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Tempering the law with compassion

Law and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam opens up about the legal changes he wants to make, and why he prefers to let his work speak for itself. -ST

Sun, Nov 04, 2012
The Straits Times

IN THE four years since Mr K. Shanmugam took over the Law Ministry, he has wrought sweeping legal reforms. Not least of all is the easing of the mandatory death penalty regime for drug-trafficking and murder offenders.

The Criminal Procedure Code was also overhauled in 2010, providing new community sentencing options such as the mandatory treatment order and community service order, as alternatives to jail sentences.

If he has one goal in his lifetime, he lets on, it is to make Singapore a more compassionate society "with greater communitarian spirit and which looks after those who can't look after themselves".

To lead the way, the 53-year- old conscientiously looks for the exceptions, outliers or those who fall through the cracks. His legal training helps him to "first step back and look at things in perspective in terms of overall systems, structures, what's legally possible" and to that, he adds "kindness and compassion" to see what he can do in each individual case.

More changes are afoot.

National University of Singapore law professor Michael Hor, who was his university classmate, expects the minister to continue to "inspire quiet and incremental change in favour of moderation and balance". The changes so far stem from a humble and humane approach to law: "humble because of the awareness that when rules are crafted, we can never foresee (their) consequences with absolute certainty, humane because of the unwillingness to sacrifice individuals unfortunately caught by overbroad rules".

Mr Shanmugam himself says he is trying to make the legal framework relevant to the times.

What lies ahead?

Liberal hopefuls have wondered: Will the Internal Security Act (ISA), which confers on the Government the right to arrest and detain individuals without trial for up to two years, be reviewed or repealed?

To this, the Law Minister says that nothing is written in stone, although he adds that the ISA is not under his purview but that of the Home Affairs Ministry. "Everything has to be looked at as society changes and the environment changes. Any law has to have public support."

Tempering the law with compassion
Click on thumbnail to view (Photos: ST, TNP, BT, Reuters, Zaobao)

As a young lawyer, he too had misgivings about the risk of abuse with the ISA but, since the Sept 11 terrorist attacks on the US in 2001, his views have changed. "You have to ask yourself what are the consequences if we are not able to detain terrorists ahead of time without trial? What are the consequences for Singapore which has persuaded the world to invest here based on confidence?" he says, adding that often the information available cannot be made public.

"So you have a choice between arresting without trial or not arresting and waiting until the act is about to be committed. A larger country can afford to take that risk. Can we afford to take that risk?"

After 23 years as a top civil and commercial litigator, he now trains his firepower on transforming the criminal justice system. He wants to boost the quality of the criminal Bar and attract younger people to it. He is also looking at beefing up access to justice, beyond depending on lawyers to take on pro bono cases on an ad hoc basis.

Of late, he has taken on eclectic causes - dogs, cats, street dancers and itinerant hawkers. A dog lover, Mr Shanmugam has three of his own, and has worked with animal rights groups over the past four years to effect a slew of changes. Last weekend, he piloted a scheme allowing residents in Chong Pang to keep cats in their HDB flats. If successful, the scheme will go islandwide.

Animal rights group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres) founder Louis Ng says he alerted Mr Shanmugam last month to the plight of terminally ill Mr Tan Cheng Chu, who was told to give up one of his dogs according to HDB rules, after a neighbour complained of noise. Mr Shanmugam asked to meet Mr Tan and ruminated on his Facebook page afterwards that discretion must be exercised in applying rules. Mr Ng says: "What touches me the most about him is that no matter how busy he is, he always makes time to listen to the concerns of animal lovers and makes an effort to help."

Meanwhile, the minister has applied an unsentimental rigour to his foreign affairs portfolio, which he inherited after the 2011 General Election. Well aware that no city state has lasted a long time, he sees his role as forging ties that are important to Singapore's economic and strategic security, and defending Singapore's interests.

His unvarnished, straight-talking manner has been an unlikely diplomatic asset. American diplomat and academic Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, says of Mr Shanmugam: "The quality of his mind is impressive. In meetings with him, he has legal framing, approaches problems in a deeply systemic way, is unsentimental about the world, clear- eyed and very strategic… He can be hard-headed about what is best for Singapore, but he is always upfront and clear."

No social capital

FAR from his public image as an aggressive lawyer, the soft-spoken man, whom you have to strain to hear, comes across as shy in person and intensely private. All he will say about his childhood is that he was the youngest of three children and the only one born in Singapore to immigrants from Tamil Nadu with no formal education.

His father ran a small business, and his mother was a housewife. Home was a series of rented premises, usually shared with others, till they got their first Housing Board flat when he was 16.

He was born in 1959, just before the People's Action Party (PAP) swept into power. His parents had "zero social capital". But they bequeathed him "total faith, which I then adopted without question, that it didn't matter who you are or the colour of your skin, what race you were, all that mattered is that if you study hard, you can do well in life".

"It was a very simple philosophy. They had total faith in the PAP and that education was the passport to success." He attended the now-defunct Newton Boys' School, Raffles Institution and then National University of Singapore's law faculty, graduating with first-class honours.

The PAP had started wooing the rising litigator through its tea sessions. Before he said "yes" to being fielded as a candidate, he wanted to get a taste of constituency work. Former MP Chandra Das remembers him as a "keen, earnest and patient young man, with sharp observation skills", who dutifully attended all grassroots activities. He was fielded in 1988, when he was 29.

At first, the young English- speaking Indian lawyer thrown into Chong Pang in Sembawang GRC - a very Chinese, lower-middle-class constituency - seemed a poor pairing. "But the traditionalism of the constituency meant that there are certain advantages. One, if you work hard, are sincere, didn't throw your weight around and are in a position to help, as I was as a lawyer, many deep and close friendships are immediately formed... And once you have done them a favour, they remember you for life. So that constituency in a way fitted my personality," he says.

"Partly because of my own background, the milieu of the people I met were in the same social situation that I used to be in myself, so I was completely comfortable," he says. He stayed five terms and is now the second longest-serving MP in Cabinet next to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who was elected in 1984.

Asked whether being plain- speaking has been a liability or asset in his political career, he shrugs and says: "People know I mean what I say. Sometimes it has served me well, sometimes it has comes across as harsh. I don't sugarcoat or say something people like to hear. I prefer to be honest and direct. I think there is value to that."

His law career soared. He has represented listed companies, multinationals and the Singapore Government. At 38, he became one of the youngest senior counsel. Juggling legal practice and politics, along with fathering two young children, took its toll. There were regrets and sacrifices along the way, such as "no time to read, smell the flowers or watch the kids grow up". His marriage to Dr Jothie Rajah failed and they divorced after 15 years, due to "mutual incompatibility".

Dr Rajah has since completed a law PhD at Melbourne University and written a book Authoritarian Rule Of Law, which alleges that the rule of law is a subjugating rather than liberalising force in Singapore. Asked about this, all he will say is he has not read the book. "My own views are set out in the speeches I have made on rule of law," he adds with finality.

Big pay cut

MR SHANMUGAM remarried four years ago. His wife is Seetha, 41, a Berkeley-educated, Chicago-trained clinical psychologist - and a fourth-generation Singaporean. "Not a foreign talent," he adds for good measure, in reference to online rumours.

She has quit private practice to travel with him on his official trips.

He visibly relaxes when she arrives midway through the three- hour interview at Old Town White Coffee at Chun Tin Court, their favourite weekend haunt. It is one of his rare pockets of downtime. The only other is his daily hour-long exercise routine, which involves calisthenics, yoga and cross-training.

He admits that in 2008, when he was asked to become law minister, it was a big decision to mull over, involving a sizeable pay cut. His income in the first year was less than the tax he had to pay on his previous year's income, he lets on.

"Yes, it was a substantial financial cutback but I don't see it as a great sacrifice. I was at a stage in my career where I was prepared to say I can do this... Of course I thought about the money. I will be lying if I said I didn't. I went and looked at my obligations from an accounting point of view. Then I decided to do it."

The clincher was when he reflected that if he looked back at his life on his deathbed, it would have been more important for him to "have worked to change society for the better" than to have made more money.

What fires Mr Shanmugam, a Hindu, is his deep religiosity. "If you look at the Bhagavad Gita, a central theme is about doing your duty and not worrying about the results. Whether you succeed or you fail, do what you think is right, and leave the consequences to take care of themselves," he says.

He hastens to add that he has not fully internalised that. "I'll be lying if I told you that the results didn't matter. But I keep reminding myself and try to be on this path, and it influences the major decisions I take."

That has shaped his understated, taciturn ethos of "Don't talk much, just do what you can". And of course letting his work speak for itself.

Mr Shanmugam on

His public persona

This comment that I'm aloof has been made more than once. People think that because I am somewhat introverted. I don't speak much, I keep to myself.

Plus, the litigation training that is so much a part of my persona makes me deconstruct what people say clinically: "You said this. These points I agree, these other points, I don't agree."

And I will set out the reasons why they make no sense. In court, I didn't think of this as being harsh. But outside court, people tell me sometimes it does sound harsh. I need to reflect seriously on that.

Levelling the playing field

We need to look at the academic system again, to make sure that it is truly meritocratic. Over the years, a class structure has developed. Middle-class parents are able to give a significant head start to their children. The State has to do more in the infant care and pre-school context, to help the children whose parents can't give them the same advantages. The State can't completely equalise the advantages educated parents give their children, but the State can do more to level the playing field.

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