Speech by The Honourable Judge of Appeal Justice Sundaresh Menon (CJ Designate) at the launch of The Law in His Hands - A Tribute to Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong

Speaker: The Honourable Judge of Appeal Justice Sundaresh Menon (CJ Designate)

The Honourable the Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong,
Mrs Chan and other members of the Chan family,
The Honourable Minister for Foreign Affairs and Law, Mr K Shanmugam,
The Honourable Attorney-General, Mr Steven Chong SC,
Distinguished guests,
Fellow Judges,
Members of the Bar,
Ladies and gentlemen:



1. It is my great honour this evening to launch the book, The Law in His Hands: A Tribute to Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong. I am deeply grateful because this gives me the opportunity to add some personal observations on what has become a poignant moment as it is the Chief’s last official function.

2. The news of this book launch came out a few weeks after it was announced that the Chief Justice would retire today. The timing of the book launch, coinciding with the Chief’s retirement, led some to marvel at the amazing industry of those involved in the production of this very substantial work – how on earth had they completed it in a matter of just a few weeks? As you have just heard from Justice Chao, work on the book commenced more than a year ago when it was first conceived as a tribute to the Chief on the occasion of his 75th birthday. And so, first and foremost, I would like to extend to the Chief our happiest wishes for a wonderful birthday with blessings of good health, happiness and many more very happy birthdays.


3. The occasion of the Chief’s 75th birthday gives us the opportunity to take stock of a truly extraordinary life and the book I am about to launch captures some of that. As you work your way through the book, it quickly becomes evident that more than just a tribute to an exceptional man, it is in fact something of a history of Singapore law over the last half-century. This is perhaps inevitable because the man we are gathered to honour this evening has been the dominant Singaporean lawyer of this era.



4. Yet, it was by accident that the Chief entered the law. For this, we have his Sixth Form English literature teacher in Anderson School in Ipoh to thank. In the Chief’s own words:

“One day Etherton called me up and advised me to read law instead. He said I had a crafty mind (in the good sense, he hastened to add) and that I should do well in the subject. He said that he would arrange for Prof Sheridan (who was coming to Ipoh to interview prospective students) to see me. I discussed the matter with my father that evening. He said that I could do what I liked although neither of us had any inkling of what the course was all about or whether it had any job prospects. Next day, I told Etherton that I would accept his advice. To this day, I am grateful to him for his intervention.”

5. To this day and forevermore, all Singaporeans and countless lawyers the world over are and will remain grateful to Dr Etherton for his amazing foresight and his persuasive ability. On such small margins turn such profound consequences!

6. The Chief was admitted as a member of the first intake of students at the Law Department of the University of Malaya in 1957 and graduated among the top of that inaugural batch in 1961 – 52 years ago. Shortly thereafter, he made it into the law reports in the case of Re Chan Sek Keong [1962] MLJ 88 when he sought an abridgement of the period of notice on the ground that the Federal Government, by delaying the passing of the relevant legislation, had rendered him unable to file his petition sooner. His application was opposed by the Bar Council but it was the rookie lawyer who got his law right. This marked the start of a trend that would continue more or less unabated for the next 50 years or so.




7. The Chief started his career in Kuala Lumpur and did his pupillage under Dato Peter Mooney who was standing in for John Skrine. The Chief’s affection and respect for Dato Mooney is evident in the warm foreword he wrote for Dato Mooney’s recently published book, A Servant of Sarawak: Reminiscences of a Crown Counsel in 1950s Borneo. But what the Chief admires about Dato Mooney tells us a great deal about the Chief himself: it is Dato Mooney’s courage, his sensitivity to the local people, his affinity for their culture and ways, and his humanity. We who have come to know the Chief see all this and more in his own life.

8. Two years later, the Chief returned to Singapore and started practice with Braddell Brothers which at the time also featured among its team of lawyers, Messrs Punch Coomaraswamy, Goh Joon Seng and T Q Lim, all of whom would one day be appointed to the High Court Bench. It is perhaps fitting that the last person to be appointed to the Chief’s Court is the Judicial Commissioner Vinodh Coomaraswamy, son of the late Justice Punch Coomaraswamy. After some time, the Chief joined Shook Lin & Bok. By the time he retired from that firm in 1986, he had developed a formidable reputation as Singapore’s leading corporate lawyer with a very large and successful commercial practice. He was the lawyer of choice for banks, accountants and other businesses. Such was his command of the law that his clients would not move without the benefit of his counsel. He was known for issuing opinions that were always clear, always reliable and always dependable. Occasionally, they were pithy to the point of consisting of a single sentence: “I refer to your telex earlier this morning and advise that the answer to your question is ‘yes’.” I say this having seen one such opinion as a pupil at Shook Lin & Bok and I remember marvelling at the assurance that allowed the Chief to do that.

9. Perhaps the work for which he will be most remembered from his days in private practice is that done in the midst of the Pan-El crisis, arguably the greatest corporate failure in our history. The Chief was the lawyer in the eye of that storm and one contribution that especially stands out is his conceptualisation and drafting of the lifeboat fund arrangements which were central to the effort first, to avoid a collapse of corporate Singapore and second, to rehabilitate the financial sector.



10. In 1986, after 25 years of practice, the Chief started on what has been and will in my view remain an unparalleled journey in the public legal service. Over the next 26 years, the Chief would in turn hold office as Singapore’s first ever Judicial Commissioner, then as a Judge of the High Court, then as Singapore’s third Attorney-General and finally as Singapore’s third Chief Justice. It is in this span of time that the Chief would leave his most lasting legacy for Singapore and for the law. During this period, the Chief served as a Judge in the courts of each of his two predecessors as Chief Justice.


11. The Chief had spent his formative years as a lawyer during the Wee Chong Jin era and this culminated in his joining Chief Justice Wee’s Court in 1986. When he launched the book The First Chief: Wee Chong Jin – A Judicial Portrait in September 2010, the Chief had this to say:

“Chong Jin’s role as Chief Justice was to administer justice under a constitutional framework that entrenched the independence of the Judiciary from the Legislature and the Executive … He had the responsibility of moulding a judicial culture among his judges that would not shirk from applying the law impartially and to maintain their independence in decision making … Chong Jin was the dominant judge of his time. He administered justice with a firm hand, quiet dignity and fairness.”

12. Without question, we owe much to the first Chief for laying the foundations on which our judicial framework stands today. After six years in the High Court and shortly after Chief Justice Yong Pung How had succeeded Chief Justice Wee, the Chief became the Attorney-General. On the occasion of his first address as the Attorney-General at the Opening of the Legal Year 1993, the Chief concluded his address with this reference to what had transpired in the previous year in the immediate aftermath of Chief Justice Yong taking office:

“It was said some years ago that we, ie, the Judiciary, the law officers of the State and the Bar, were a trinity, with the Bench being primus inter pares. I would prefer the more mundane, and perhaps even pedestrian, description that the administration of justice rests on three legs. In the past year, your Honours’ leg has outrun the other two legs and had to drag them along to the finishing line. I can give my assurance that that leg which I lead will try its best this year to keep in step with the judicial leg.”

13. If Chief Justice Wee had laid the foundations for the rule of law and the independence of the Judiciary in Singapore, Chief Justice Yong brought the administration of justice in Singapore to the 21st century with the modernising reforms he introduced to speed up the process and to clear the backlog that had accumulated over the course of a less hurried era that had been less complicated and free of the burdens of electronic communication and information dissemination.

14. But this was also a time when Singapore law was coming of age and the Chief, then in his role as the Attorney-General, was in pole position to play a vital role in this regard. Numerous things stand out but let me mention just three:

a. First, as the Attorney-General, he was instrumental in advising the Government to change the law in relation to the reception of English law. For a newly established colony, the 1826 Second Charter of Justice and subsequently s 5 of the Civil Law Act served as easy and convenient means to provide the required body of law to run a functioning society. But law is so much more than a set of rules and regulations; it is the expression of the policy choices that a nation must make to meet the challenges it faces. These challenges are inevitably unique and a time must come when every nation’s laws reflect the deliberate choices it has made in order to meet its particular challenges. The Application of English Law Act, passed in 1993, probably marks the pivotal moment that we as a nation arrived at that point and the Chief played a vital role in getting us there. This process moved along some more when legislation was passed shortly after to end appeals to the Privy Council. Our own Court of Appeal then became the Apex Court on all matters.

b. Second, as the Public Prosecutor, the Chief took a keen interest in the criminal justice system. Among his numerous contributions and innovations in this area, the one that stands out in my view is the role he played as one of the most important and powerful forces behind the reform of the Criminal Procedure Code (“CPC”) which culminated in the passage of the CPC 2010. He had started the process while he was the Attorney-General with the establishment of the Criminal Procedure Code Review Committee. The journey lasted several years but it started with the Chief and as a direct result of his vision, its profound effects will be felt for many years to come and will affect so many lives.

c. As the Government’s Principal Legal Advisor and its Counsel-in-Chief, he was instrumental in developing the Attorney-General’s Chambers from a modest and relatively small outfit into a large modern organisation. And he personally took an interest in the most challenging issues of the day. This was most clearly demonstrated in his personal involvement and role in two international disputes with Malaysia: the first concerning land reclamation and the second concerning the rights to Pedra Branca. These are matters of historic proportion and importance but with his deep talent and intellect, the Chief embraced these opportunities with relish.

15. When Dr Etherton steered the young Chan Sek Keong to a career in the law, he had unwittingly unleashed a legal colossus on a nation, not yet even born, but that would need exactly such a talent at precisely such a moment. The law was the Chief’s destiny. It brought him immense joy and satisfaction. He cared deeply about the law¬ — always seeking to make it better, always recognising that although we are its servants and are subject to it, the law depends on the work of its best subjects to become more perfect, to have the wrinkles ironed out and to more truly reflect the soul of a nation. The intellectual challenge of every complicated legal problem proved a boon, not a bane, for this extraordinary man.



16. It was thus entirely fitting and perhaps entirely predictable that an amazing life in the law and in its service would be capped by a remarkable stint as Chief Justice. The fact that the Chief was from the Bar was undoubtedly just one factor that accounts for the enthusiastic acclaim with which his appointment in 2006 was received. The Chief brought his own style to his new calling. It has been a style that rests not only on a profound knowledge of the law, but equally on a gentle and courteous demeanour on the Bench, a willingness to afford a litigant the time he or she feels is needed to make a point, an awareness of the pressures that counsel face and an overall judicial temperament that can only be described as superb.

17. It is far too early to even begin to evaluate the depth and profoundness of the legacy that the Chief leaves behind after 12 years as a Judge, half of that as the Chief Justice. The only thing that can be said with certainty is that it will be immense. Over the course of 12 years on the Bench in both the High Court and the Court of Appeal, the Chief issued nearly 380 written judgments. This is a staggering judicial output of more than 30 written judgments a year and in the Chief’s case, each one, invariably, has made a valuable contribution to the law.

18. When I was a law student, in my third year I wrote a paper in the jurisprudence course about Professor Dworkin’s “right answer theory”. In very brief and simplistic terms, the theory goes that there is always one right answer to every legal problem. Dworkin constructed his theory around an imaginary judge he called Hercules, who would have legal omniscience, great wisdom and no time limits, and given those premises, would always get the one right answer to every legal problem or issue. Towards the end of my paper, I recall saying that I did not find Professor Dworkin’s thesis convincing because it was an argument of faith rather than of reason; after all anyone could hypothesise that a fictitious superhuman legal super-genius would always know the right answer to every legal problem; but what good was that to the rest of us mortals? That was then, before I knew and understood the work of the Chief, who is the closest I have come to encountering a judge with such a complete knowledge and intuitive sense of the law that he almost invariably gets the right answer.



19. This brings me to the book, which it is my great pleasure and honour to launch. I said a few minutes ago that the book is much more than a tribute to this truly great man of the law; it is a collection of works - a treasure trove of our legal history over the last half-century or so. The book is in three parts:

a. The first part gives a brief biographical sketch of the Chief. Some of it is written by others, some of it is in the Chief’s own words. I particularly enjoyed the Chief’s “Memories of Anderson School” which was a piece he wrote in connection with the school’s 90th anniversary celebrations. But taken as a whole, the section provides a sense of the man behind his public persona.

b. The second part is a collection of essays written by 11 senior and highly respected lawyers and legal scholars. In these essays written in honour of the Chief, the writers have evaluated the development of our law in the areas of constitutional and administrative law, corporate law, criminal law and procedure, international law, property and trust law and the law of obligations. Each of these essays is of superb quality.


I would like to draw on two particularly apt summaries from this section. First, in the chapter analysing the Chief’s contributions in the field of trusts and equity, Mr T P B Menon, a good friend of the Chief, and Professor Tang Hang Wu state quite simply and categorically at the start of their essay: “In the field of property and trusts law, no one has contributed more to Singapore’s jurisprudence than Chan CJ” and at the end they conclude: “In our view, Chan CJ will always be regarded as Singapore’s most cerebral and perceptive judge in matters of property and trusts law to adorn our Supreme Court Bench”. I cannot improve on this assessment.

Second, in the chapter on company law, Professor Hans Tjio and Mr Lee Eng Beng SC have this to say:

“In a different place and age, Chan CJ might perhaps have become the consummate Chancery practitioner and judge, utilising both law and equity to fashion pragmatic corporate and commercial outcomes. But that would have meant that only those within the narrow confines of Lincoln’s Inn would have known of his work, even if modern methods of dissemination mean that those restrictions are not geographical in nature. We, in Singapore, have been fortunate that he has not been hamstrung in the range of his work and interests, and that other areas of the law have benefitted from his careful attention.”

I hope in these extracts to have done two things: first, to whet your appetite for the substantive content of the book; and second, to give a sense of how the profession has seen the impact of the Chief’s work in so many areas and to such great acclaim.

c. The third section is a collection of the Chief’s extra-judicial writings and speeches covering a broad and fascinating array of subjects. They contain pearls of wisdom about many of the great issues that face us and will continue to face us in this profession. But they also provide a close and even an intimate insight into the mind of a man who has been in love with the law ever since he first encountered it.

20. I would like to thank those who have worked hard on this extremely valuable contribution to the annals of our legal history. First, of course, the Chief himself, whose voice speaks to us in most of the book and whose life’s work is the occasion for the book in the first place; next, the essayists who have painstakingly and with great respect and affection prepared their reviews of the Chief’s work; and last but most certainly not least the editors: Justices Chao Hick Tin, Andrew Phang and V K Rajah, who have shared this last and most glorious phase of the Chief’s career in a very special way, and Professor Yeo Tiong Min SC who has worked so very hard on this book.


21. When the Chief launched the biography of Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin, he observed that it is the fate of all common law judges that while their work will live on in the law reports, over time they will come to be cited less and less frequently as successor judges make their own contributions to the eternal canvas of the law. This is undoubtedly true and perhaps more so today than ever before given the immense amount and easy accessibility of information and judgments from all over the world. But this is not the hallmark of greatness. We may not cite Lord Atkin’s articulation of the neighbour principle in Donoghue v Stevenson with as much frequency as we once did; but this by no means diminishes the greatness of that judge. Indeed, as we have seen others follow him to the judicial canvas of the common law and add their own take on the neighbour principle in numerous other areas, we have acquired a much better sense today of just how great a judge Lord Atkin was, than his own contemporaries did in the immediate aftermath of that narrow 3-2 victory over the powerful and passionate dissent of Lord Buckmaster.


22. So it will be with the Chief. Today, we know him as a world-class jurist, with a clear and principled judicial philosophy and an unmatched grasp of the foundational principles that underlie the law – a grasp that enables him to almost always get it right before even looking at the case authorities. We know him as a lawyer with a peerless love and devotion to the law. If law is the foundation of society and judges are its servants, then we know that the Chief is among its most ardent and loyal servants, passionately committed to doing justice in accordance with the law and seeking, like Dworkin’s Hercules, to always get it right. I know that history will vindicate these assessments; but more than that, with the benefit of time, I believe history will judge the Chief as the greatest jurist this country has ever produced. And in time, we will each fully realise just how privileged we have been to have shared at least some part of that ride with him.


23. It leaves me to thank the organisers for having given me this opportunity to pay my tribute to the Chief; to thank the Chief for his service to Singapore law; to wish the Chief the very best for a very happy and healthy retirement and finally, to launch the book, The Law In His Hands: A Tribute to Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong. Thank you.