Associate Professor Jamus Lim, Workers’ Party Member of Parliament for Sengkang GRC, argued that when it comes to laws involving backdating, a more rigorous evaluation should be applied, expressing his view that constitutional changes permitting the president and ministers to privately assume roles in international institutions fall short of meeting this elevated standard.
While expressing no objection to President Tharman Shanmugaratnam holding esteemed international roles, Assoc Prof Lim cautioned against retrospective lawmaking, emphasizing its potential for severe consequences—disrupting established relationships and undermining efficiency and equity.
He further stressed that such retrospective measures, if ingrained in expectations, become even more troublesome.
Retroactive concern and effects on the rule of law
In a recent Facebook post, Assoc Prof Lim commented on the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment No. 3) Bill, which was passed in the Singapore Parliament on 22 November last year.
The bill, allowing the President and ministers to assume roles in global organizations in their private capacities if it serves the national interest, received 75 votes from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) but faced opposition from eight lawmakers from the Workers’ Party (WP) and Progress Singapore Party (PSP).
The WP MPs raised significant concerns, particularly regarding the retroactive application of the amendments to 14 September, the day President Tharman assumed office, which raised eyebrows among opposition MPs.
While many observers expressed concerns about the constitutional amendment bill compromising the efforts of the busy and highly paid president and ministers, Assoc Prof Lim considered this a secondary concern.
While acknowledging the importance of Singapore’s global presence and supporting proposals for soft power advancement, his primary objection focused on the backdating of amendments to accommodate President Tharman’s assumption of office.
Assoc Prof Lim clarified that his objection was not a personal critique of President Tharman, as he respected his intellectual and leadership abilities.
“I trust that he’ll remain professional. But when we change laws after the fact, we are effectively engaged in retrospective lawmaking, ” he added that changing laws after the fact can have severe consequences, upending established relationships, and potentially undermining efficiency and equity.
Highlighting the rule of law as an underappreciated strength of Singapore, Lim underscored its crucial role in global economic competitiveness.
“The rule of law is one of our nation’s underappreciated strengths. We think of our strategic location, openness to global flows, high-quality talent, and relative safety as key economic strengths. These are, undoubtedly, important. ”
“But in my research, I’ve found that institutional quality—especially respect for property rights and the rule of law—trumps most other factors when it comes to investment, including stuff like the control of corruption, the development of the financial sector, and the tax regime.”
Assoc Prof Lim expressed concern about the quantitative measures of the rule of law in Singapore showing backsliding over the past decade, cautioning against weakening this undervalued superpower at the risk of global economic competitiveness.
He argued that while there have been previous instances of retroactive law changes, they were typically carefully justified, such as measures related to controlling COVID or conditions about the nation’s independence.
“So when retroactive revisions are applied to a matter as grave as constitutional amendments—which are, almost by definition, meant to encompass enduring, fundamental principles for our nation—they should face a higher hurdle. ”
In Lim’s opinion, the constitutional changes allowing the president and ministers to privately take on international roles did not meet this high bar.
“So even if we agree that it’s fine for them to do so (as I’m open to), the circumstances just aren’t sufficiently serious.”
“Arrogant” retroactive revisions
He expressed discomfort with retroactive revisions for a matter he deemed insufficiently serious, suggesting that it cheapens the Constitution and takes the constitutional amendment process for granted.
“There is a certain arrogance in such a move, born out of a self-assured belief that such actions, when undertaken for good reason, justify changing the rules of the game after the fact. ”
He highlighted the supermajority held by the PAP in parliament, cautioning against policymaking that might be associated with giving the PAP a blank check.
“Just because something can be done, it doesn’t mean that it should.”
“I hope Singaporeans will consider carefully, for the sake of our country’s future,” Assoc Prof Lim concluded.
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