Singapore's courts

Reducing litigation
Yong Pung How has shaped a distinct judiciary philosophy in Singapore that liberals complain is too complaint to political leadership. By Seah Chiang Nee
May 19, 2002


CAUGHT in his car in the middle of the night with several weapons, the defendant explained to the court that the two knives were for his wife to cut fruits and the parang was for his protection.

"Why didn't you go home instead of waiting for someone to come and attack you at 4.15am?" asked Chief Justice Yong Pung How sardonically.

"Oh, I was visiting a friend," Tan Yew Liang replied in his appeal hearing. "You visit friends at 4am?" asked Malaysia-born Yong, aged 75.

He flipped through the papers and remarked that reading Tan's long conviction record of violence and secret society activities would ruin his eyesight.

Tan pleaded for a chance, saying he was remorseful. "It's very touching but you have been asking for the last chance for the last 16 years. You've lent a new meaning to the word remorseful."

Yong called for a preventive detention report and turned his attack on the district judge, who had sentenced Tan to 10 months' jail and eight strokes of the cane.

"I think he must have had a toothache, giving him only 10 months. There's a weakness on the part of some of our district judges."

Yong was similarly displeased with the sentence - 12 months in jail and three strokes - passed by the lower court on Ralapratap Singh for molesting a nine-year-old girl.

The man's chronic alcoholism and eight convictions did not endear him to Yong. "I'll help you. I'll make sure you don't commit any more offences." He also got 10 years' preventive detention.

Four out of five cases either fail, or worse, result in enhanced sentences.
Born in Kuala Lumpur in 1946, Yong entered the bar here in 1964 and was appointed chief justice in 1990.

In 12 years, Yong has remoulded Singapore's legal system beyond recognition, clearing its huge backlog of cases.

Both Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew (who first appointed him) and Yong shared a desire for swift, firm justice.

In five years, Yong has written 384 judgments, or 17.5 percent of the Supreme Court's total rulings, making him Singapore's most productive judge in history.

Some of them have become law. For example, he ruled that some molest or rape offenders will have their sentences doubled if their lawyers persist in asking questions that harass or embarrass the victim.

In another benchmark case, he said that offices, clubs or restaurants may be open to the public, but a visitor can still be hauled up for trespassing if the management had banned him from entering the premises.

It happened in the case of a disgruntled clerk who kept returning to his former office at Housing Board although he had been dismissed four years earlier.
Others include the following:

.JUDGES will be less tolerant of long-winded cross-examinations in future to ensure that trials did not drag on too long.

A person who offers bribes to corrupt those who maintain law and order here deserves equal or even heavier punishment than the people they buy off.

In 1990 when Yong assumed office, cases took six or seven years to reach the courts in Singapore.

He instituted a number of reforms, including the use of mediation in civil cases.

Another is the use of computer technology and night sittings which drastically reduced the backlog and earned the legal system here top accolades among businessmen in Asia.

Human rights complaints

But human rights groups denigrate it as being "compliant" - or oppressive, but putting the main blame on the political leadership rather than on the judges.

They say that defamation laws are frequently used to stifle dissenting views. This is abuse of the court process by government leaders.

In the past few years, human rights groups and foreign media commentators have hurled these and other accusations at the Singapore legal system.

The criticisms stem from the growing number of defamation suits brought by People's Action Party leaders against political opponents and Western publications.

Law academic Thio Li-Ann, in an article in the Hong Kong Law Journal, argues that the courts here have tended to award "communitarian" judgments, and have been "deferential towards collective interests and executive assessments of what the public good requires."

She cites several examples, including a 1995 (Colin Chan vs PP) decision upholding an order to deregister the Jehovah's Witnesses group on the grounds of protecting public order, despite the constitutional protection of religious freedom.

In like vein, she notes, the courts here have tended to protect the public interest of upholding the integrity of government leaders, rather than make judgments that protect the right of individuals to make public criticisms of conduct by public figures.

The government's position on this is unequivocal.

It believes that protecting the reputation and integrity of the political leadership is of the utmost importance, and that the consequences of not doing so extend far beyond the courtroom.

This was how Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong put it when he was cross-examined in August:

"We are a different society. In Singapore, we believe that leaders must be honourable men, gentlemen or junzi (a Confucian gentleman), and if our integrity is attacked, we defend it."

This was unlike Western societies, where politicians might not do anything if their integrity was attacked, he added.

Online mediation

The judiciary here was the first in the world to launch an online mediation facility, enabling commercial and Internet-related disputes to be settled via cyberspace, without the need for parties to go to court.

This mediation service is speedy, confidential and free of charge. Yong said such a facility would maintain Singapore's competitiveness as an international e-commerce hub.

The move towards negotiations in front of a court arbitrator started some six years ago.

He is a neutral official listening to arguments from both sides.

The idea stems from the belief that Asians, by and large, dislike litigation. Besides it saves money all round and no loss of face that a court battle generally produces.

Some 75 percent of the cases are resolved in this manner.

The court official has no power to impose his decision on either party. He is a neutral adviser who is trained to listen to (and guide) the representations made by each side (normally made through the lawyers).

Chief Justice Yong will turn 76 this year. Last year he was reappointed head of the judiciary for three more years.
Seah Chiang Nee