The Honourable Attorney-General Sundaresh Menon, SC
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.
It is indeed my honour and privilege to deliver this opening address for the Junior College Law Programme 2011, and to welcome each of you to the programme.
This is the third time that this annual programme has been conducted, and it has already established itself as a platform that provides a unique opportunity for pre-university students such as yourselves to gain a very useful insight into the legal profession, and the law in general.
While one objective of the programme is clearly to showcase the tremendous range of opportunities available to those of you who may choose eventually to pursue a Law degree in university, there is a secondary objective, which is to leave you with a deeper understanding of the vital role that the Law plays in our society. This is an important insight for each of you to gain, as citizens, whether or not you ultimately decide to study law.
Having examined the programme of activities that have been planned for you, I am confident that you are in for an exciting experience, and that you will come away with a real understanding of both the rigours and rewards of a career in Law. During this two-day conference, you will be exposed to the diverse areas encompassed by the practice of law covering such things as private practice and public service, international and domestic law, civil and criminal litigation. You will have the opportunity to learn from – and question – practitioners from each of these different aspects of the legal profession.
Benefits of the JCLP
In my view, the twin objectives that I have mentioned correspond with what I believe are the two significant benefits that you can derive from your participation in this programme.
The first potential benefit – and I say this with full recognition of my inherent bias, having been a lawyer for much of the past three decades – is that you might end up being convinced that the legal profession is indeed the right choice for you.
I cannot help but think back thirty years, to the time when I made my own decision to study law. While becoming part of the legal profession is something that I have never regretted, it was a decision based mainly on an instinctive sense that “the Law” was something that I might enjoy and that it would perhaps afford me a chance to have a satisfying career while helping others in the pursuit of justice.
As with many of my peers, it was a decision that by and large we ‘stumbled upon’ than one we consciously made, and in which we were aided mainly by healthy doses of good fortune and parental advice.
I am sure that some of you may already be convinced that you want to be lawyers, and this programme might simply provide the final confirmation you are looking for as you set about pursuing those intentions. Others may only be toying with the idea of reading law, or may not even have considered it, but may nevertheless leave with the conviction that ‘the Law’ is the right path for you.
However, the big difference between your ultimate decision and mine would be that because of this program, yours will be an informed decision founded on having a reasonable insight into the realities, rigours and rewards of the legal profession. I believe this will make your choice that much more meaningful.
I dare say that those who decide to become lawyers would be doing so despite having had your eyes opened to the reality that practicing law is not quite as it is popularly portrayed on television and in the movies, on Law & Order or The Practice or Boston Legal, or even in the local television series The Pupil. As you will learn, the legal profession is not always exciting, glamorous or sexy. Most significantly, your work will call for stamina, concentration and focus over long periods of months or even years on a single case – not the 50 minutes in which a multitude of issues can be resolved on television.
Nevertheless, I am confident that many of you will choose the legal profession, because you will come to see that, aside from the very real and tangible material rewards that it might bring, the legal profession is, first and foremost, a calling. A mission. And that this will strike a deep and resonant chord in some of you – because those in the legal profession can and do have such a huge impact on our society.
Take, for example, some of the panels that you will hear from during this conference.
The ‘Crime and Punishment’ panel will bring you insights into the workings of our criminal legal system, from representatives of the three key players: the judiciary, the prosecution and the defence bar. You will hear about the heavy responsibility borne by prosecutors when exercising their crucial discretion to charge someone with an offence, which is balanced by the equally heavy burden that defence counsel bear in ensuring justice for their clients. And, ultimately, it is the judge who must make the crucial decision – guilty or innocent? – having heard and carefully assessed the evidence before him. All three will also share the emotional weight of coming face-to-face with the harsh realities of crime and criminal litigation, and the impact of a crime on victims, accused persons, and their families.
The panel on International Law, in contrast, will demonstrate the importance of the law in the international arena, whether it is in resolving disputes between countries such as the recent Pedra Branca dispute, or in bringing perpetrators of crimes against humanity to justice. In fact, this is an area of of particular importance to Singapore because, as a small country that cannot simply count on military, political or economic might to get its way, we rely heavily on international law to protect our sovereign interests against the ‘bigger boys’ on the international playing field.
And, the panel on “Law and Community” will answer the question “does anyone care?” with a resounding ‘yes’. You will hear how practitioners of Family Law struggle with helping their clients when things sadly go sour, and how the law can step in to protect vulnerable children and young persons when necessary. You will also hear about the fulfilment that members of the legal profession gain from giving back to the community, through pro bono work with non-governmental organisations.
During your job-shadowing attachments, you will gain even deeper insights into what the life of a lawyer is really like, whether in public institutions like the Attorney-General’s Chambers or the Courts, or private law firms of different sizes, from giant powerhouses with dozens of lawyers, to smaller firms with a handful of lawyers, or perhaps even a single practitioner. Each of these offer their own unique challenges, but I assure you that the ultimate satisfaction is always the same, springing from the knowledge that you have done your best, with integrity and diligence, to ensure a just and fair outcome for your client – whether that is an individual, a corporation, or the State itself.
Let me now move on to the second potential benefit of this programme, and one that you can claim regardless of whether you ultimately decide to pursue a career in the legal profession.
It is my deepest hope that you will, in the course of the programme, develop a real understanding of the role that the Rule of Law plays in all our lives. The Rule of Law is vitally important not only for Singapore, but for all nations.
Let me emphasise that the Rule of Law does not mean rule based on fear of punishment if one breaks the law. While the deterrent effect of punishment does play a part in ensuring that laws are respected, particularly criminal laws, the legal concept of the Rule of Law is far more transcendent.
Indeed, the Rule of Law is an essential component of any social compact between a Government and its citizens. It represents an assurance that all conduct in that society will be governed by consistent and coherent laws. In practical terms, this could mean the assurance that your property will be protected; or that those who commit crimes will be punished appropriately; or that those who have been accused of crimes will be judged equally and fairly, and be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
During this programme, you will all have the opportunity to see the Rule of Law in action, during your visits to the Supreme Court and Subordinate Courts, in the various court proceedings you will be exposed to. You will also visit the very place where our laws are made, Parliament House.
The Rule of Law is also vital to maintaining order in the global village, where international law governs dealings between nations. When the Rule of Law breaks down on the global level, the outcome can be catastrophic – war between countries – or it have other serious implications, such as if countries renege on agreements to protect the environment.
The Rule of Law is, in my opinion, a constant work-in-progress. While having clear and definite laws is clearly part of the equation, it is ultimately vital that all citizens are committed to ensuring its integrity.
That’s where you come in. Each of you, whether you become lawyers or not, can and will play a part in ensuring that the importance of the Rule of Law continues to be recognised in Singapore. Our continued prosperity as a vital and civil society depends on that.
Launch of ‘The Practice of Law’
Having expressed my hopes for this conference, and the programme as a whole, I would now like to say a few words about ‘The Practice of Law’, the book that will be launched in a few moments.
Again, it is my privilege and honour to be involved in the launching of this book, the foreword to which I had the great privilege of writing.
The book is comprised of a series of essays by legal practitioners from all areas of legal practice, writing about their experiences in the legal profession. What comes across most clearly is the passion that all of them have for their chosen field, and the satisfaction and fulfillment that they derive from it. In short, they exemplify what I have already said: that the Law is both a passion and a calling.
As the editors themselves have said in their preface, the many contributors also “show by example, in the lives that they lead and the humanity that they display in discharging their responsibilities, that it is possible to do noble things and maintain a sense of purpose while practising law and juggling the demands of family”.
I must extend my heartfelt commendation to the editors – Professor Michael Hor and Associate Professor Tang Hang Wu, both from the National University of Singapore’s Law Faculty, and Ms Koh Swee Yen, a partner of WongPartnership LLP – for their efforts. This book is an invaluable contribution to the development of the legal profession in Singapore, and I am sure it will be an inspiration to many.
In fact, this book is the sequel to an earlier book, Reading Law In Singapore, also edited by Michael and Hang Wu. The earlier work introduced aspiring law students to what it really means to study law, and the new book is thus a perfect follow-up, taking aspiring law students on the next step of ‘the discovery process’, to use a legal term, by showing them what life in the legal profession is like.
My advice to all of you is that, besides seizing the opportunity that your participation in this programme offers, you should also read both Reading Law In Singapore and The Practice of Law. As I have said, all the information you gather from these experiences will ensure that your ultimate choice whether to pursue a law degree and join the legal profession will be an informed decision, and thus more likely to be ‘the right choice’ for you.
In closing, it remains for me to commend the organisers of this programme for their efforts. Senior Counsel Mr Francis Xavier and his team on the Organising Committee have put together a programme which will richly benefit all of you.
I also want to commend the staff of the Singapore Academy of Law, who have been tireless in their efforts, in organising and ensuring the success of the programme.
I also commend all the law firms and public agencies, and especially the mentors in these firms and agencies, who have volunteered to host all of you during the job attachment phase of this programme; as well as the practitioners and professionals who have made the time to speak on the various panels during this two-day conference. The hospitality of the Supreme Court, Subordinate Courts and Parliament House in preparing for and hosting the various visits to their premises also deserves similar praise.
In addition, I want to acknowledge the Ministry of Law, the National University of Singapore and the Singapore Management University for their continued sponsorship of this programme since its inaugural running in 2009.
I am sure that, once you have completed this programme, you will all be similarly grateful to those I have mentioned. No effort has been spared in ensuring that this programme will be an educational, enriching, enlightening, and – most of all – enjoyable experience for each of you.
In closing, I want to thank each of you – as well as the institutions you come from, and your teachers – for your participation in this programme.
I am confident that some of you will go on to make tremendous contributions to the legal profession. But regardless of the choice you make, all of you have a part to play in the legal development of Singapore, in ensuring that the Rule of Law continues to be respected and preserved, even as our society continues to grow and evolve.
I wish you all the very best, as you begin your journey in the Junior College Law Programme 2011.