Strong links between Singapore’s rule of law and Magna Carta
In the legendary story of Robin Hood, a valiant outlaw responds to bad King John’s unjust and exploitative rule by robbing the rich to give to the poor. In reality, history came up with another solution to King John’s arbitrary and excessive actions — Magna Carta. Eventually, its symbolism would inspire the contemporary concepts of the rule of law, individual rights, and consultative government.
Today, to celebrate 800 years of Magna Carta and SG50, an original medieval copy of this remarkable document will be on display in Singapore this week, for free, at the Supreme Court of Singapore.
But what was Magna Carta and why is this medieval English peace agreement linked to Singapore’s success and survival?
Magna Carta was agreed in 1215 as a peace treaty between King John and the Barons, leading figures in England who had rebelled against the king’s disastrous rule. King John quickly repudiated the treaty and went back to war with his barons. Had he not died the following year, Magna Carta might have remained an obscure document, of interest only to medieval historians. But King John’s successors willingly re-issued versions of Magna Carta, sometimes in return for an agreement to taxation. Magna Carta would become law in England, and later, the law in the many countries with Common Law legal systems linked to Britain’s. Upon independence, people in those countries claimed for themselves the rights they believed Britons had enjoyed, stretching back in time to the now mythical Magna Carta.
Of course, those countries had customs and practices of administration and justice that pre-dated Magna Carta. But the power of the principles in Magna Carta, or at least the principles believed to be in Magna Carta, have echoed down the centuries and across the world. These include the principle that everyone, including those who govern us, is subject to the law, and that no one should be detained except in accordance with the law.
These principles would find their way into the US Constitution (a golden replica of Magna Carta sits beneath the Houses of Congress in Washington DC). They are at the heart of our modern understanding of individual rights and freedoms and can be seen in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Despite saying little about women’s rights (except that no woman shall be compelled to marry, and that her right to be heard as a witness in court is limited) Magna Carta would still serve as an inspiration for those who demanded that women should have the right to vote. And it was referenced by South Africa’s hero Nelson Mandela in his struggle for equal rights regardless of race.
Magna Carta was part of Singapore’s laws until 1993 and it continues to be referenced in Singapore’s courts today. Like many countries, Singapore has drawn in its own way from the near mythical heritage of Magna Carta but it has done so in ways that go beyond its shores.
In 2015, the World Justice Project placed Singapore second on its Rule of Law index for East Asia and the Pacific and 9th in the Rule of Law world index. “Singapore’s distinctive qualities lie in its zero-tolerance approach to corruption and its strong enforcement of regulations and the criminal law, as well as effective avenues for civil justice,” said the National University of Singapore Dean of Law, Professor Simon Chesterman, in response.
The rule of law has been fundamental to Singapore’s success in terms of trade and commerce, providing business with confidence and stability. Confidence in the rule of law and the Common Law system is one of the reasons why nearly two-thirds of Singaporean investment into the EU goes to the UK, and around half of all UK investment in Southeast Asia comes to Singapore.
Beyond trade though, Singapore is a champion of international rule of law for wider reasons.