Speech by Law Minister K Shanmugam at the 4th Annual Event of the Attorney-General's Chamber of Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia and Singapore
16 Apr 2009 Posted in Speeches
Your Excellencies, the Attorneys-General of Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia and Singapore,
Ladies and gentlemen,
- We welcome our friends, the Attorneys-General, and their officers from Brunei Darussalam and Malaysia. I am honoured to open this event, which represents the fourth meeting of the Attorney-General’s Chambers of Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia and Singapore since the annual event began in 2006.
Importance of Tri-AGC Annual Event
- We consider this event important because it is a gathering for all officers of the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) from our three countries. Our histories are deeply intertwined. Before the Second World War, our legal officers were freely transferable between the nine Malay States as part of the Malayan Civil Service. Today, we have broadly similar legal systems and governments, and the Attorney-General (AG) serves the same crucial role as the government’s chief legal advisor and Public Prosecutor. We benefit greatly from gatherings such as this, to enable us to form a better understanding of each other’s laws and concerns.
Importance of role of AGC
Legal Advisor to the Government
- In his capacity as the legal advisor to the Government, the AG and his officers undertake the critical task of translating policies into law. Law and policy are completely interdependent. A policy which is implemented through legislation is only as good as the law which gives it meaning and effect.
- In drafting and amending our legislation, AGC officers are charged with the responsibility to ensure that our laws are consistent with the Constitution and do not violate fundamental legal principles. Their wealth of institutional knowledge and broad exposure to the policy changes across government agencies enable them to discharge their roles effectively and efficiently.
- When the intent or meaning of any legislation is called into question, AGC officers are also called upon to deliver clear and unbiased interpretations of the law.
- In our fast-changing world, Governments need to anticipate and keep pace with societal changes. We have to react accordingly and amend our legislation to maintain its relevance. To fulfil this role, AGC officers have to undertake to keep abreast of these changes.
- In the legal traditions of our three countries, the AG is also the Public Prosecutor. In this role, he safeguards public interest.
- Public prosecutors cannot escape the changes in the fast-paced world we live in now either. As technology advances, the methodologies of criminals are constantly evolving. Public prosecutors must keep at least one step ahead of the criminals to maintain their effectiveness in discharging their duties
Guardian of the Rule of Law
- With his dual roles as the government’s legal advisor and Public Prosecutor, the AG serves as a unique custodian of the rule of law, ensuring that our laws are constitutionally valid when enacted, transparent in application, and fair in enforcement. The rule of law underpins political and social stability, enabling us to sustain the public confidence of the local and international community. This, in turn, is fundamental to economic growth and allows society to flourish when the rule of law is sacrosanct.
Scope for cooperation amongst the three AGCs
Greater need for cooperation in complex times
- In the recent past, we have all experienced the onset and subsequent effects of globalisation. In the commercial world, we now see an ever-increasing volume of cross-border transactions and growing complexity of business deals.
- Each country has to ensure that its legal services sector is able to support the continued growth of key sectors of its economy, in particular, the global nature of the banking and financial industry. This we can do better, if we do together. There are natural synergies among the three countries. What is needed is a common baseline of laws that will protect the integrity of financial institutions and agreements. Equally important is to have a cadre of knowledgeable and competent legal practitioners who possess an international outlook and the ability to work across different jurisdictions.
A closer legal profession
- In this context, greater interactions between the legal professions in our three countries can only be beneficial. Singapore has, since its independence, progressively opened up its legal sector. We have welcomed foreign firms in Singapore since the 1970s, and have over time introduced greater latitude for them to integrate with and partner local firms.
- In 2006, the Singapore Government appointed a high-level Committee to undertake a comprehensive review of our legal services sector to ensure that we remain at the forefront of the provision of cross-border legal services. The Government accepted the main recommendations of the Committee and at the end of last year, introduced further significant measures to liberalise our legal services sector. Our legal market now provides more pathways for foreign law firms and foreign lawyers to establish their own offices or to partner our local law firms and lawyers to advise on a wide range of key commercial areas. Significant in this respect is that we gave six licences to six top international law firms to practise Singapore law in practically almost all areas of Singapore law, except litigation and one or two areas that have been carved out. As we went through the process, we realised that essentially, some of the fears were unfounded and it was a good way to go. And we hope that with those experiences that we have had, we can share with our friends from Brunei and Malaysia.
- We believe that over time, any country that embarks on the liberalisation of its legal services sector will derive advantages that apply to both foreign and local law firms and lawyers. International law firms and their lawyers will bring their practice base and vast experience to the country, and in the end, enlarge its legal market. At the same time, these firms will be able to provide banking, financial and other services to not only the local, but also the regional market. Local lawyers will also benefit greatly, as they will gain the opportunities to work for top global law firms and learn from working with international lawyers.
- I understand that at the 12th ASEAN Senior Law Officials Meeting last year, a proposal was put up by our counterparts from Brunei Darussalam for the progressive liberalisation of our legal services sectors. I hope that this topic can be further explored at this meeting.
Navigating the Expanding Legal Frontiers
- Another area in which cooperation amongst our countries is important and beneficial is the ongoing expansion of legal frontiers. As countries become more inter-connected and science and technology advances, our legal frontiers also expand correspondingly.
- The proliferation of new media platforms is a good example. On the one hand, we can harness their benefits in disseminating information quickly and allowing the Government to connect with a wide spectrum of stakeholders. On the other hand, new media poses challenges. First, there is the challenge of keeping public discourse rational and honest. Second, we need to prevent criminal groups from using new technologies to evade detection and prosecution. Criminal laws generally do not have extra-territorial reach, and the internet allows criminal syndicates to operate without the need to step foot in the country where the offence is committed.
- To deal with these growing challenges, we cannot afford to look only within our geographic or jurisdictional boundaries. We need to establish a commonality of legal concepts, and more importantly, structures for co-operation and a strengthening of the relationship between our law enforcement agencies. Only then will we be able to effectively regulate what our children see and read on the internet, and also combat criminal syndicates seeking refuge in other countries.
- We share closely interwoven histories and a common legal heritage. While each of us has developed our own legal system in accordance with our particular needs and circumstances of our different countries, the basic legal framework is the same. That is an excellent basis for us to continue our regular engagements and to benefit from each other’s experiences. This is also a strong platform from which our three countries can cooperate even more deeply to achieve a common goal.
- I wish each one of you a fruitful and enjoyable session.
Last updated on 27 Nov 2012