Chao Hick Tin gets another 2 years as Judge of Appeal

As reported in both the Straits Times and Today newspaper (13 April 2010), Chao Hick Tin has been given another two years in his job as Judge of Appeal in the Supreme Court.  We seem to have moved to a system where more and more of our top judges are continuously on probation, serving limited terms, subject to renewal at the pleasure of the Executive.

This is totally unsatisfactory. An independent judiciary is a critical institution in any democracy. It is a pillar of good governance, especially in its role of providing check and balance against governments — like governments anywhere – that tend to overextend their powers. In liberal democracies with solid rule of law, top judges have either life tenure, or permanent tenure to a predefined retirement age, to ensure that they are beholden to no one.

This is not to say that Chao is not a man of independent mind, or that he does not have the freedom to make his own decisions, but a system of judges always on probation leaves the public, at the very least unsure, if not altogether suspicious, of what should be a respected institution. Our Supreme Court may be independent. Or it may not and subject to political influence. The problem is, we just don’t know, and we are loath to extending it our trust.

How can disrespect for and distrust of a key institution do us any good? Here’s another example of how our government, far from securing Singapore’s future, works to undermine it.

7 Responses to “Chao Hick Tin gets another 2 years as Judge of Appeal”

  1. 1 yuen 16 April 2010 at 19:16

    you should do an article on Walter Woon’s ST interview, which was a very carefully crafted piece; in my view, the interview was not really about him, but about the establishment’s view of the role of AG – somewhere between a civil servant and a legal consultant

  2. 2 Daniel 17 April 2010 at 01:54

    Glad to see you back, Alex!

    Anyway, under the Constitution, judges in Singapore do have guaranteed tenure until 65. The problem is that after 65, their serve at the sufferance of the executive.

    However, I rather doubt that judges will be compliant just because their tenure is not guaranteed after 65. After all, these are the elites of the legal profession – they can always go back into private practice or take up a cushy consultant job.

    More likely, the executive screens judicial appointments for proper “judicial temperament” – they only choose judges who are legally conservative and deferential to the government. No executive interference in the judiciary is needed since these judges sincerely believe in the PAP and buy into its ideology.

    No amount of tenure would help if judicial appointments are all cast of the PAP mould. In fact, if the retirement age were raised, it would only make it more difficult to inject younger blood into the Supreme Court – who are often more liberal as well.

  3. 3 George 17 April 2010 at 14:58

    It is well known how lky operates to make sure he gets his way from appointees without having to cue them as and when necessary.

    Those who wouldn’t allow themselves to be manipulated usually pull out -good recent example is Walter Woon. And even he has to be careful how far he could go short of open defiance to save his teaching job. Of course WW’s position is understandable.

  4. 4 yawningbread 18 April 2010 at 17:06

    Regretfully, I had to disallow one comment. This comment included the sentence “Those who wouldn’t allow themselves to be manipulated usually pull out”, which thus has the implication that Chao Hick Tin does allow himself to be manipulated. This implication is unfair to him and potentially defamatory. There is no evidence whatsoever to support such an assertion.

  5. 5 yawningbread 18 April 2010 at 17:08

    Daniel, if the concern is that a high retirement age would deter people from wanting to serve, one can raise the retirement age and still permit a judge to take early retirement when he feels he wants to.
    It is important to send the signal that judges’ tenure is not open to executive interference.
    I agree with your point however, that this still does not solve the problem of the initial screening. But if the record of US Supreme Court judges is any indication, once judges have life tenure, they sometimes turn out to hold quite different philosophies than initially expected to hold. In other words, they are emboldened in their independence of mind.

  6. 6 yuen 18 April 2010 at 18:20

    I have been checking the various “alternative” political sites to see if anyone picks up the Walter Woon interview, about the interview’s underlying purpose

    I saw some odd comments that ST wanted to save his face, that he was not renewed because he was too zealous, prosecuting too many cases causing some cases to lose at trial or upon appeal; I doubt ST is so considerate towards one term AGs, and if they wanted to be, they would have printed stuff about how important his new job is etc; nor was ST trying to promote a future politician, since he rejected the idea categorically

    in my view, the objective is related to the issues of judiciary independence and prosecutional discretion: Walter Woon wanted to tell people he is an independent minded person, and his job allowed more discretion than others; this is why ST takes the trouble to arrange and print such a long interview

  7. 7 Daniel 18 April 2010 at 22:02

    I’m pretty sure judges now can quit whenever they want. What I meant was that with a higher retirement age, you might end up with a bench of old fogies who have not kept up with the times. You can’t fire them until they reach retirement age, and you can’t make space for new blood to enter the judicial ranks.

    Of course, this is all assuming that older people tend to be more conservative.

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