Law Minister K. Shanmugam is unfazed by recent applications for judicial reviews, saying it is people's right to do so. He also tells Tham Yuen-C that changes to mandatory death penalty laws will lead to fewer people being sent to the gallows but that is not why it was amended. Rather, it tightens enforcement to better protect against the drug menace, while murder rates are low so Singapore can afford to relax the penalty for some categories.
There have been quite a few applications for judicial review recently, such as over Section 377A (criminalising sex between men) and from Faith Community Baptist Church (ordered to compensate a pregnant former employee sacked after committing adultery).
Q: How do you feel about people questioning the decisions of the Government?
There have been a few cases. I wouldn't say there have been a lot of cases. The right to apply (for judicial review), where it is fair or where it is properly applied for, is a matter for the courts. People have a right to apply and that has always been a part of our law. You must allow people to apply.
Q: But as a minister, does it affect your work, or the work of the Government?
Doesn't really affect. In Singapore, we take the obligation to make sure the law complies with the Constitution very seriously. In fact, the previous Chief Justice explained that in other countries, say the United Kingdom, you have various districts with many statutory authorities, local councils. And they may not clear all their actions through lawyers, at least in the past. So these actions may be ultra vires (beyond one's legal power or authority) and you might then find some are successfully challenged.
In Singapore, every piece of legislation is first drafted and vetted by the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) and run through the Ministry of Law, where independently, we look at it to make sure that it doesn't contravene the Constitution. Legislation also has to be looked at by the Presidential Council for Minority Rights to see whether there are any possible breaches. So every piece of legislation has been first looked at for constitutional compliance.
Separately, actions by ministries, administrative actions can also be judicially reviewed. But usually they will make sure that they have received advice from the AGC's office, and some ministries have lawyers in-house.
So the likelihood that a piece of legislation is ultra vires is not very high. We have a careful system of checks and balances.
So as a minister, does it impact me? No. I carry on as per usual as I have always been aware that legislation and action can be challenged, and we have put in a system that seeks to minimise that by making sure that in the first place we don't contravene.
Q: Do you feel that the Government's actions are increasingly being challenged more?
I don't know that I will draw that conclusion. These are rights that people have.