Lexicon: What is a compliant judiciary?


By Kumaran Pillai

It is probably the most problematic words in Singapore and any attempt to decipher its meaning will be just as problematic. If I can hazard to explain it in lay terms, a compliant judiciary is one that adheres to common law and the laws enacted by parliament as opposed to being “progressive” or “independent,” or worse a “rogue” judiciary.

There have been calls in South Africa (SA) pleading the courts to be more “compliant” because judges are using the legal system for their own political ends. In SA, they want the judges to adhere to laws enacted by parliament. So, a compliant judiciary is a good thing, is it not?

It is baffling, so why wouldn’t we want a legal system which is largely compliant? Why is our AGC taking issue with the use of word (com)pliant?

In Singapore, a “compliant judiciary” is a bad word. Lawyers talk about it all the time in coffeeshops and over dinners and they often end up making an oblique reference to politics. I’m not even sure if the usage is correct to mean whatever they are trying to convey. Perhaps they should use a better word to describe our judicial system.

From what little I can make of it; the usage of “compliant judiciary” is problematic and it often depends on the context in which it is used. If it is used to say that the judiciary is colluding with the political elites for their own political ends, then it is most likely to be construed to be in contempt of court.

What’s interesting about this is the way the word compliance is used and interpreted in different parts of the world, or even in Singapore, it can mean different things to different people.

So, is our judiciary independent? Yes and no. Again, it is contextual. Our judiciary is not “independent” like the justice system in America but our judiciary is “independent” to mean it is free from political interference.

When our lawyers say that we are “not independent” they can mean that we are not “progressive,” as in using the court system to change social norms, or they can mean we are pliant. It is important to note that there is a vast difference between pliant and compliant – they mean and connote different things.

Some political scientists believe that the American system of changing social norms through an independent judiciary is peculiar to them and it is undemocratic because the judiciary is not accountable to the electorate. It is important to bear in mind that our political institutions, democratic or otherwise, have taken a different path. We have rule of law and state apparatus but our electoral accountability is less than desirable. In fact, a lot of information is not available to us.

To confuse you even more, our courts are both compliant and independent but may not be pliant.

Confused? Ask the Law minister to explain.

Also read:  http://www.theindependent.sg/its-official-agc-is-going-after-lee-kuan-yews-grandson/


  1. If asked to explain its more likely an explanation that would serve its purpose no? I suppose its always fascinating to watch grown learned men wiggle like a can of worms on a hot bed.

  2. These Sim up everything, we to change this govt to an accountable ones; or vote in more opposition party to even up the playing field to be objective than self serving.

  3. Where did the instructions come from for the AGC to take the necessary action. Can’t sue siblings but can ask personal lawyer to do it. Funny isn’t it?

  4. What the citizens can do now is to live our lives well as a law abiding citizen, only talk constructively and vote for the right gov. As for all the allegations and stuff. Only let the familee people fight among and settle themselves. We cannot do anything about it, as we don’t have high status and immunity. Be smart and don’t get jail/sue. As long the lee siblings don’t ever come back to SG like Amos Yee, they will be safe and the gov cannot do anything to them.

  5. Pillai, please not confused the matter. If you are talking about Li Shengwu statement in FB, he uses “pliant”, not “compliant”. The former refers to “easily influenced or directed” while the latter is “meeting or in accordance with rules or standards”. I don’t think our lawyers are confused unless the half past six type!

  6. I love independent journalists as I gain knowledge and wisdom from their interesting topics, therefore I actively respond without fear so as to prevent dementia and to be a responsible citizen of Singapore!!!
    Just learn that compliant judiciary means that AGC is complying with the laws and policies formed by members of parliament, mostly in white!!!
    Nobody has any power to change any policy or laws that you are unhappy with, unless you change the colour of the parliament house into or the colour of Singapore flag by your sovereign votes in GE2020 !

    Pliant judiciary means that it is an absolute monarchy system
    Every person has the right to speak their mind, to cry when they are hurt, to share their grievances when they are being bullied!!!
    Nobody in this world has the right to suppress the freedom of the son or daughter of Singapore whether they share their opinions on private or public facebook !!!
    To silence the freedom of speech is tantamount to silencing justice and equality regardless of race language or religions, : rich or poor, high status or no status !!!

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