The Attorney-General occupies the hottest legal seat in Singapore. This is because the Attorney-General is the public prosecutor. Under Article 35(8) of the Constitution, the Attorney-General "shall have power, exercisable at his discretion, to institute, conduct or discontinue any proceedings for any offence".

In recent times, we have seen the president of a country, which is not shy about wagging its finger at others while lecturing about the rule of law, threatening to remove prosecutors and special counsel when investigations cut too close to the bone for comfort.

Closer to home, there has also been loose chatter online and off that question the Attorney-General's decisions to prosecute. This is based on a misunderstanding of the Attorney-General's function as public prosecutor. Ignorant criticism is unfair to the Attorney-General and his officers. Misinformation, deliberate or otherwise, erodes confidence in the system of justice.

It is necessary first to understand the nature of prosecutorial discretion. As a preliminary matter, a distinction must be made between a prosecution and a civil suit. When a person defames someone else, for instance, the "injured" party (the plaintiff) may seek compensation by means of a civil suit.

The public prosecutor is not involved in this. The commencement of civil litigation is a matter solely for the plaintiff. No one can stop him from suing. If he wins, he gets compensation (which does not have to be a substantial sum). If he loses, he pays the defendant's costs.

Criminal defamation is an offence under the Penal Code. It is up to the Attorney-General to decide whether or not to lay charges. This is termed a prosecution, in contrast to civil proceedings. The object is not to obtain compensation for an injured party but rather to protect society's interests by imposing some sort of punishment, often as a deterrent to others.

As provided in the Constitution, the Attorney-General has discretion over this. The accused person (defendant) and the injured party (complainant) are not involved in the decision. The defendant might tender an apology and offer to pay damages to the complainant, but the public prosecutor may decide to press on regardless if he thinks that there is a public-interest issue involved. The complainant cannot "drop the charges", contrary to popular misconception.

Not every offence is prosecuted in court. If it were mandatory to prosecute every time an offence is committed, the courts would be jam-packed with jaywalkers and litterbugs. This is where prosecutorial discretion comes in. The public prosecutor can decide whether or not to prosecute. The question is, on what grounds?

It is obviously not possible for the Attorney-General to look at every individual file to decide whether to prosecute.

In practice, that is left to deputy public prosecutors (DPPs). There are currently two prosecution divisions in the Attorney-General's Chambers: the Criminal Justice Division, and the Financial and Technology Crime Division. The legal officers posted to these two divisions are designated DPPs.

Generally, investigatory agencies (for example, the Central Narcotics Bureau, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, the police, to name a few) send investigation papers to one of the prosecution divisions. A junior DPP will then make recommendations as to whether charges should be laid, and, if so, what charges. The recommendations are considered by more senior DPPs -the heads of the various directorates, the chief prosecutor of the division, the Solicitor-General, the Deputy Attorney-General. The most serious cases end up on the desk of the Attorney-General, where the buck stops. In most cases, however, the buck stops far down the line from the Attorney-General.

STEPS TOWARDS PROSECUTION

In deciding whether or not to prosecute, there are, in general, four steps:

•Step 1: Find out what happened. This is the job of the investigatory agencies. It is the stuff of novels, TV and films. The DPP can ask for clarifications or further investigation.

•Step 2: Ascertain if an offence has been committed and, if so, what offence. This is a legal question - it is the reason DPPs have to go through four years or more of law school. Laypersons are seldom, if ever, qualified to appreciate the intricacies of Singapore criminal law.

•Step 3: Can the elements of the offence be proven in court? The prosecution must prove the case against the accused beyond reasonable doubt. It is not for the accused to prove his innocence.

At Step 3, the DPP has to decide whether there is enough evidence that will stand up in court. It is often possible to piece together what happened with a fair degree of certainty. However, there are cases where witnesses will refuse to testify in open court. In other cases, a witness may implicate others when questioned, but when it comes to actually testifying, he will have an attack of selective amnesia.

If the DPP thinks that the witnesses cannot be relied on, the prosecution will probably be dropped. If he decides to carry on, there is a chance that the judge may not be convinced beyond reasonable doubt. In that case, the defendant is acquitted.

Again, contrary to popular misconception, a verdict of "not guilty" is not synonymous with "innocent". In some cases, it just means that there is a reasonable doubt. Thus, for instance, in a rape case the man may contend that the "victim" consented. The woman may be equally vehement in denying that she did consent. If the judge cannot be sure, then the accused is found "not guilty", even though it may, in fact, have been rape.

Assuming that we have got past Steps 1, 2 and 3, the final step is: Should there be a prosecution at all?

TO PROSECUTE OR NOT PROSECUTE

The public prosecutor must decide whether it is in the public interest that the matter should be laid before a judge in open court. He has discretion over this.

This is where the biggest problems arise. For good or ill, the public prosecutor must make a judgment call. There are many reasons why a decision may be taken not to prosecute.

The offence may be a trivial one, not worth tying up prosecutorial and judicial resources over. A person who drops torn-off tabs from parking coupons on the ground may be guilty beyond reasonable doubt of an offence but, in most cases, this will not end up in court. Composition fines may be imposed instead.

Sometimes, the prosecutor may decide that the accused should be given a second chance. For example, if two teenagers are caught having consensual sex, this is an offence if the girl is under 16 years of age. But would it be in the public interest to prosecute a 17-year-old boy for having sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend?

The prosecutor may (note, "may", not "will") decide that, under the circumstances, a conditional warning is better. If the boy does not heed the warning and repeats the offence, he will be prosecuted for the previous offence as well as the new one. But if he mends his ways, then there is no prosecution.

WHEN POLITICS MAY CLOUD THE PICTURE

Politically charged cases are often a source of controversy.

Suppose that an opposition politician is charged with deliberate incitement of racial unrest. It is a given that his supporters will scream that the prosecution is politically motivated.

When one analyses the issue dispassionately, if the accused is indeed guilty of deliberately inflaming racial feelings, it does not matter whether the decision to prosecute is politically motivated. But the fact that it is perceived to be so undermines the credibility of the public prosecutor, especially if ruling party politicians are not similarly treated.

The public is not stupid. People have a sense of justice. That sense is outraged if double standards are practised - a lenient one for the rich and politically influential, a stricter one for ordinary persons and the strictest one for oppositionists. The public prosecutor has to maintain a scrupulous neutrality so as to avoid being accused of partiality.

Take a purely hypothetical example: Say that a powerful minister is accused of embezzling a substantial sum of money from a government-linked company. How does he avoid retribution? Bribing judges is risky - this can backfire spectacularly. Interfering with investigations is more promising, but in the age of social media, this may not stop the process. The best bet is to nobble the prosecutor.

There are many ways to pressure the public prosecutor. In some places, the threats are physical. I attended a conference of prosecutors in Canada some years ago. Several of my colleagues said that they carried guns for protection. One colleague from a Caribbean country did not even live there - his life would have been worth nothing in his home country.

But physical threats are crude. There are better ways.

The favoured way, as seen in some countries elsewhere, is to appoint as Attorney-General someone who can be counted on to bend when pressure is applied. If the Attorney-General decides that charges will not be laid, no one can challenge that decision. Not even the Chief Justice can compel him to prosecute, legally and practically.

So the question is: What can be done to strengthen the system? We accept it as a given that judges should be politically neutral and not take instructions from politicians.

I would argue that the same must hold true for the public prosecutor. Indeed, one should remember that if the public prosecutor declines to prosecute, the case will never reach a judge, even if there has been a blatant breach of the law.

TWO ROLES OF THE A-G

Many people mistakenly think that the Attorney-General is part of the political executive. This may have been so in colonial days, but under our present Constitution, it is not so.

Unlike in many other countries, the Attorney-General of Singapore is not a party politician or a member of the Cabinet. This mistake arises because the Attorney-General has two roles: first, that of the Government's legal adviser and, second, public prosecutor.

When giving advice on civil cases by or against the Government, on legislation, on matters of international law, the Attorney-General is the Government's Attorney-General. He is obliged to defer to the Cabinet when it comes to issues pertaining to civil litigation, international law and the drafting of legislation. If he is instructed to fight a case, he must follow his client's instructions just like any other lawyer, even if he thinks the case cannot be won or that it is ill-advised.

But when it comes to his role as public prosecutor, the Attorney-General is not the Government's Attorney-General. He is given discretion over prosecutions by the Constitution. It cannot be the case that he should just prosecute if a senior minister wants that to be done.

The rule of law is not the natural state of human society. For most of history, in most societies, the system has been rule by the powerful. The rule of law cannot be imposed by force or governmental decree. Citizens must accept it and actively cooperate in upholding it. Prosecutions are a tangible manifestation of the rule of law.

When the prosecutorial machinery is abused for political ends, ordinary citizens' faith in the rule of law is shaken. If people do not believe that the system is fair, they will subvert it. Building a society based on the rule of law takes a generation and more - tearing it down can be the work of a single electoral term.

A quick look at the state of the world will show that pressure on prosecutors is common, even in countries that consider themselves to be shining examples of the rule of law. It is foolish to wait until a hurricane hits you to strengthen your roof. Fix it now, when the sun is shining and the dark clouds have not gathered.

If one accepts the premise that the public prosecutor should be independent, the first step is to separate the two functions of the Attorney-General. As the Government's legal adviser, he must take instructions from the Cabinet, whatever his own judgment may be. Take this function away from the Attorney-General. Give it to the Solicitor-General, for example. The three non-prosecution divisions of the Attorney-General's Chambers - civil, legislation and international affairs - can come under the Solicitor-General or whoever is designated as the Government's legal adviser.

The prosecutorial function should be left with the Attorney-General, who would have the two prosecution divisions in his charge. It is necessary for the Attorney-General to be the public prosecutor. A certain stature is required to resist politicians, foreign diplomats, domestic pressure groups and non-governmental organisations, not to mention the assorted people who try to influence prosecutions. In the legal hierarchy, the Attorney-General ranks immediately after the Chief Justice.

The next question is: Who should appoint the Attorney-General? At present, the Constitution provides that the Attorney-General is appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister. The President does not have to accept the Prime Minister's advice, which is the major safeguard against blatant abuse by appointing a political hack to the post.

Since the President has an independent mandate from the people and constitutional discretion, he (or she) should be the one to make the decision, ideally in consultation with the Chief Justice and the incumbent Attorney-General. This will ensure that, optically, the Attorney-General is not seen to be a political creature of the ruling party.

This is a vital consideration. All too often, when someone who opposes government policy is prosecuted, accusations will be made of political motivations.

Even where it is clear that the accused has broken the law (for example, by making a nuisance of himself in public), there will always be those who will say that the Government is trying to silence the opposition.

People posing as human rights activists will attract the knee-jerk support of foreign human rightists. Prosecute a journalist or blogger for insulting religions and you can be sure that there will be howls at home and from abroad about political persecution and restriction of freedom of speech.

These criticisms will be flung even if the Attorney-General has acted in good faith and the politicians have scrupulously avoided trying to influence him. This is grossly unfair to the Attorney-General and his officers, not to mention the politicians themselves. If the public prosecutor is truly independent and seen to be so, it will go a long way towards refuting such criticisms.

Finally, the Attorney-General's term of office should be long enough to be useful. The Constitution originally envisaged that the Attorney-General would serve until the age of 60.

This provision was amended to allow the appointment of an Attorney-General for a fixed term. The norm in recent years has been two to three years.

Frequent changes of the Attorney-General are disruptive and not good for the morale of the DPPs. Different attorneys-general have different views about how prosecutorial discretion should be exercised. For the sake of stability, I would suggest a five-year term, renewable by the President at his or her discretion.

Some may ask, why change the system at all? If one believes that all is well and that the system will not buckle in future under the pressure of an unscrupulous powerful executive , then fine, don't change anything.

But if the system can be abused, then the right thing to do is to address the weakness before it does become a problem. A quick look at the state of the world will show that pressure on prosecutors is common, even in countries that consider themselves to be shining examples of the rule of law.

It is foolish to wait until a hurricane hits you to strengthen your roof. Fix it now, when the sun is shining and the dark clouds have not gathered.

The article was first published in The Straits Times on 29 September 2017.