Speech by Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Law, at the Plenary Session of the St. Petersburg International Legal Forum
10 APR 2020
10 Apr 2020 Posted in [Speeches]
Your Excellency, Mr Medvedev, Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, Excellencies,
- Thank you for facilitating this opportunity. I think, in these difficult times, it is really important for countries to continue to learn from each other, exchange best practices, and in the context that we are discussing, look at the law and see how it is being used.
- We don't want to reshape society. How do we maintain the rights of our people, and yet use the law effectively to deal with the pandemic and surrounding economic destabilisation?
- You asked me how Singapore is dealing with it from the legal aspect.
- Let me just say a few words on the background. In the international context, many people are describing this as the most serious crisis since the Second World War.
- There is an enormous human cost in terms of the deaths and the infections, and economic cost everywhere – jobs, economies devastated, people's lives ruined. Businesses shuttered, investments wiped out.
- You look at the health impact as of today, 10th of April. We are counting 1.6 million infections, more than 95,000 deaths. Both of those figures are clearly an understatement because there must be many more which have not been reported.
- No region of the world has been spared. And the pandemic virus is still tearing through the world.
- What I propose to say, is a few words on how governments, including my government, have had to step in to use the law to impose restrictions. And also, on the economic side, how we have had to take steps, use the law.
- As of eight days ago, nearly 4 billion people, maybe slightly more than half of the world's population, were under some kind of movement restriction.
- Likewise, we have imposed fairly tight restrictions on movement within Singapore and entry into Singapore.
- The laws have also restricted businesses. Other than essential businesses, everyone else has had to close down. So, of course, the economic impact of all of this is devastating – collapse of entire industries like aviation.
- Around the world, workers could lose about $3.4 trillion of income by the end of 2020. There is a suggestion that anywhere between 100 to 200 million workers could lose their jobs. It has really been a hard stop to economic activity.
- And we, in particular, because we are a globalised economy, have been quite hard-hit. There have been disruptions to the supply chain, disruptions to the flow of manpower, closure of large parts of our internal economy.
- Likewise, in many other parts of the world, many countries are facing similar issues.
a. Business models have changed a lot – more people are working from home.
b. Schools – the way schools deliver education – a lot of home based learning.
- In terms of courts, we have just put through a law in Parliament, where courts are allowed to hear cases, including criminal cases, through remote hearings. Of course, there will be cases where you need to see the person to make an assessment of them – those cases will have to be heard, when it is possible to have a physical hearing. But, other than that, for quite a lot of hearings, we have changed the law to allow virtual hearings.
- Of course, what has happened in terms of people not being able to carry on with business would, in a normal case, be considered a force majeure. We decided to pass legislation in Parliament three days ago which, in effect, creates a force majeure for businesses. What it does is, for six months – it is like a legal circuit breaker – all contractual obligations in five broad categories of contracts are stopped.
- For example, leases and licences of commercial or industrial businesses – very few people are able to do business. Many of them are not going to be able to pay their rentals. If the tenants can show that they are unable to pay rental, and it is because of this COVID-19 situation, they will be given time. They do not have to pay rental immediately.
- Likewise, for construction-related contracts and event-related contracts – you can imagine people have booked hotels for weddings during this period. You do not want them to lose their deposits, based on a contractual clause.
- Some other categories – we are helping smaller businesses through the use of law within Singapore to really call for a timeout. And to say, look, people should not take advantage of this situation.
- The government has been given a power to extend the law by six months if this situation continues. So, if a tenant to a commercial lease cannot pay rental during this period because of COVID, that tenant cannot be evicted. He cannot be sued. There is a breathing space, so hopefully the landlord and tenant can work these things out. In many situations, this is going to lead to a lot of litigation if it is not dealt with.
- I think the situation calls for governments to actively look at the commercial sector. To look at how people are handling their commercial affairs and see what is right, what is fair, what is just. Not just look at the contract details, but also at the underlying situation, and try and do some justice in this situation.
- It is going to call for a lot of proactive government intervention. I think it is an unprecedented challenge. A health challenge, a social challenge, a challenge of leadership, and also a challenge in law, for a lot.
- I will end by leaving this panel with some questions of a broader nature. We can imagine that we will see more and more pandemics in the future. We can expect that there will be a greater frequency in their spread.
- So what are we, as a committee of nations across the world, going to do? To what extent can our local laws and international laws deal with it, as a world? How can we be more united in our response, by perhaps looking at international law?
- There has been a lot of talk about the shortages of essential medical kits and medicine, in even advanced countries. Testing kits, PPEs, ventilators.
- How can we create an international framework? Is it possible to think of an international framework to deal with these issues?
- Let's not forget that many of us are in countries with relatively advanced medical care, but there are many parts of the world which are not equally fortunate. This pandemic, if it goes through those countries, can create devastation. In international terms, what can we do both now and in the future to help each other even more?
- These are some questions I think are worth thinking about. Thank you very much.
Last updated on 10 Apr 2020