Citation(2016) 28 SAcLJ 413
Published date01 December 2016
Date01 December 2016



I. Introduction

1 When I was invited to address the members of the American Law Institute (“ALI”) at this Annual Meeting, I hesitated. To be sure, it is a great honour. But, I wondered what I, the Chief Justice of a small island nation as far away from the US as it is possible to be, could offer that might be of interest to you. It is difficult for Americans to relate to the tiny scale of my country. When I studied in the US in the early 1990s, there were many who had never heard of Singapore; and those who had mostly had no idea where, much less how small, it is. To convey an idea of scale, I would say that Singapore is about a fifth of the size of Rhode Island; or half the size of the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

2 The US is not only a vast country blessed with rich and diverse natural resources; she exerts economic, cultural, intellectual and diplomatic influence on the rest of the world through her global businesses, the ground-breaking innovations and research of her scientists and inventors, the worldwide reach of her news and entertainment media, the long arm of her diplomacy and the persuasive force of her thinkers on law, liberty and democracy. It is not difficult to see why many insist that America is an exceptional nation.

3 Singapore, on the other hand, has been described rather more modestly as an improbable nation. She is often caricatured as a study in contrasts: tiny yet prosperous; safe but over-regulated; western in outlook, yet steeped in notions of Confucianism; democratic, yet dominated throughout her existence by a single political party; free but communitarian; and above all, pragmatic, not ideological.

4 Yet despite our many differences, I believe our nations meet on a foundational plane in our shared commitment to the rule of law.

Singapore was among the last places that the late Justice Scalia visited before his untimely death. I had the pleasure of hearing him speak and the privilege of hosting him when he visited my court. We spoke at length about the rule of law and its critical role in enabling Singapore's success as a nation. It was in that shared space that we connected.

5 But the rule of law is a seemingly elastic concept that risks being sidelined as a convenient sound bite if one looks at the diversity of those who claim to embrace it. I therefore propose to begin my substantive remarks today by adopting the working definition of the rule of law put forward by the late Tom Bingham, one of the foremost thinkers on the subject, that:1

… [a]ll persons and authorities within the state, whether public or private, should be bound by and entitled to the benefit of laws publiclymade, taking effect (generally) in the future and publicly administered in the courts.

This encapsulates the most important facets of the rule of law and it rightly emphasises the instrumental role the courts play in upholding it, which is what I shall mainly focus on today. Beyond this, I will suggest that there can well be differences in our understanding of how the rule of law works as a practical matter in each society.

6 I will then outline the Singapore story to validate my hypothesis that our journey as a nation has been founded on a commitment to the rule of law, and also to illustrate how we have sometimes pursued a path that might take a somewhat different direction than you have done, without thereby derogating from what I consider is a shared commitment to the rule of law. I will close with some thoughts on how and why we as a legal community should devote ourselves to exporting this commitment, but taking due regard of the peculiarities of the soil in which the seed is to be planted.

II. Rule of law: Theory and practice

7 The rule of law is not an immutable concept. There are competing accounts as to what it entails. Simpler theories focus on the dichotomy between “thick” and “thin” conceptions.2 More sophisticated

analyses characterise it as the coalescence of a series of related but distinct values.3

8 Yet a theoretical analysis of the rule of law might obscure two elementary points. The first is that debates over the rule of law are often mired because of a failure to separate a conception of the rule of law from the philosophical and normative premises embedded within it.4 A sharp disagreement seemingly over a particular rule-of-law theory may, in substance, be a deeper, more antagonistic narrative of an ideological difference.

9 The second point is that the practical outworking of core rule-of-law values in any country will depend on and take shape from the social context and national soil out of which it grows.5 Thus, the practical manifestation of the rule of law in a society steeped in a long tradition of democracy and liberal values may be very different from that in a nation journeying out of a history of military or autocratic rule whether by reason of war, as in Iraq, or of “people power”, as in the Philippines when President Marcos was deposed, or by the peaceful reconfiguration of the system, as recently in Myanmar.

10 There are two aspects of the point I wish to draw out. The first is the obvious one that it would be naïve, even unwise, to assume that fidelity to the rule of law must look and feel the same in the US as, for instance, in Myanmar today, if only because the societies in which it operates are differently situated. My second point is that there is no reason to assume that fidelity to the rule of law must mean, staying with the same example, that Myanmar as a polity must one day look and feel American. This, too, would be naïve because of differences in the ethos of each society and in their value systems, aspirations, cultural and religious beliefs and what I might conveniently term, their own historical baggage.

11 We need not look far to appreciate both these elementary points; they are borne out by the long arc of America's rich and textured legal history.

III. The rule of law in American legal history

12 The American Revolution drew from the well of natural law theory and the Lockean social contract in its commitment to equality and a distrust of power.6 The Constitution, therefore, divided the Government into three coordinate arms. The Judiciary was the institution entrusted with upholding the rule of law. Any doubt as to the 8 strength of the Judiciary's bite7 was dispelled in Marbury v Madison, which entrenched judicial review as a stalwart of constitutional rights and a safeguard against governmental excesses.

13 In the aftermath of the Civil War,9 the courts were, on the orthodox view, propelled by the ideology of laissez-faire individualism into a period of activism.10 But this was followed by a period of retreat and restraint under the New Deal court, as the US strived to overcome the woes of the Great Depression.11 By the mid-20th century, the court emerged as the strong protector of civil rights and liberties with the far-reaching decisions of the Warren Court.12

14 I tread carefully in making these broad strokes, which might well not be universally accepted.13 I am conscious of the perils of addressing an audience of American judges and lawyers on their constitutional history. But I hope to make a narrower point that may go down rather easier.

15 That the conceptions of an independent Judiciary upholding the rule of law have evolved over time is unsurprising because the rule of law is inevitably enmeshed within a complex web of historical fact, philosophical outlooks and, to some extent, the “felt necessity of the time”.14 Yet, behind these various conceptions, we see the same deep and unyielding commitment to the ideals of equality and liberty that characterised the founding of the republic;15 the same firm recognition of the centrality of the Judiciary in ensuring legality and defending rights; and the same respect for and adherence to the decisions of the courts, no matter how unpopular they might be. Without question, this has been instrumental in America's pathway to its exceptional position.

IV. The Singapore story

16 Against that backdrop, let me turn to the Singapore story. If the American republic was born out of a pursuit of high ideals, Singapore was the progeny of an austere and existentialist necessity.

17 For nearly a century and a half prior to her independence in 1963, Singapore had been a colony subject to British rule. As she moved towards independence in the early 1960s, the strong sentiment was that a federation with Malaysia, our neighbours in the north, would be the only way to secure our survival.16 Malaysia was a large, resourcerich nation. By contrast, Singapore, though already a busy trading port, had little else. We had a land area of just 580km2 (about 150,000 acres) and no natural resources; we even depended on Malaysia for drinking water. We had a population of 2 million people, many of whom were migrants of a diverse heritage, having only recently set foot in Singapore. I, for example, was born just a decade after my parents first came to Singapore from India.

18 And so on 16 September 1963 we came out of our colonial past as a constituent state of the Federation of Malaysia (“the Federation”). The union was short-lived. There were deep disagreements between the local government in Singapore and the federal government over the establishment of a common market and the special position of the Malays.17 Singapore left the Federation in 1965 after political, economic and racial skirmishes18 caused our relationship with the Malaysian government to fracture and eventually break down. On 9 August 1965, Singapore became an independent nation.

19 I don't think many gave us much chance perhaps even to see in the new year! The idea of an independent Singapore – which had been described (by her founding Prime Minister, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew) as a “political, economic and geographical absurdity”– had materialised.19 Our existence was...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT