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Speech by The Honourable the Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong at the launch of The First Chief: Wee Chong Jin - A Judicial Portrait

Mrs Wee and the Wee family, fellow judges and members of the Bar:

We are here this evening to commemorate the judicial work of Wee Chong Jin, the first Chief Justice of Singapore, exactly 20 years to the day he retired in 1990. When he was appointed the Chief Justice in January 1963, Singapore was still a British colony, with internal self-government. He held that high office for 27 years, a record that is likely to stand for all time in the history of Singapore. 

2  In the first decade of his tenure as Chief Justice, Singapore was faced with formidable problems concerning national survival, internal security, political stability, law and order, economic development, social unrest, a young population lacking in education, skills, jobs and housing, and under the surface, simmering racial and religious conflicts. These problems were seemingly intractable problems and had to be tackled successfully first before nation building could even begin. A new economic, social and legal order was needed to meet these challenges. By the time Chong Jin retired in 1990, Singapore was a prosperous and stable state. 

3  Singapore was fortunate to have inherited a legal system, the basic norm of which is the rule of law – that is to say, the principle that all are equal before and subject to the law. As head of the Judiciary, 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. When Chong Jin was appointed Chief Justice, he was 46 years old and had 5 years’ experience as a puisne judge, an experience not entirely relevant or useful in adjudicating the kind of disputes that would be generated by an active legislative programme under a new Constitution that for the first time guaranteed certain fundamental liberties to the people, some, albeit, in qualified terms.

4  Thus, the new social and legal order required a different judicial mindset and philosophy to legal issues involving disputes between the State and the people concerning public needs and private rights, issues that would inevitably arise as the Government took steps to make the necessary changes to the legal framework to enable it to govern decisively and effectively. 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. 

5  Additionally, the Judiciary had the responsibility to develop a body of Singapore law principles in civil and criminal matters that would suit the new social and economic order. Singapore’s basic law was English common law, but the courts would have to depart from English law if it was not suited to local circumstances. Singapore’s criminal justice system, which was based on a trinity of Indian Codes on criminal law, procedure and evidence, was well suited to a colonial society. But, prevailing circumstances prompted the Government to enact new criminal laws and modify the existing criminal process to ensure that offenders could not be let off on technical grounds. Likewise, economic and social legislation impacting on private property and rights was enacted to enable the Government to implement its policies to build what it considered to be a fair and just society.  Inevitably, the courts would be called upon to draw the line on the constitutionality and/or legality legislation and executive actions. 

6  Chong Jin was the dominant judge of his time. He administered justice with a firm hand, quiet dignity and fairness. His great virtue was not to say too much in court. He did not find it prudent to state a principle of law wider than necessary to dispose of the point in issue. His judgments will live on in the law reports, but over time they will be cited less and less as successor judges leave their own imprint on the judicial canvas. This is the fate of all common law judges. But, at least, in the case of Chong Jin, his most important judgments and the essence of his judicial work will be recorded in the book to be launched today.

7  The book bears the title “The First Chief: Wee Chong Jin – A Judicial Portrait”. It is written by a former legal officer who became a successful corporate lawyer, then a successful investment adviser, and now a restless bibliophile. He is not an academic, and he has confessed in his Preface to the book that this is not meant to be a scholarly work, simply an unvarnished account of Chong Jin’s judicial record which is found in 327 reported judgments, his speeches and lectures and the Report of the 1966 Constitutional Commission. More so then, we should thank John Koh and acknowledge our indebtedness to him for writing this book.

8  I do not propose to say anything about what is in the book, but would urge you to read it to judge for yourselves whether the book measures up to the man or the man to the book. At the same time, please bear in mind that Chong Jin was a Chief Justice of his times, whose contributions to the law would have been influenced and moulded by a set of unique historical circumstances.

9  In the last four and a half years, I have launched many law books. I have no wish to be remembered as the face that launched a thousand books, but I do not mind being remembered for having launched this book “The First Chief: Wee Chong Jin – A Judicial Portrait”. It therefore gives me the greatest pleasure to do so, now.  Thank you all for your presence this evening.