The Military Justice Club held our second annual Military Justice Roundtable Session on the 27th of August 2015. MJP was proud to host our distinguished guests – Mr. Jon Ong, Registrar at the SAF Military Court of Appeal and ex-Head, Military Law at MINDEF Legal Services; Mr. Laurence Goh, legal practitioner and owner of Laurence Goh Eng Yau & Co, and Brigade Commander of 30 Singapore Infantry Bridage; Mr. Louis D’Souza, Senior Deputy Director with the Legal Aid Bureau and former District Judge at the State Courts; and Mr. Amolat Singh, founder of Amolat & Partners, Associate Mediator of the Family Justice Courts and veteran of the SAF. Our panel, moderated by our outgoing head, LTA(NS) Joshua Matthew John Paul Goh, engaged us in a lively, insightful and refreshingly candid discussion on the military justice system in Singapore. The session proved to be both a celebration of the merits, and an insightful critique of the flaws, of the system that upholds discipline and regimentation for the SAF, and every Singaporean soldier.
There was a lot of SAF pride in the air that night. It was clear that Mr. Ong, who chooses to dedicate 3 months a year to national service, is exceedingly proud of his service in the army. The sentiment was shared by Mr. Singh, who proudly declared, “you can take the man out of the SAF, but not the SAF out of the man!”
There was also a lot of support amongst the panellists for the present state of the military justice system. Mr. D’Souza was quick to defend the institution, noting that while military law might seem strange and draconian to some, its merits and its supporting rationale are more evident when one considers its purposes – to give legal standing to the formation of an armed force, and to instil the order and discipline necessary to ensure the smooth function of it. Mr. D’Souza explained at length the different concerns before a civil and military court, including the sentencing considerations that both the judiciary and the prosecution keep in mind. One must be careful not to conflate the policy concerns of military law with those of the civil law, he said – for offences that might seem trivial to a civil court may be serious in military law, simply because the military has different priorities, and must emphasize different values in the discipline of its soldiers than those which a civil court would aim to uphold in Singapore’s citizens.
Mr. Goh took pride in sharing with us how, since its early days, people both within and outside of the SAF have worked hard to better the serviceman’s access to justice and rights to a fair trial. He noted that while discipline within the SAF is the foremost concern of the military justice system, it is the personal responsibility of every commander in the SAF not to condemn their men for their transgressions, but to ensure their development not only as soldiers but as individuals.
To that end, he noted how the military justice system, while rarely more restrained than civil courts in the severity of their punishments, often exercised their jurisdiction over offences committed by servicemen to ensure that, no matter how harsh the sentences they received, those servicemen would be spared having to live with a criminal record (save for in exceptionally serious circumstances).
Yet for all their support for the system, the round table was not without its fair share of informed criticism for the state of military justice in Singapore. Mr. Singh, in a speech peppered with humorous anecdotes (“we used to have this saying: if it is moving, salute it; if it is still, paint it!”), nevertheless noted how the influence of regimentation on an institution as large as the SAF carried with it the threat of an ossification of ideals and principles – something the SAF suffered from in the past.
Mr. Singh noted how the rank structure, like any bureaucratic system, can be abused by those within it, and how sometimes the absolute power of discipline it gives commanders may be abused by them to charge their men indiscriminately, in a manner proportionate only to their personal proclivities. Mr. Goh noted how he felt “helpless as a Defending Officer in [his] NS days. Something was lacking back then”. He emphasized that a commander’s responsibility to discipline his men is one which should never be taken to with undue enthusiasm, especially commanders “who are legally trained – they know that, for certain offences, they should not be trigger happy”.
Wrapping up the night on a contemplative note, Mr. Ong noted that the SAF is not an organization that can afford to stay stagnant in its ways. Mr. Ong noted that it was crucial that the SAF remained an enlightened armed force, and that to do so the culture of the SAF must change to fit societal norms, in order to avoid being stuck in the times, for that risks preventing the military justice system from being as fair and up to date as possible. The prospect of reform was also touched on, with Mr. Goh in particular noting that it was perhaps time for the SAF to consider implementing a vocation akin to the US army’s Judge Advocate – all for the purpose of inject more professional legal opinions into our military justice system. Our roundtable ended all too soon, but the lively debate continued afterwards, with our guests continuing to share their experiences and insights with us.
MJP world like to thank our guests and fellows students for taking time of their busy schedules to come for RT. We believe that keeping an open-minded and vibrant debate going on our military justice system is the best way to keep informed of it and its ever-changing, yet central role in our country. We hope to see you all again next year.