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.