Friday, 2 November 2012

Tempering the law with compassion

Nov 02, 2012


In a break from his intensely private persona, Law and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam opens up to Susan Long about the legal changes he wants to make, and why he prefers to let his work speak for itself.

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confers on the Government the right to arrest and detain individuals without trial for up to two years, be reviewed or repealed?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."