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S'pore slips 3 places in global rule of law rankings amid Covid-19 impact on justice systems

Singapore was ranked 17th position out of 139 territories worldwide in the index compiled by the World Justice Project.
Singapore was ranked 17th position out of 139 territories worldwide in the index compiled by the World Justice Project.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Singapore has slipped three places in a global ranking of rule of law and fallen outside the top three spots in the region for the first time since 2015.

This is based on an index compiled by the World Justice Project (WJP), an independent advocacy group founded in the United States.

The Republic's 17th position out of 139 territories worldwide - and fourth out of 15 in East Asia and the Pacific - comes amid declining rule of law scores across most of the globe, with the Covid-19 situation accentuating trends in weakening institutional checks and diminishing civic space.

Pandemic measures also contributed to delays and access issues in civil and criminal justice systems - areas where Singapore recorded dips in performance, according to the WJP report released on Thursday (Oct 14).

Still, Singapore's performance has remained relatively stable over the years, with its overall score of 0.78 a 1 per cent drop from 2020, and down from 0.81 in 2015.

The annual index measures how rule of law is experienced and perceived in practical, everyday situations across the world.

Performance is determined using 44 indicators across eight main rule of law factors, each scored and ranked globally and regionally.

The factors are constraints on government power, government openness, corruption, fundamental rights, order and security, regulatory enforcement, and criminal and civil justice systems.

Singapore was the world leader in order and security last year, but dropped to third this time. It fared worse in the areas of fundamental rights (38th), open government (34th) and constraints on government power (32nd), but was in the top 10 for the other factors.

This year, the top three global places for overall rule of law went to Denmark, Norway and Finland, while the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cambodia and Venezuela rounded off the bottom.

Ratings are based on survey responses to over 500 questions, from more than 138,000 households and 4,200 legal practitioners and experts across 139 jurisdictions - up from 128 last year.

The data was collected between October 2020 and May this year.

Regionally, Singapore finished third overall in 2020 but was overtaken by Japan this year, with New Zealand the top performer, followed by Australia.

The Philippines, Myanmar and Cambodia registered the lowest scores in the region. Eleven out of the 15 East Asia and Pacific countries declined in the past year, with Myanmar in particular registering a major dip of 6.3 per cent, second only to Belarus (7.5 per cent) among all countries globally.

Singapore remained top of the regional table in five of the eight factors, including absence of corruption, order and security, and civil and criminal justice systems.

The WJP, which has offices in Singapore and Mexico, noted that globally 74.2 per cent of countries covered by its report - accounting for 84.7 per cent of the world's population - declined in their overall rule of law performance.

This was the fourth straight year where more countries deteriorated than improved.

WJP chief research officer Alejandro Ponce told The Straits Times: "In the majority of countries, the Covid-19 pandemic and the sanitary measures to contain it had a negative effect on the rule of law."

For instance, the stress imposed on justice institutions around the world led to 94 per cent of countries in the index experiencing delays in civil, criminal, and administrative justice systems, along with problems of access.

Against a backdrop of lowered trust in governments, 82 per cent of the countries registered diminishing dimensions of civic space such as in freedom of opinion, expression and assembly; while 70 per cent reported weakened constraints on government powers.

Another effect was a perceived rise in discrimination against vulnerable groups, "due partly because measures were not implemented equally or did not affect everybody equally", said Dr Ponce.

Taken together, these widespread negative trends signal an "opening of the door" to growing authoritarianism, warned the WJP in a press release.

"This year's WJP rule of law index should be a wake-up call for us all," said project co-founder and chief executive Bill Neukom. "Rule of law is the very foundation of communities of justice, opportunity and peace.

"Reinforcing that foundation should be a top priority for the coming period of recovery from the pandemic."

Rule of law the foundation of Singapore: MinLaw

In response to the WJP report, the Ministry of Law told The Straits Times that Singapore's consistently good performance in the index attests to how rule of law is a core principle of the nation, and the foundation on which it is built.

A spokesman pointed out that in response to Covid-19 disruptions and limitations such as safe distancing measures, Singapore had swiftly put in place measures to address the impact and to ensure continued access to justice.

For instance, a temporary remote hearing framework was introduced in April last year, which allowed cases to continue to be heard through the circuit breaker period, which curtailed social gatherings and most activities for almost two months.

The Law Ministry spokesman noted that the Courts reported high clearance rates for civil and criminal matters in 2020, with most cases that were delayed eventually dealt with by January this year.

Vulnerable groups were assisted through a specialist Protection from Harassment Court which commenced in June.

And when it came to implementing measures to manage the pandemic, institutional checks and relevant parliamentary processes continued to be observed, such as when a series of legal reliefs for individuals and businesses under the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) Act was passed through Parliament.

Pointing to Singapore's low Covid-19 death rates, high rate of vaccination, and forecast economic growth, the spokesman said: "Such positive outcomes, even during a crisis like the pandemic, are testament to how our adoption of rule of law in Singapore is ultimately premised on achieving good governance and improving the lives of all Singaporeans."

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