Opening Remarks by Mr Edwin Tong SC, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Second Minister for Law at Mr Richard Siaw's Book Launch
20 August 2022 Posted in [Speeches]
Professor Cheong Hee Kiat, President of the Singapore University of Social Sciences
Mr Kelvin Wong, Deputy Chairman of the Law Society Pro Bono Services
Ms Milona Xia, Patron of RSS Foundation
Mr Richard Siaw, Managing Director of R S Solomon LLC
Mr Raymond Wong, Chairman of Tian De Temple
Ladies and gentlemen
1. A very good afternoon to all of you.
2. Thank you very much for welcoming me here and it is very nice to meet all of you.
II. RAISING LEGAL AWARENESS
3. The law is a strange creature. It permeates many parts of our lives – we live with it, and we have to get used to it. But we often never understand it.
4. Some of my constituents often come to my Meet-the-People (MPS) sessions and asked me for help on simple things like probate when a loved one has passed away, or seeking legal representation for family and divorce matters, and so on.
5. To some of us, these are fairly straightforward matters. But to very many, they are very complicated issues. Sometimes, for us lawyers, we think that it is a straightforward matter, but to the person who faces the legal demands or legal claim, or has to be in Court, or has to deal with a legal question or a suit, it is the first time in his or her life. It can be a very daunting exercise.
6. In this vein, I am very glad that Richard has written this book 《萧遥法外》 to shed light on not just what the law is and stands for, but also what it means to us on a day-to-day basis, and the importance of the law and useful applications in our everyday lives.
7. More importantly, the way it was done is to use things that we can relate to, e.g. stories, folklore, and often with a dash of humour as well, to make you and I at ease and understand the law.
8. Richard has skilfully invited readers to embark on a journey to learn more about legal concepts. You learn through the stories, that you almost forget that this is a book that teaches you snippets of the law as you would enjoy the stories so much.
9. There are 52 short stories within his book that cover a wide range of issues, including neighbours’ disputes, family and estate matters, and even Singapore’s competition laws – I am sure that every one of us here will be able to relate to some of these stories and topics.
10. Through this book, I hope that readers will better understand the law, whether it is a complicated or straightforward area.
11. One interesting story that I came across is a civil legal dispute between two parties. Some of you know that I used to be a civil disputes lawyer, and when I saw this story, it piqued my interest. There were two neighbours. One was an elderly woman, who had an overgrown rain tree in her garden. This tree was growing bigger, with the branches growing taller and longer, and it was shedding leaves. Her neighbour hired a contractor to prune the tree’s branches. While the worker was still in the bucket of the lorry crane pruning the tree, the elderly woman took the key from the crane’s ignition and refused to return the key, and therefore trapping the worker mid-air in the crane’s bucket for almost one and a half hours! This is a true story! Later on, the elderly woman pleaded guilty to wrongly confining the worker in the crane bucket. For this offence, and a string of other related offences, the elderly woman was sentenced to a total of six weeks’ jail.
12. The moral of the story is, (i) do not be rash, and (ii) take a step back and think about these daily problems between neighbours, oftentimes starting out over small matters such as overgrown trees, pets, and carparks. I think the moral of the story also includes whether we can solve these problems in other ways. I think there are many examples in Richard’s book that teach us this as well.
13. In particular, my Ministries – both the Ministry of Law and the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth – encourage neighbours facing disputes to solve the problem amicably. Afterall, we are a typical Asian society, and we look at neighbours as someone that we have to deal with, and indeed, if we find a way forward to solve our disputes in an amicable fashion, we can carry on being nice neighbours. So, community mediation has proven to be quite successful. In fact, more than 80% of cases that ended up at the Community Mediation Centre, or CMC, are successfully mediated. Whether down the road, there are some other problems, we do not always know. But it provides an effective first stop for parties who do not agree with each other to see different viewpoints and use the mediation services.
14. Given the high settlement rate and successful experiences that the CMC has, we are studying whether mediation can be used more widely as a more effective way to resolve disputes.
III. ADVANCING ACCESS TO JUSTICE
15. What Richard’s book does is to make the law relatable to the common person in a common scenario.
16. Laws, which are able to be understood, make our legal system more usable and accessible, and it is a very important foundation of our legal system to make justice accessible.
17. Advancing access to justice is at the very heart of what we do in the Government, and in particular, what the Ministry of Law does.
18. But what does access to justice mean? This is a phrase that means many things and I will try to break it down simply.
19. Essentially, access to justice means people who need to use the legal system can use the legal system.
20. The usual way to bridge the justice gap is through giving legal aid, to find pro bono lawyers providing legal assistance – either at low costs or no cost, and to allow them to use the legal services.
21. In Singapore, we provide civil and criminal legal aid for those who cannot afford their own lawyers.
22. This year, the Government has done a few things to enhance the legal services and access to legal services, and to provide legal assistance and representation for more needy accused persons. We have recently announced that we will set up a Public Defender’s Office (PDO) for those in our society who are not able to afford quality legal services. We will set up a system to provide for this on an ongoing basis, and this will be sited within the Ministry of Law.
23. We also expanded the criminal legal aid coverage. We looked at the qualifying criteria, and we made it slightly easier to access. If you measure the threshold for means testing based on what we do for ComCare and other social assistance schemes, it is not quite the same. Because oftentimes, getting legal help is once in a lifetime, hopefully for most people. When you come across it, it is a serious problem. So, we expanded the scope so that more people will qualify for such criteria.
24. The Government will hire full-time lawyers to staff the PDO, which will institutionalise the provision of criminal legal aid, and enable more vulnerable persons who cannot afford their own lawyers to access it.
25. We just passed the Public Defenders Bill in Parliament earlier this month, and we will set up the PDO by the end of this year.
26. However, the provision of legal aid cannot be the end point of our assistance for legal representation for the needy.
27. Not all legal issues require legal representation.
28. As such, we have also taken a holistic approach to enhancing access to justice in Singapore. We do this by:
(a) Encouraging alternative dispute resolution,
(b) Simplifying legal frameworks and accessibility so that people can also use the services on their own, and
(c) Working with a rich network of partners in the legal fraternity and community. We are very fortunate to have so many partners come forward and work with the Government. Some are from the civil society, community, and others include institutions within the Government. Many of these partners, including the Law Society of Singapore and the Community Development Councils (CDCs), help us to raise legal awareness and provide legal assistance, and very often, this is done through the caring hearts of many pro bono individuals who stepped forward to provide the services. Many of these services have a good brand name, but what it actually does is to leverage the goodwill of the many people stepping forward to provide their time, often after office hours during the weekdays or during the weekends to attend to the needs of the citizens.
29. This approach enables us to really make a difference when we talk about access to justice. Not just providing legal aid or setting up something in a structured way like the PDO, but be out there, working with people in the community to provide the access.
IV. COMMUNITY LAW FELLOWSHIP PROGRAMME
30. Today, to take access to justice one step forward, we will also be witnessing the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on the Law Society Pro Bono Services’ Community Law Fellowship Programme (CLFP).
31. The CLFP is envisioned to provide that last-mile community-based legal assistance.
32. As part of the CLFP, community lawyers will provide legal advice and representation to members of the community, and work with other agencies to meet both legal and extra-legal needs because the law is not just about giving legal advice, it is actually about providing assistance. If you come across an individual who needs legal assistance but at the same time, you realise that this is a troubled family or a vulnerable individual, you may need to also refer them to social assistance.
33. These lawyers will reside in Community Law Centres, which will be embedded in all five CDC districts.
34. The CLFP is an example of how partnerships between like-minded caring individuals and organisations can really make a difference to bridge the gap on the ground within the heartlands.
35. On this note, I really commend Richard’s efforts and thought process of going into this, using interesting stories that allow us to associate, identify and learn about the law a lot better. This is also an opportunity to raise legal awareness in the community, and to support the CLFP.
36. Initiatives such as Richard’s book and the CLFP are examples of how individuals and organisations can come together in a very fruitful and productive way, and really tell ourselves that we are far stronger than the sum of our parts.
37. As I conclude, let me leave you with a quote from the former US Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who was the first Jewish woman and the second woman to serve on the Court. She said at the 2014 Pro Bono Institute Annual Conference, “Lawyers have a license to practice law, a monopoly on certain services. But for that privilege and status, lawyers have an obligation to provide legal services to those without the wherewithal to pay, to respond to needs outside themselves, to help repair tears in their communities.”
38. I think in many ways, Richard’s book, the Law Society, the CDCs can all come together to help repair tears in our community.
39. Thank you very much.
Last updated on 20 August 2022