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Getting to the bottom of the cheating “culture”

News that 11 aspiring lawyers-to-be cheated during the examinations to be called to the Bar has opened a whole can of worms. The so-called penalty of postponing the application of six of them to the Bar by six months/a year has been almost universally panned. Despite what the judge said about second chances, most of the public reaction has been more condemnatory than conciliatory. 

To put it bluntly, too many people think that the first six who were caught cheating at this final stage before becoming solicitors and advocates got off lightly. 

I see both good and bad explanations for such thinking.

It’s good because there is an expectation that lawyers should be held to higher standards than most other professions given that people depend on them for all sorts of matters including life and death. To suggest that ordinary people allow dubious characters, however smart they may be, to represent them in court is asking for too much trust. 

It’s good because it has forced the legal profession to think about how to tighten its selection process even though the universities have awarded the aspirants a degree. Looking further upstream, it’s also good because the law faculties which churned out the graduates are probably examining their curriculum to see if their messages about honesty and integrity fell on deaf ears. 

A lot of the disquiet turns on reasons for the slap on the wrist. The most worrying one is about double standards being practised for children of members of the elite, even though nobody has said publicly who they are. It could also be a push-back against elitism, because as lawyers, they would  automatically be catapulted into the high ranks of the Establishment – and those lower down the ladder believe that things are being made too easy for them.  

Such go-to explanations for any type of perceived differential treatment between, say, a top student and a technician or deliveryman, is polarising and unhealthy.

According to news reports, the Singapore Institute of Legal Education somehow found out about the cheating taking place on WhatsApp among five of them, disciplined the errant parties (although it never said in what way) and did due diligence by alerting the Attorney-General’s Chambers. 

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The trainee lawyers in question had to re-take the examination, which they passed. The AGC  then objected to the application to the Bar and its representative suggested that this be postponed. For five of them who admitted guilt, it should be a six-month wait. The sixth should wait a year because she denied cheating, until the last minute.

He said that this wasn’t about punishment, since the judge wasn’t presiding over a disciplinary hearing. He called for “a little more stretching of time’’ for them to reflect on the error of their ways. 

Counsel for the Law Society of  Singapore and the Singapore Institute of Legal Education concurred. 

So did the judge. 

Justice Choo Han Teck went further, redacting their names and sealing their files. In other words, there will be nothing in the court records about this incident that might prejudice their long-term future. It would be harsh, he said, to crush a person’s career before it had even begun. Most were understudying at renowned firms. They are not yet lawyers, or they could have been suspended or struck off the rolls. As lawyers-to-be, there are no provisions for misconduct save, he said, the discretion of the High Court to refuse entrance to the Bar. 

I do not know much about the legal profession, but I think the idea of a “career crushing move’’ is overblown. They are qualified lawyers even though they aren’t called to the bar, and the legally-trained aren’t in small demand in private corporations. 

And if there were no provisions in the law, shouldn’t some parallels be drawn from university policies on cheating in examinations? It would be even more crushing to be expelled from university in the final year without obtaining a degree. I also doubt that the universities would seal their files. 

I also thought it was unnecessary for the judge to refer to their current employers. Perhaps, he was puzzled that such trainees, who would have had top grades to get such plum internships, would have to even resort to cheating. Did their companies make appeals on their behalf? Would they take them on after this incident? Is it a big deal to them? We don’t know and it’s unlikely that the mainstream media will try to get views. (Surprise me, please!) 

Since the news broke to some consternation, the last hurdle – the postponed application to the court – has been stressed. It’s not a guarantee that they would sail into the Bar, said the Law Society and the AGC, as they would have to produce an affidavit to prove that they have mended their ways. 

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That puts paid to the view that a six-month or a year’s hiatus would be like taking a gap year or sabbatical from work. But it  begs more questions. Have the trainee lawyers been told what sort of evidence they have to produce? And what is the weight of, say, the Law Society when it comes to a decision on admittance to the Bar. Do all three parties have to object? Or will just one party be enough to stop the entry? 

Given that this is an unprecedented case, I can’t help but feel that we are making up rules as we go along. 

I also wonder, for example, about the other five trainees have been hauled up for cheating. Were they “suddenly’’ discovered? Will there be yet another application to the Court with objections from the AGC with the same suggested penalties put up? 

By the way, how many lawyers in this 2020 batch have been called to the Bar? Is this a case of a few rotten apples or is most of the barrel spoilt? Is the barrel so big that the examinations can’t be conducted in a physical space, like an exhibition hall or on university premises? 

The 2020 exams were conducted online, at home, for the first time. According to the legal institute, it had “adequate measures’’ in place to stop cheating. This, even though trainee lawyers who took the test didn’t think so. It seemed to be implying that the 2020 cohort was simply a very rotten batch of apples. The institute, however, appeared to have added more measures since, like making the candidates install software to lock the computer’s access to communications apps and the Internet. 

The judge also referred to the “mode of examination’’, asking if they were “conducive to cheating’’. When he said this, he wasn’t just referring to the Bar examinations but those conducted in law schools as well.

“In other words, is there a culture of cheating brewing in the earlier stages of an applicant’s education? Furthermore, when a person cheats in a course meant to instill ethics and professional conduct, it raises the question, how is it that they had learnt so poorly from the course?’’ 

How indeed. 

I can say from experience that ethics is a difficult subject to teach. There is very little that is considered black-and-white these days. Everything is in shades of grey. I blame it on our emphasis on pragmatism rather than principle.

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For example, the phrase “the ends don’t always justify the means’’.  But is it okay to cheat if everyone else is doing so? What if the system is there for me to take advantage of and I would be silly not to do so? I know I’m good enough but why not take a short-cut to save time? 

I would just reply, “It’s wrong. Period.’’ But that isn’t good enough these days because of the whys and whataboutisms that have to be answered too. 

I think that a strong signal should be sent to deter cheating and set in place a moral value for not just the legal profession, but everyone else. We can start with this six. 

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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