The Supreme Court Building, Singapore. Photo: Wikipedia

When the High Court of Singapore on September 4 acquitted Parti Liyani, an Indonesian domestic helper accused of stealing from her rich and powerful employer, little could she or her lawyer, Anil Balchandani, who was acting pro bono, have imagined how their fight for justice would impact the city state.

For a long time, the Singapore’s judiciary system has been accused by its critics of being rather pliant when it comes to the rich and those who are politically powerful. Even Li Shengwu, the nephew of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, had alleged so and was charged and fined for making such an allegation. 

The decision by High Court Justice Chan Seng Onn has reignited the debate on this sensitive topic. On one hand, his decision did vindicate the judiciary system of being pliant. But it is the District Court’s earlier decision that has now makes this allegation debatable.

Impartiality of police and prosecution

In his 100-page judgment, Chan overruled the District Court’s conviction of Parti. She had been sentenced by District Judge Olivia Low in March 2019 to 26 months in jail.

Questions are now being asked about the impartiality of the police investigation into the alleged crime, the motivation that drove deputy public prosecutor Tan Yanying to pursue this case, and the basis that underpinned the District Court’s decision.

Netizens have openly alleged that Attorney General Lucien Wong is an acquaintance of Liew Mun Leong, whose family employed Parti. As such, even the impartiality of the Attorney General’s Chambers has been brought into question.

In any prosecution, it has always been the responsibility of the police to investigate, for the public prosecutor to decide on the charge, and the court to rule on it. This tripartite arrangement is meant to provide the necessary checks and balances to ensure each process remains independent so as to safeguard the integrity of the judicial system.

But when K Shanmugam, who heads the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), is also the head of the Ministry of Laws (MOL), and when a situation arises when there is an allegation against the AGC, Shanmugam’s dual portfolio opens the government up for attack by its critics. 

The Singaporean government may have to review this potential conflict of interest and fortify the tripartite arrangement of its judicial system so as to avoid criticism.

More ambiguities

Liew was the chairman of Surbana Jurong, a real-estate consultancy, and Changi Airport Group (CAG), and was also the senior international adviser at Temasek, Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund. His sudden resignation on September 10 was to be expected.

What was not expected was when Teo Eng Cheong, who was CEO international at Surbana Jurong, suddenly announced his resignation just two days before the High Court’s decision to acquit Parti. He is the husband of Manpower Minister Josephine Teo.

As many Singaporeans do not agree with the Manpower Ministry’s earlier decision to have only issued an advisory to Liew’s son and only to caution his wife for making the maid work illegally at her son’s house, which is illegal in Singapore as it was outside of her official place of work, the ministry’s latest attempt to assure the public that it is looking into the case has been complicated by Teo’s sudden resignation. There have been just too many coincidences underpinning this case.

Decline in public trust

While many Singaporeans are indebted to the founding fathers of the People’s Action Party that has ruled the country since its independence and tolerated the PAP’s occasional shortcomings, there is a growing number of Singaporeans who have become less tolerant of the current batch of politicians, known as the “fourth generation” (4G) of the PAP.

In the recent general election, the PAP only managed to secure 57.5% of the total votes, its worst performance ever. This poor result validated the unpopularity of its 4G politicians.

With Singapore’s economy in serious decline, their persistence in thinking that all is well is frustrating many level-headed Singaporeans as it makes mockery of any honest dialogue and feedback. 

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country, they tried to deny that they were slow in executing the needful such as closing the border. This led to an explosion of infections in Singapore and caused the country to lose its gold standard in public health management. This finally led Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to admit their missteps in Parliament.

If they had earlier admitted to their missteps and taken corrective actions, the pandemic could be well mitigated by now, and many more businesses and employments might still be viable.

This explains why there is a growing number of Singaporeans who see them as arrogant, incompetent in governing the country and have no sense of accountability when things go wrong.

Looking more like opportunists who are serving their own interests, the fear on the ground is growing that they will end up driving the country to its knees.

Powerful political elites and couples

Singapore is in dire need of individuals who are sincere, competent and dedicated in serving and governing the country. To do so, PAP politicians must stop their rhetoric that only they and their spouses, children and relatives have what it takes to run the country cleanly and justly.

The manpower minister and her husband are just one of many powerful couples that the PAP has created. From the defense minister to politicians such as Tin Pei Ling, whose husband is the permanent secretary for health development at the Ministry of Health, there are countless other such powerful couples within the establishment, not counting those with family and relational ties.

If they had been competent in governing and addressing the socio-economic challenges that are plaguing the country, Singapore would not be so divided or its economy tattered. Mediocrity, in the form of these powerful couples and individuals, must make room for the return of real meritocracy if Singapore truly aspires for a better future.

As such, mediocrity must be treated like a cancerous scourge and be eradicated. The Parti case has just illuminated the urgency for Singapore to right what is systemically wrong about us as a society and as a nation.  

The prime minister knows well that if he truly wants to win back the trust and mandate from its people, he has to do what is right and good for the country. That means he has to embrace meritocracy and expel mediocrity from our public offices.

To do so, Lee will have to lead by example. This leaves us with the key question – does he have the “iron” in him to do what is right and good for the country?

Joseph Nathan has been the principal consultant with several consultancy agencies in Singapore for about three decades. For Malaysia, Indonesia and the Middle East, he undertakes consultancy via JN Advisory (M) Sdn Bhd and is also the brand owner of Victorian Herbal. He is a Singaporean and holds an MBA from Macquarie Graduate School of Management, Australia.