Few people want to be called to the bar in the Lion City.
Mar 20, 2008
Although many countries, particularly the US, might look
upon it as a blessing, Singapore is facing a growing shortage
of lawyers and is trying to find ways to increase their
numbers even as they leave the profession in droves, driven
out partly by low pay, long hours and, critics say, a legal
straitjacket that prevents them from the effective practice
of the law.
balance, only about 75 additional lawyers have been added
to Singapore’s legal system since 1999.
to the Law Society of Singapore, some 3,401 lawyers were
practicing in the island republic in 1999.
March 2006, the last year for which the Law Society maintains
figures on its website, only 3,476 lawyers were practicing,
a 2% increase despite an 11% rise in population to 4.4m.
has only one lawyer per 1,136 people.
comparison, the state of California in the US, with a population
of about 38 million – a place many say is over-lawyered
– has more than 200,000 lawyers, or 1 per 190 people,
according to the state bar association.
think the younger generation does not fancy law as a subject
anymore,” said one lawyer. “They prefer graphics
and computer studies. The legal profession is essentially
a service industry.
means you get paid for hard work and most Singaporeans I
believe either prefer business or government jobs, not dry
boring stressful legal work.”
legal costs also have caused litigants to resort to other
means of settling disputes, according to Gopalan Singh,
a longtime critic of the system who is now practicing law
aid, he says, is only available in criminal cases for social
welfare recipients. That has led to convicted offenders
who are appearing in High Court appeals without lawyers.
are resorting to unconventional methods to settle scores,
such as paying gangsters to recover debts,” Gopalan
Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong attributes the lack of lawyers
to the low salaries and suggests an upward review.
media reported last year that junior lawyers are paid more
than double in Hong Kong, about S$11,650 a month compared
to about S$4,000 in Singapore.
to the Singapore Department of Statistics, the average monthly
income among employed residents was S$6,830.
doctorate in law in Singapore takes anywhere from two to
five years, according to the National University of Singapore.
an average salary of S$8,775 a month, the legal profession
ranks 11th among professions in Singapore, according to
the Ministry of Manpower, well behind such occupations as
financial futures dealer, at S$13,449 a month (although
far above journalists, a profession relatively despised
by the Singapore government, and ranked 104th at S$3,711
them well,” Chan said. “Greed works most of
the time, even for the large majority of people in affluent
there are other reasons as well, says a Kuala Lumpur-based
lawyer. “Many of my lawyer friends there who have
been in practice for yonks (a long time) have very little
work goes mainly to the big connected firms, like those
connected to the (family of Singapore patriarch Lee Kuan
Yew) or the bigger names with lots of influence. The medium
and smaller firms chase after the scraps.”
addition, he says, Singapore’s judicial system is
so efficient that everything is done by email.
means documents and filing papers are done at lightning
speed. So when you strike an action you file in your basic
documents along with every other legal form from A to Z
in one go.
two days you may get a trial date. All this speed means
fantastic stress for lawyers. Justice rushed is justice
these are certainly reasons for a languishing legal profession,
the courts are probably at least a partial cause of the
hemorrhage, while lawyers say the emasculation of the Law
Society of Singapore in the mid 1980s has contributed.
Seow, who became a vocal critic of Lee Kuan Yew, was ultimately
elected president of the law society in 1986 and ran for
public office only to be arrested and accused, among other
things, of taking money from American political interests.
fled the country but was later convicted in absentia of
tax evasion. It is not advisable, lawyers say, to practice
any kind of law that brings lawyers into conflict with the
date, no major judgment has ever gone against them. To be
sued in Singapore is as good as being convicted.
Singapore government is attempting to address the issue
with moves like setting up a new law school within the Singapore
Management University, increasing the intake for the National
University of Singapore (NUS) law faculty and allowing foreign
firms and lawyers to practice in the country.
include business and corporate law, intellectual property
law, financial law and regulation and a variety of others
including a course in ethics and social responsibility.
The first students were accepted last August.
media reported earlier this month that Law Minister S Jayakumar
is confident that the measures would “ease the supply
announced that he expects “an almost 70 percent increase
in the number of law graduates in two to three years' time.”
emphasised that “while we may need more lawyers, I
would like to stress that it cannot be at the expense of
question of quality is one that Gopalan Singh snorts at.
“The law is being routinely and blatantly abused for
political purposes,” he wrote in his blog, singaporedissident.blogspot.com.
he says, “has turned into a lawless country, a country
run according to the pleasure of Lee Kuan Yew; not according
legal system where if you knew the identities of the litigants,
you can predict the outcome of the trial with absolute accuracy.
That is if Lee Kuan Yew or his family were parties to an
action, the outcome of the litigation is known even before
you step into court! Lee wins. Hapless opponent loses.”