The Singapore government has declined to reappoint Attorney General Walter Woon after his two years on the job expired earlier this month. Woon was earlier criticized by Lee Wei Ling, the daughter of Singaporean patriarch Lee Kuan Yew. Wei Ling is the head of the National Neuroscience Institute.
In 2008 Woon brought a case against CK Tang department store chairman Tang Wee Sum for attempting to buy a kidney for transplanting. Both Lee Wei Ling and Lee Kuan Yew voiced public disapproval of Woon for bringing the charges against Tang. He answered back, pointing out what he called a number of misconceptions she held as to the facts and the law, and emphasizing that he had brought the case in a move to implement the law without favor. (Tang got a day's jail and a small fine, the poor young Indonesian would-be donor got two weeks).
The law was changed in March of 2009 to align with Lee Wei Ling's position. (Asia Sentinel, 21 January 2009) Singaporeans can now pay for organs which in practice means from poor people in neighboring countries but where organ sales are illegal.
In a defiant interview in the Straits Times newspaper, Woon, a professor of law with a distinguished record with the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law, Dean of the Singapore Institute of Legal Education and as a former ambassador to Germany and Belgium, was asked if he thought he had "annoyed the powers that be."
"It's not unlikely that I have," he said. "Look, to be fair, nobody called me in the middle of the night to say ‘you must do this, you must do that. If they were unhappy, they did not make it known to me while I was AG."
But, he added, "'Whether or not they're happy with me – this one you've got to ask PM (Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong). This is a mutual parting of ways. Best to leave before you outstay your welcome, although I think amongst some people, I've already outstayed my welcome."
Later, in the interview, he called the two-year term "The longest two years of my life… 'It was not a job I really wanted or enjoyed. I did it because I was asked to do the job. So I did my best under the circumstances with what I had."
Woon was hardly a liberal. He sued the Dow Jones Publishing Co. for contempt of court for material published in the Wall Street Journal Asia and filed against Gopalan Nair, a US-based lawyer who ventured into Singapore and was arrested for insulting a judge. He also prosecuted three young Singaporeans for wearing tee-shirts imprinted with the image of a kangaroo dressed in a judge's gown outside the island republic's Supreme Court building.
The incident involving Woon, however, was a reminder of the pursuit at the behest of Lee Wei Ling of former Neuroscience research head Professor Simon Shorvon, brought from London in 2001 to lead Singapore's efforts in the field. But he had the misfortune to fall out with Wei Ling, who accused him of unethical conduct in his research.
Singapore's Medical Council unsurprisingly agreed with Ms Lee, who then attempted to pursue Shorvon in the UK. But Shorvon was judged innocent of unethical practice by the UK's General Medical Council. Singapore challenged this in the High Court in Britain but was subject to a humiliating rebuff which confirmed Shorvon's professional integrity. He is now a professor at University College London. Lee Wei Ling meanwhile had become head of the Neuroscience Institute.
Woon's testiness over the kidney decision was the second in which a Singaporean legal figure has appeared to differ with the ruling Lee family. Last year, District Judge John Ng acquitted five members of the Singapore Democratic Party of holding a procession without a permit when they attempted to walk from Singapore's Speaker's Corner to Queenstown Remand Prison in September of 2007, saying he couldn't see how the activity of walking down Orchard Road, Singapore's main shopping thoroughfare, fit the definition of a procession.
The Attorney General's chambers almost immediately appealed Judge Ng's decision. On April 2, High Court Judge Choo Han Teck overruled Ng and ordered him to sentence the activists. Accordingly, Ng on April 20 fined them S$500 each in lieu of five days in jail. Gandhi Ambalam, the leader, was fined S$600 or 6 days jail.
Singaporean judges have been extremely cautious about their decisions since January of 1984, when then-Senior District Judge Michael Khoo acquitted the late JB Jeyaretnam, Singapore's lone opposition member of parliament and mortal enemy of then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, of making a false declaration about the accounts of his Workers' Party.
Shortly after that, Khoo lost his job as senior judge and was unceremoniously moved to the attorney-general's chambers, widely considered to be a much lower posting. The Jeyaretnam episode is the last time on record that a high-profile case ever went against any members of Singapore's ruling Lee family or the government.
High Court Justice Choo Han Teck has made sure it won't happen again for now. Singapore's blogosphere is alive with speculation over whether John Ng will retain his position as a district court judge.