I was just reading this Speech by the First PM Lee Kuan Yew addressing the then Advocates and Solicitors Society in 1967.  It is an interesting and frank speech.

A particular passage struck me:

“And there is the new law in regard to poster pasting. If you do it in an indelible form, you get a whacking. I and the Minister of Law who is a lawyer had to fight a tremendous duel with the Attorney-General’s office to formulate this law. We knew there was a plan for the whole city to be plastered with paint — red paint, black paint. But the Magistrate doesn’t understand. He doesn’t read Chinese. He doesn’t know what these things exhort. It is just so much messy paint on the walls. He doesn’t know how difficult it is to catch one man out of hundreds that did it; how difficult it is to be on the spot at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning and to apprehend one of them. It is quite an effort. And when you get one, to the utter and absolute disgust of the police, he is just cautioned and discharged. And so we said, “Second conviction — compulsory caning.” And you know, we have a lot of liberal lawyers in the Attorney General’s Chambers. They would not put up a draft. They literally refused. They wrote long screeds why this was against the best traditions of penology.”

He was referring to the new vandalism laws imposing caning.  Most persobanksy24ns who are trained in the law would oppose corporal punishment for a purely property offence (if they have been inculcated with the values that are part of common law tradition).  The punishment must fit the crime.  It was not unsurprising that many in the legal profession and notably within the AG’s Chambers opposed caning.

It is easy for us to assume today that the Civil Servants of the past must have been silent compliant players in the system and that they must have been faithful enablers for the PM and his Cabinet.  This is especially the case since, in our minds, LKY looms large as someone who would only have it his way.  It is true.  In the end, he did have it his way.  But, it seems that the lawyers in the AG’s Chambers put up a good fight.  Just imagine.  Writing “long screeds” to the PM.  Not just any PM.  To LKY.

I doubt many in the Civil Service would be so bold today.  I wonder if stuff like this happens in the AG’s Chambers today.  I am not privy to their workings.  There must surely be independent minded lawyers in the AG’s Chambers.  The question is whether someone in the Chambers today would be so bold as to refuse to put up a draft of a legislation because it goes against fundamental values in the legal system, let alone write a “long screed” to the PM or his Cabinet.

We have heard anecdotes of Civil Servants from the 1960s and 1970s being bold and vocal.  The management of public affairs back then was not entirely in an echo chambers of ‘yes’ men.  I wonder how it is today.

Perhaps, we have become too comfortable?  Too complacent to realise that the contest of ideas is an important part of moving a society forward.  Pushing, resisting, fighting back.  Forcing the clarification of ideas or the abandonment of the same if no rational clarifications are forthcoming.  I don’t know.  But, I certainly found the former PM’s account of a mini mutiny in the AG’s Chambers rather fascinating.

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