Speech by PM Lee Hsien Loong at the 29th Inter-Pacific Bar Association Annual Meeting and Conference on 25 April 2019.
Mr Perry Pe, President, IPBA, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. A very good morning to all of you. I would like to express my pleasure in joining you this morning for the 29th Inter-Pacific Bar Association Meeting and Conference. I welcome all our foreign guests to Singapore. I am very happy that there are more than 1,000 lawyers from around the world gathered here this morning to discuss emerging issues that concern your profession.
Upholding the rule of law
You come from countries with diverse legal systems, each with its own traditions and values, histories and institutions. Some practise common law, passed down from the Anglo-Saxon tradition; others use civil law; yet others draw inspiration from Islamic law. But whatever the provenance, a system of rule of law is a common thread that runs through almost every modern society. The details vary widely, but the basic premise is that society is governed not by the personal wishes and arbitrary decisions of individuals, but by impartial, objective laws. Laws that are clear, passed following due process and published for all to see. Laws that are enforced fairly, free of fear and favour. Laws that are administered by courts that are impartial and independent of the executive and courts that deliver judgments that are reasoned and open to criticism. These are all necessary conditions for people to feel that they are treated equally before the law, and to be confident that no one is above or immune from it.
Laws fulfil both social objectives and economic functions in countries. They are the means for rights to be recognised, justice to be obtained, and crimes to be deterred and punished. They create the essential infrastructure for economic activity, enabling companies to be incorporated and sued, contracts to be entered into and enforced, intellectual property to be safeguarded and investments to be protected.
The rule of law is vital internationally too. It makes it possible for countries big and small to co-exist peacefully, work together, make binding commitments, sign treaties and resolve disputes, notwithstanding changes of governments or circumstances. It facilitates international finance, promotes trade, encourages cross-border investments, and fosters growth and prosperity through international division of labour. Law is thus vital to a stable and a constructive international order.
As a small, open and vulnerable country, Singapore feels acutely the importance of the rule of law. We are conscious about the need to nurture it both internally and externally. This ethos traces back to our colonial history. We inherited the English common law system, and many specific colonial laws. Since independence we have built upon this legacy to develop an autochthonous legal system – one that is native to Singapore. We have updated our corpus of laws, including our Constitution, to remain fit for purpose. We have accumulated our own case law and jurisprudence. We have set up specialised courts to deal with specific issues, such as the Family Justice Courts. We have entrenched protections for minority groups through unique institutions and Constitutional provisions, to reflect our commitment to multiculturalism. We have improved the administration of justice, using technology to streamline court processes and reduce cost. We have built a judiciary that commands respect at home and abroad.
Externally, we are a strong proponent of international law. We take very seriously all our international treaty obligations, and will only enter into an agreement when we fully intend to honour it. Similarly, we expect others to honour fully agreements they sign with us. We support dispute resolution through institutions such as the International Court of Justice and the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague. We have on several occasions referred issues to the ICJ and PCA for adjudication, and have always respected and abided by the outcomes, even when they are not in our favour.
We also participate actively in international discussions on the rule of law, and have done our bit to contribute to its development. In the 1980s, a Singapore diplomat – Prof Tommy Koh – chaired the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea, which produced the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS. More recently, we have participated actively in the negotiations on the UN Convention on International Settlement Agreements Resulting from Mediation. Last December, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention, it decided to name it the Singapore Convention on Mediation. We will host the signing ceremony for the Convention on 7 August, and welcome all countries to join us to be among the first signatories.
Beyond participating in international negotiations, we have also endeavoured to provide the infrastructure and services for parties in the region to resolve disputes in Singapore. We have kept our legislative framework for international dispute resolution up to date with international developments. Two years ago, we enacted the Mediation Act, to provide for the recording of mediated settlement agreements as orders of court, and facilitate enforcement of mediation agreements. We offer a full suite of dispute resolution services for commercial parties, including the Singapore International Arbitration Centre, the Singapore International Mediation Centre, the Singapore International Commercial Court and Maxwell Chambers. Maxwell Chambers in particular is being expanded to three times its current capacity, and the new facility will open in August.
Because of all these efforts, Singapore Law has become more firmly established abroad, especially in Asia. According to a recent survey it is second only to English Law as the most adopted governing law for cross-border transactions in Asia. I am glad that we in Singapore can contribute in this modest way towards establishing and promoting the infrastructure for international trade and investments.
Evolving our laws and legal system
The law is a living thing, and we must keep up to date as society evolves, and as new technologies and ways of doing business emerge. I described earlier how Singapore has systematically updated our laws to fit our unique circumstances. But there are broader trends too, which affect many countries, and where we can benefit from studying each other’s experiences and approaches. Let me illustrate with three examples.
First, since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many countries have had to find an effective response to extremist terrorism and radical incitement to violence. Countries have had to contemplate difficult trade-offs between personal liberties and collective security. They have had to consider when to impose restrictions on an individual or group based on their likely intent to do harm, rather than acting only after they have committed a crime, by when it may well be too late. As for dealing with incitement to violence, the traditional liberal approach – that in the marketplace of ideas, free of all restrictions, reasonable and rational voices will automatically prevail. This is no longer a self-evident truth. Different countries have settled for different solutions to these dilemmas, depending on their societal values and political traditions, but none have been able to avoid them.
Second, the rapid growth of e-commerce has seen businesses operate in entirely new ways. National borders have become porous, and physical presence has become optional. Legal questions that were previously theoretical and of no practical significance have suddenly become real and important. For example, how sales taxes, import duties and corporate taxation should apply to online transactions. How consumer privacy can be protected online. How digital signatures can be authenticated and trusted. How to protect online payments from becoming a front for money laundering or terrorism financing. Countries need to work together to make sure entities existing and operating in cyberspace pay their fair share of taxes in the real world, but they also tussle with one another on the zero sum question of who is to collect and to keep the taxes on these online activities.
Thirdly, the proliferation of technology and social media has provided a medium for hate speech and fake news to spread like wildfire. It has become absurdly easy for malevolent actors to conduct covert, subversive campaigns to manipulate opinions and influence elections. While public education is the first line of defence, legislation is an essential part of the answer, as even Mark Zuckerberg has recognised. Many countries are legislating to tackle this issue. Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, will hold online platforms accountable, and empower the government to issue correction orders, or in serious cases take-down orders when online platforms publish false statements of fact.
These are just a few of the issues that countries must grapple with, in an interconnected world. We will not find universal solutions that work for all countries, or silver bullets which will make the problems disappear. But it is valuable for us to discuss the issues, share ideas, learn how others have approached and handled them, understand one another’s points of view, and where feasible and helpful, work out common rules or at least definitions so that we can engage meaningfully on them.
Once again, I welcome all of you to Singapore for the Inter-Pacific Bar Association Meeting. Questions of law are complex and deserve to be studied by the ablest minds. This conference has brought together leading international and local law firms, in-house legal teams and technologists, in order to network, sense-make, share insights and perspectives. Active discussions at forums like this one will help participants deepen their understanding of issues and widen their networks. Ultimately, better informed, more current legal practitioners can only be helpful to the legal systems and the cause of justice in our respective countries.
I wish everyone a productive conference. Thank you.
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