Desmond Lee
Singapore's Legal System

Ben Bernanke has said that "the ultimate purpose of economics ... is to understand and promote the enhancement of well-being. So it is with the law. The true worth of a legal system is not measured only by abstract principles, but also by the practical difference that it makes to the well-being of society and individuals. Has the system created conditions under which society can develop and flourish, and every individual has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential?

Singapore has done well across many international indicators of human and social development. Our nominal GDP per capita has increased more than a hundredfold since 1965. 90% of households own their homes. Our children regularly rank at or near the top in international tests. Our life expectancy is amongst the highest in the world. We have hardly any gun crime, and very low levels of violent crime. People from different races, religions and cultures live together in harmony.

The legal framework, comprising institutions, processes and rules, is an essential foundation for these achievements. The legal system by itself did not achieve these results. But a sound legal framework is indispensable for a society to make such progress. Over the years we have built a good, trusted legal framework. It provides for the fair arrangement of relations between individuals and between individuals and the State; certainty for businesses; checks on abuses of power and official wrongdoing; fair and consistent enforcement of the law; an independent and impartial judiciary to resolve disputes; and more. Without these basics, the economy could not have taken off, society could not have developed, and people would not have had the opportunities to develop their full potential.

We were pragmatic in the way we structured our legal system. We took the world as it was, and we went with what worked best. If one approach did not work, we tried another. We were not afraid to change orthodoxy. We chose not to have a constitutional right to property, so that the State could take lead in developing our land, a vital and scarce resource, by compulsory acquisition if need be. That allowed us to reshape the urban landscape, to support our social and economic development. We turned ideas around: for example having publicly-built housing which was privately owned.

The articles in this issue look at different ways in which insights from economics and behavioural science have shaped our laws. Good law-making will increasingly depend on such interdisciplinary learning, as our laws continue to adapt to a changing world.

But one thing must remain constant. Our institutions, processes and laws must always command the trust of Singaporeans. Trust that the system is working for everyone. Trust that the system will give everyone a fair share, even if outcomes cannot always be equal. If that trust breaks down, the whole system breaks down. There are many examples in the world today of trust breaking down. Where those in power are beholden to special interests. Where elections and referenda are tainted by deliberate falsehoods and dark money. Where the sight of a law enforcement officer inspires fear, not confidence. All this feeds into a vicious cycle of distrust. The system cannot function when people do not trust it. When the system cannot deliver, people will not trust it even more. The whole system will then fall into paralysis and disrepute. We must never let that happen in Singapore.

K. Shanmugam
Minister for Law