Singapore will have a new Deputy Attorney General (Dep AG) come next month. The appointment of Hri Kumar Nair to the post has raised some eyebrows, including from the opposition Workers’ Party (WP) chairman, Sylvia Lim.
Mr Hri was a Member of Parliament (MP) under the banner of the People’s Action Party (PAP), and had contested successfully, twice, in the general elections of 2006 and 2011. He stepped down in 2015 to, he said at the time, spend more time with his family.
“I have had to refocus my priorities because my wife is ill,” he explained then. His wife had cancer which was first diagnosed in 2012.
A director with the law firm, Drew & Napier, Mr Hri is also a senior counsel, and has 25 years of experience in law.
It is the first time in Singapore that a (former) lawmaker has been roped in to the AGC.
While Mr Hri is no longer a PAP member (according to his party), it is nevertheless his close affiliation with the political party that has prompted some to question if the appointment is appropriate.
Ms Lim described the future role of Mr Hri as “not ideal.”
“It is critical that persons entrusted with vast prosecutorial discretion act in the public interest, and not for partisan political gain,” she explained. “Whether my concerns prove to be founded or otherwise — remain to be seen.”
Ms Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss, a lawyer who ran as an opposition candidate in the last elections, expressed similar concerns.
“Having only left the PAP recently, surely his ties with the ruling party are still running strong,” Ms Chong-Aruldoss said on her Facebook page.
The concerns are understandable, given that Mr Hri had been a vocal critique of the WP, especially on the issue of financial accounting of the opposition party’s town council, and had contested against other opposition parties.
There is a risk of the AGC being seen to be tainted by political partisanship, if the AGC should be involved in any investigations or prosecution involving opposition parties.
Even if the government promises that Mr Hri will not be involved in such cases, the public cannot be certain as they would not be privy to the internal discussions of the AGC.
This is not to say that Mr Hri cannot be impartial and fair as Dep AG. This, in fact, is not the point, as the issue is a wider and more important one which has to do with public trust in a crucial public institution.
And this does not only pertain to the AGC’s dealings with members of the political opposition, but also to others, such as businesses which may run into conflict with the PAP, or critics of the government.
How can Singaporeans be sure that the AGC will deal with such cases impartially?
Would it not be better, for public trust, to not have a former politician take up such an important public role which comes with significant prosecutorial authority, even if the person is no longer a member of any political party?
Conflict of interest issues are, even if they are not real, a matter of perception a lot of the time.
This is perhaps why another PAP MP, Zaqy Mohamad, decided to opt out of his party’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) when chosen in 2015.
“This is because Mr Zaqy’s employer, Ernst & Young, is the PAP’s current auditor,” the Straits Times reported then.
Which brings to mind another instance of such perceived conflict of interests, which Ms Lim had also raised back in 2014.
She had questioned the Minister of Communications and Information (MCI), on the appointment of Janadas Devan to the post of Chief of Government Communications (CGC), while the latter was concurrently the director of the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS).
The IPS is a think tank under the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
Ms Lim said then “that such a dual role…is not quite a desirable state of affairs because it might raise some questions about the role of the IPS.”
According to press reports, the minister, Yaacob Ibrahim, responded “that it is very clear what IPS has done is very different from what the CGC is supposed to do.”
The Government, he said, saw no conflict of interests in the arrangement.
One would therefore suspect that that would be the same defence given by the Government for Mr Hri’s appointment as well – that there is no conflict of interest because Mr Hri’s integrity and impartiality are unquestioned, and that many who have worked with him have the highest regard for his professionalism.
Nonetheless, the appointments of Mr Hri and Mr Janadas are, one would say, grey areas, and while not necessarily wrong, may not be ideal.
Perhaps more light could be shed, by the AGC and the government, on the issues which are raised by such appointments.
And critics should also ponder on the following:
Should anyone who has held political office never be allowed to hold a public role such as the Dep AG? Why not? Or should there be a buffer period before he is allowed to? If so, how long should such a period be? Or should such a person recuse himself from certain cases where there might be a conflict of interests? If so, who is to decide when such a case arises?
At the end of the day, whether you are a critic or the Government, we must keep in mind that public trust in our public institutions is a precious thing which will be hard to reinstate if lost.