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Evolution of a revolution: Forty years of the Singapore constitution.

Evolution of a revolution: Forty years of the Singapore constitution

Edited by LI-ANN THIO and KEVIN Y.L. TAN

London and New York: Routledge-Cavendish, 2009. Pp. xxxi, 369. List of cited cases, Table of statutes, Index.

doi: 10.1017/S0022463411000233

I must confess that I opened this book with some trepidation. As a historian-cum-political scientist who has sometimes been referred to as a sociologist, I have a fairly broad disciplinary base, but none of these led me to expect that I would enjoy reading a book on constitutional history. Suffice to say that I was wrong.

This must be one of the most readable and informative books on constitutional history ever written. It tells the linear story of the foundation of the Singapore constitution in the aftermath of Singapore's brief sojourn in Malaysia, and the hundreds of constitutional changes that followed. It also finds space and context for side trips and reflections from diverse perspectives. And it does it all so well.

In this project the two editors are joined by five Singapore-based co-contributors--Tan Seow How, Arun K. Thiruvengadam, Jaclyn Ling-Chien Neo, Yvonne C. L. Lee and Michael Hor--to produce a remarkable piece of scholarship.

Insofar as the book has a theme and for an edited collection the theme is remarkably strong and consistent--it is about the utter subordination of the Singapore constitution to the Singapore parliament. The constitution was born as the bastard child of the Malaysian constitution and the Singapore parliament, resulting in what former Chief Minister David Marshall once called 'the untidiest and most confusing constitution that any country has started life with' (p. 8). In fact the Singapore parliament existed before the Singapore constitution and brought it into being, determining the power relationship between the two in much the same way that the pre-existence of the Indonesian army before the Indonesian government affected Indonesia's political evolution for two generations.

The constitution can be changed effectively at the whim of the executive through a submissive parliament, and it is changed so routinely that it is a moot point to say that it plays the role of the constitution. In fact the authors cite several instances of the courts--especially former Chief Justice Yong Pung Howe--bringing down judgements that overrode the constitution in favour of individual pieces of legislation, thus reversing the normal order (pp. 177-9, 339). They go further and cite instances

of courts upholding the actions of the executive over the stipulations of the constitution. Not that the Singapore constitution goes out of its way to uphold individual rights in the first place. There is certainly some lip service in this direction, but the authors paint a very convincing picture of constitutional change in which virtually every change is designed to strengthen the hand of the incumbent executive (p. 59). Liberty, and even the freedom to be politically active are merely privileges granted or withheld by the government (pp. 261, 275).

Furthermore, unlike in India, there is no implied limit to the scope of constitutional amendments. In 1989 the courts rejected the opportunity to exercise such a restraining influence, and effectively upheld the right of parliament to pass any legislation and any constitutional amendment it chose without reference to any principle, or even to conflicting sections of the constitution. In the same action it also upheld the rights of a minister to act without reference to any abiding principles (p. 169). In the particular case being considered in this instance, the immediate result was the continued incarceration of a young woman who has never, to this day, been charged, let alone convicted with any crime, but who spent nearly three years in jail at the whim of the minister for home affairs. I refer to Teo Soh Lung, one of the famous detainees of 1987, who was still languishing in prison in 1989.

Such is constitutional development in Singapore.

If there is a fault in the account, it is that it pays no attention to the subservience of the parliament to the executive; but to anyone who knows Singapore at all the implication is present, loud and clear. Perhaps the authors thought that they had already been explicit enough.

The book has an excellent index and its referencing follows the conventions of legal publications, complete with a comprehensive list at the start of the book showing all the court cases that are cited in the course of the volume.


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Author:Barr, Michael
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2011
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