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Minister K. Shanmugam has been the Minister for Law since May 2008 and the Minister for Home Affairs since October 2015, a post which he had briefly served from November 2010 to May 2011. He previously served as the Minister for Foreign Affairs from May 2011 to September 2015. He has been a Member of Parliament (MP) since 1988 representing the Sembawang Group Representation Constituency (1988-2011) and the Nee Soon Group Representation Constituency (since 2011), serving the Chong Pang ward in both constituencies.
In his earlier days as a lawyer, Shanmugam was described as one of the “twin titans” of litigation in Singapore, “regarded as a first-rate litigator”, “respected for [his] quiet, efficient and persuasive style”, “renowned”, “regularly singled out for praise” and “star litigator” (The Asia Pacific Legal 500, 2001 – 2007)
Who’s Who Legal, Singapore 2008 referred to him as “One of the finest all-round legal talents in the country”, the “complete lawyer”, and “formidably logical and aggressive”.
American diplomat and academic Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs mentioned that: “The quality of his mind is impressive. In meetings with him, he has legal framing, approaches problems in a deeply systemic way, is unsentimental about the world, clear-eyed and very strategic… He can be hard-headed about what is best for Singapore, but he is always upfront and clear.”
Shanmugam was educated in Raffles Institution from 1972 to 1977 before going on to study law at the National University of Singapore where he graduated top of his class with a First Class Honours degree in 1984.
After being admitted to the Singapore Bar as an advocate and solicitor in 1985, Shanmugam went into private practice and became a Senior Partner and Head of Litigation and Dispute Resolution at one of the largest law firms in Singapore, Allen & Gledhill.
Shanmugam had a successful legal practice and was consistently recognised in various international publications as one of the top litigation, arbitration and insolvency counsels in Asia including Euromoney Guide to the World’s Leading Lawyers, International Who’s Who, AsiaLaw and The Asia Pacific Legal 500.
He has been involved in numerous cases, over a hundred of which have been reported in the Singapore Law Reports – a record of all legally significant cases heard in the Singapore Courts.
He regularly handled trial work in major corporate, commercial, insolvency dispute for private and public listed companies, major international and Singaporean banking and financial institutions, multinational corporations and professional practices.
In 1998, Shanmugam became one of the youngest lawyers to be appointed a Senior Counsel of the Supreme Court of Singapore at the age of 38.
Shanmugam became a Member of Parliament (MP) in 1988 when he was elected as a member for the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) of Sembawang. He served as an MP and continued to practice law until 2008, when he was brought into the Cabinet to replace S. Jayakumar as Minister for Law. He was concurrently made the Second Minister for Home Affairs in 2008, and succeeded Wong Kan Seng as Minister for Home Affairs in 2010.
Following the 2011 general election, Shanmugam relinquished his portfolio as Minister for Home Affairs and was made the Minister for Foreign Affairs, while continuing to serve as Minister for Law.
Shanmugam was re-elected in the 2015 Singapore General Election by the constituents of Nee Soon GRC where he was the anchor Minister. He was subsequently appointed as Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law in the Fourth Lee Hsien Loong Cabinet.
• Strengthening protection for the vulnerable
(e.g. women, children, victims of harassment or sexual violence, persons with disabilities)
- o Enhancing access to justice (e.g. through legal aid)
o New avenues to seek protection (e.g. hearings within 24 hours for certain protective orders)
o Improvements to the legal process (e.g. through investigative processes that are victim-centric)
o Stiffer Punishments (e.g. enhanced punishments for those who hurt children and other vulnerable persons)
• Strengthening our criminal justice system
- o Fair processes – e.g. video recording of interviews, pre-trial disclosure in criminal cases
o Just outcomes – e.g. community-based sentencing regime, comprehensive review of Penal Code, enhanced rehabilitation for drug offenders
• New appeals court to ease pressure on Court of Appeals
• Transformation of Singapore Police Force’s counter-terrorism capabilities
e.g. Emergency Response Team, In-Situ Reaction Teams, Rapid Deployment Troops
• Formation of SGSecure to strengthen community resilience and emergency preparedness
• Embracing and integrating the use of technology in the Home Team
- Laws to give relief from rental and obligations, to help businesses survive the Covid-19 period
Shanmugam has spoken several times about tempering the law with compassion.
He aim is to make Singapore more compassionate, “with greater communitarian spirit and which looks after those who can’t look after themselves.”
During his term, legislations were changed to provide judges with greater sentencing discretion to order either life imprisonment of death penalty, except where a killing is intentional.
The mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking was also changes to provide judges a greater sentencing discretion where the accused
- Only played the role of a courier, and
- Cooperated with the Central Narcotics Bureau in a substantive way, or has a mental disability which substantially impairs his appreciation of the gravity of his acts, without it having qualified as a defence previously.
He has publicly shared the fundamental principles of Singapore’s criminal justice system.
- Laws and criminal process must protect society and uphold law and order,
- Due process and the rule of law must be observed, and sentences must be commensurate with the culpability of the offender and the seriousness of the offence,
- Law enforcement agencies must be empowered to discharge their duties; law enforcement should not be seen as a ‘catch me if you can’, or jumping through a series of technical hurdles,
- Where possible, offenders must be given the opportunity to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society.
Stand on Drugs
- Shanmugam has taken a strong position on drugs, especially in his speech at a 2016 UN General Assembly in New York. Noting that the country’s policies have created a safe and secure environment, he said, “We are not very impressed with rhetoric alone. Good speeches are one thing. Enjoying safety and security, to the level I have identified… that is different. He went on to highlight, “I say to anyone with a different view – come forward. I am prepared to compare our experience with any city that you choose. Show us a model that works better, that delivers a better outcome for citizens, and we will consider changing. If that cannot be done, then don’t ask us to change.”
Shanmugam is a known animal welfare advocate and has been instrumental in changes to legislation against animal abusers. He has been active in calling on organisations to support animal welfare groups.
A Tamil Indian, Shanmugam is married to clinical psychologist Dr Seetha Shanmugam.
- Successfully defended SingTel from a S$388 million claim by the Government of Singapore. This case has important and significant impact on the jurisprudence relating to mistake and restitution in the Commonwealth.
- Acted for a leading neurosurgeon and successfully set aside a finding of liability and highest quantum of damages ever awarded in a medical and negligence case in Singapore. The decision – by the country’s highest court, the Court of Appeal – is now the leading judgement in relation to the liability of medical professionals in negligence cases.
- Defended an international financial institution in a claim for more than US$100 million brought about by a Singapore company, for conspiracy and breach of mortgagee’s duties.
1. Raffles Conversation: Portrait of a legal titan
2. 11 Things You Never Knew About K. Shanmugam
3. Fighting Fake News: An Interview With Singapore Law Minister K Shanmugam
4. Lunch With Sumiko: I do it as long as it’s the right thing to do, says Shanmugam