namely executive and legislature (trias politica or separation of powers as coined by Montesquieu). But in order for the Judiciary to perform its role as the protector of the people against any abuse of state powers, judges must conduct themselves and be seen to conduct themselves to deserve the trust of the people.
The personal backgrounds, opinions and attitudes of judges will increasingly come under public scrutiny even as people’s understanding of the judges’ role does not correspondingly increase. All this makes it more likely for people to believe that judges are not as impartial as they are supposed to be, especially when it comes to decisions on controversial issues. One way to remove this misperception is for judges to explain their decisions.
Indeed, Justice Woo’s act in the interests of justice is, without doubt, laudable. He had come forth to explain his decision regarding Ravi’s claims of bias - he had performed the necessary to assure Ravi that he would not be biased against the lawyer but also accepted that the public’s perception had to be taken into consideration. Such transparency can only bolster the impartiality of the judicial system in Singapore.
At the end of the day, ‘justice must not only be done, it must also be seen to be done’.