Former Chief Justice Yong Pung How,
Former Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong,
Fellow members of the Singapore Academy of Law,
1. This is a historic occasion and it is a great honour for all of us at the Singapore Academy of Law that so many eminent persons have assembled here this evening to mark its 25th anniversary. Let me begin by expressing my sincere appreciation to each of you for taking the time and the trouble to be with us this evening.
2. As you might be aware, SAL has had a busy, exciting and eventful year with a special suite of activities having been organised to commemorate its silver jubilee.
a. In April this year, the SAL organised a joint conference with the Chancery Bar of England and Wales on ‘Finance, Property and Business Litigation in a Changing World’. This conference featured an unprecedented and I think, fair to say, a stellar line-up of legal talent from the Chancery Bar of England and Wales and the legal community in Singapore, discussing some of the most challenging legal issues in modern commercial litigation covering banking, insolvency, trust and company disputes.
b. In July, we organised Law Week; a 5-day series of activities for the public and the profession on law and its developments. Law Week provided a unique opportunity for SAL to work with the Law Society of Singapore and the Subordinate Courts to raise public awareness about legal rights and demystify those aspects of the law that affect our general public. We did this through a series of free legal talks and legal clinics, an exhibition on criminal law and for the first time in Singapore, on family law.
c. In September, the SAL held the inaugural SAL charity concert, ‘The LeX Factor – Law Has Talent’, in support of the Yellow Ribbon Fund. Well over 400 guests joined us for a magnificent evening of song and dance put together by more than 70 individuals from the legal profession, ex-offenders and fund beneficiaries for an extremely worthwhile cause. We were especially fortunate and indeed grateful that we had as our Guest-of-Honour that evening, His Excellency the President of Singapore.
3. This evening marks yet another significant event in SAL’s silver jubilee commemorative calendar. A short while ago, we paid tribute to and honoured former Chief Justice Mr Chan Sek Keong. Chief Justice Chan is the sixth person in the history of the Academy to be conferred the title of ‘Honorary Member for Life and Fellow for Life of the Singapore Academy of Law’ by the Senate, for his contributions to our legal system and to our nation. Those contributions are immense and will continue to affect the course of our legal history and of our law for many decades to come.
4. And later tonight, we will launch an audio book entitled ‘Legal Tenor: Voices from Singapore’s Legal History’. This work, a product of the SAL’s Oral History project, is the first of its kind in Singapore and features 15 audio recordings of some of Singapore’s earliest lawyers as they speak of their lives and their experiences in the practice of law as it then was. Some among us will have known these giants who were the pioneering generation of Singapore’s legal fraternity. Many if not most of us would have heard their names. And now, all of us will have the opportunity to actually hear them. Their voices evoke a real sense of our historical past and in particular of the era when Singapore transitioned from colonial rule to self-governance.
5. Ladies and Gentlemen, the SAL has come a long way since it was founded in 1988, among other things to, promote the advancement and dissemination of the laws, research and scholarship, provide continuing legal education and to promote good relations and social interaction among the various segments of the legal community in Singapore.
6. CJ Chan, in his speech earlier, has recounted some of the early days of the SAL. He has highlighted the singular efforts of the then Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew in the conceptualisation of the SAL and in ensuring that the SAL started off on a sound footing. Clearly, in the case of the profession, Mr Lee saw the need for an institution that would bring together the different segments of the community to work collectively and build the infrastructure to enhance professional standards and make legal services more efficient. As Mr Lee stated at the Official Opening of the SAL in 1990, “[t]he Academy has to create a strong collegiate feeling, set[ting] the tone for the profession, and regain for it the high esteem of the public”.
7. In 1995, in recognition of SAL’s significant contributions since its founding, and with a view to further increase its remit of operations, the SAL Act was amended. Under the amended Act, the functions and powers of the SAL were expanded giving the SAL a bigger role to propel the legal services sector and the administration of justice into the 21st Century by promoting the reputation of our legal profession in the region and elsewhere; also by promoting the reform and development of the law; promoting and facilitating the use of information technology in the legal sector; conducting training, education and examinations in law; and the appointment of Notaries Public and Commissioners for Oaths.
8. Today, as we celebrate the SAL’s silver jubilee, we can look back at its many achievements and take some comfort in the knowledge that SAL has stood the test of time and achieved a respectable degree of success in meeting both its founding objectives and also its expanded mandate. Chief Justice Chan has made reference to some of these achievements but let me highlight a few:
a. As the umbrella membership body of the legal community in Singapore and with nearly 10,000 members, the SAL plays a critical and unique role in bringing together the Bench, the Bar, the Legal Service community, corporate counsel and legal academics in committees and discussion forums for programs that feed into the platform of ideas to develop and strengthen the legal industry.
b. In line with the Government’s initiatives to promote Singapore as a legal hub for international legal services, the SAL, since 1997, has embarked on a slew of initiatives to promote alternate dispute resolution mechanisms and since 2005, to promote the international profile of Singapore law and indeed of Singapore as a centre for dispute resolution and as a legal solutions hub. These include:
i. marketing efforts to promote the use of Singapore law whenever neutral law and venue might be desired by segments of the legal and business communities in Asia and particularly in China, India and Indonesia.
ii. And the dissemination of Singapore jurisprudence through its Singapore Law website which provides write-ups in English on the laws of Singapore and the Singapore Law Watch website that carries the latest legal news reported in Singapore and updated on a daily basis.
c. The SAL has played a prominent role in enhancing the intellectual capital of our profession and raising the international profile of our legal system through an impressive array of conferences, lectures and seminars.
i. The SAL Annual Lecture series, now into its 20th year, has hosted some of the most illustrious Chief Justices and judges from both civil and common-law jurisdictions. It serves as an ideal platform for our legal profession to gain exposure to some of the best legal minds in the world.
ii. Similar to the SAL Annual Lecture series, the SAL Distinguished Speaker series brings eminent personalities from around the common law world to Singapore. The series is targeted especially at deconstructing difficult points of law. The Distinguished Speaker series also brings into Singapore, speakers who can help us re-examine long held assumptions in our legal thinking. In December this year, we will host Professor Maryanne Garry, an eminent cognitive psychologist from the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, who will speak on the topic ‘Implications of Scientific Memory Research for the Law’ examining the causes and consequences of false memories.
d. Since 1997, the SAL has been at the forefront of efforts to improve the efficiency of legal practice through the use of legal technology and to keep current with advances in information technology. Most notably, SAL has invested much effort and resources in developing LawNet, Singapore’s leading legal research website, which has been the backbone of the legal community for the past decade and has set the gold-standard for public-private partnership in investing in this vital and strategically important infrastructure for the legal sector. Over 90% of the profession today subscribes to LawNet, having 24x7 access to a versioned legislation database, Singapore Parliamentary Reports, as well as case law from Singapore, England and Wales, Australia, New Zealand, India and Hong Kong. We will do more in 2014 when the new LawNet portal which is currently under construction is launched. SAL has also partnered the Supreme Court and the Subordinate Courts, since 2000, in the promotion and roll out of the Electronic Litigation System and is currently leading efforts to finalise a scheme to bring e-discovery solutions to law firms and their clients.
e. Yet another notable contribution of SAL has been the establishment of its publishing division; Academy Publishing, in 2007, which is responsible for the Singapore Law Reports and the publication of law books, specialist monographs and legal journals thus contributing to the development and dissemination of Singapore jurisprudence.
f. And the SAL has also played a crucial role in seeding and launching other important institutions in Singapore including the Singapore Mediation Centre and the Singapore Institute of Legal Education.
9. But as much as SAL has accomplished over the past 25 years, as we look ahead, there is plainly more that we can collectively aspire to do. One thing is certain: in the next 25 years, we can expect significant changes in the legal profession both globally as well as locally. Richard Susskind predicts, in his book Tomorrow’s Lawyers, that legal institutions and lawyers “are poised to change more radically over the next two decades than they have over the last two centuries”.
10. Susskind’s prediction cannot be too far from the truth. Unless the legal community adapts, it will be overwhelmed by the sweeping changes taking place in the Singapore economy and the business operating environment. The Government has already responded with many changes to the legislative and institutional framework to position Singapore as a legal services hub, presenting a whole range of fresh opportunities for our profession. At a practical level, the profession needs to come together to widen their networks, enhance their skills and deepen their knowledge to take advantage of these changes.
11. On its part, the SAL Senate, at its last annual meeting in August, approved a broad framework to guide the future work of SAL having regard to these developments. Moving forward, SAL as a statutory body will strategically realign its focus to take on the role of a development and promotion agency for the legal profession. This framework, consists of four strategic foundations, in each of which SAL will look to play a key role, namely:
(i) Public-private sector partnerships in the development of strategic legal infrastructure;
(ii) Promotion of thought leadership in legal issues and jurisprudence;
(iii) Promotion of Singapore as a centre of legal excellence in practice and learning; and
(iv) Promotion of public confidence in the legal profession.
12. To some extent, this describes much of what has been the core work of the SAL over the past several years. But the sharpened focus along these lines will enable us to think with much greater clarity about what else we should be doing and how we should be harnessing our resources and our goodwill in the best way possible.
13. To begin with, SAL recently constituted a Commercial Law Framework Committee comprising some of the leading corporate and commercial law practitioners in Singapore to recommend a framework setting out the foundational level of knowledge and skills necessary to run a sound commercial law practice. This Committee will also identify specific areas of commercial law and emerging growth areas where the Singapore legal system can build subject-matter expertise and practice excellence. The Committee’s recommendations will guide the SAL as it prepares to roll out a series of focussed seminars and publications intended to raise the competence and capabilities of our commercial law practitioners. This will help support Singapore’s position as a centre for legal excellence in commercial law and help us identify areas where our best minds can engage the region in legal thought leadership.
14. Because of its stature, its resources and the way it is structured, the SAL is uniquely placed to raise standards of legal practice. Raising the skills, knowledge and practice standards of our legal fraternity will not only be beneficial to SAL members but will also boost Singapore’s reputation as a centre for legal excellence in practice and learning within the region as well as beyond. In keeping with this, we hope in the not too distant future to bring into Singapore, an advanced advocacy course modelled after the world renowned Keble Advanced Advocacy course, which sets amongst the highest standards in advocacy training. The trainers of the Singapore course will comprise Queens Counsel from England and Senior Counsel and other senior litigators from Singapore.
15. In the knowledge space, which is SAL’s core business, we have made significant strides in the past two years by inaugurating several high-profile conferences on the rule of law, criminal law, and technology law. We will build on SAL’s reputation and its proven ability to put together world-class conferences to draw the leading legal minds of the world to Singapore. In line with our objective to promote Singapore as a centre for legal thought leadership and legal excellence, the SAL will look to host regional forums and legal dialogues in areas of strategic importance to our legal services industry.
16. In my keynote speech at the 26th LawAsia Conference and the 15th Asia-Pacific Conference of Chief Justices held earlier this week, I laid out the considerations driving the need for harmonisation or at least convergence in commercial laws and steps that might be taken to catalyse the development of a consistent body of transnational commercial law for the Asia-Pacific region. I had also suggested that the effort to harmonize must begin with dialogue amongst stakeholders in the regional and international sphere. I am happy to announce tonight that the SAL will lead efforts in bringing together and collaborating with international stakeholders to promote such a dialogue by hosting an international conference on the need for and the challenges we can expect to face in the convergence of commercial laws that are relevant to transnational commerce. We are looking to hold this in Singapore within the next 18 months.
17. For the small law firm community, much work has been done to raise the bar in terms of standards of knowledge and practice for this important segment of our profession. It is the small law firms today that supply vital and affordable legal services and access to justice amidst the changing demographics of our society. The average man on the street must have access to affordable legal services, and know where to find them. As set out in the 4th Committee Report on the supply of lawyers, “access to justice contains both quantitative and qualitative elements, and as such, the ready availability of competent legal advisors is a sine qua non of any robust legal system”. SAL will undertake a study of the ways in which we might create a professional environment for a selection of quality small firms willing to work together and with the SAL to raise standards of practice and grow in reputation. Our goal must be to identify the conditions in and means by which a positive and virtuous ecosystem can be created for the small law firm community in an environment where they can share common services, receive peer support, mentoring and ethical guidance as well as assistance in their professional development. This could be paired with an enhanced commitment to pro bono services. This would also enable us to assemble a critical mass of such law firms that can serve as a go-to point for the average Singaporean.
18. The SAL, through its many services and initiatives, such as the appointment of Senior Counsel, Notaries Public and Commissioners for Oaths, its stakeholding and conveyancing monies service and its commitment to the profession’s pro bono efforts, has greatly assisted in strengthening public trust and confidence in our legal system. These efforts will continue to expand as we move forward.
19. I look forward to making more announcements in the near future on specific projects being undertaken by the SAL under each of these strategic thrusts.
20. I take this opportunity to thank the Senate of the SAL for their valuable suggestions and their commitment to SAL. The Senate has been the bedrock for the many programs that the SAL has delivered over the years.
21. I would also like to thank the staff of SAL for all the dedication, hard work and commitment over the years. I would especially like to place on record our sincere appreciation for the leadership of the SAL secretariat led by Serene Wee and her capable team. 25 years ago, the SAL secretariat started modestly resting on the efforts of assistant registrars of the Supreme Court who heard pre-trial conferences by day and doubled up as honorary secretaries of the SAL by night. These young honorary secretaries divided up the work amongst themselves. Some shouldered property and administrative responsibilities; some took on membership assistance duties; some oversaw a small team of accounts staff; some supervised the restaurant staff and a junior receptionist. The SAL secretariat has grown from those modest beginnings and today it is made up of 67 full-time employees supplemented by a pool of consultants brought in for specific projects. Amongst its employees and consultants are 23 who are legally trained, 5 who are trained in accountancy and 11 who are IT professionals. Together, they handle a variety of roles and portfolios. As SAL gears up its resources as a development and promotion agency and expands its work and mission on the four strategic foundations that I mentioned, its secretariat will be strengthened with the best people we can find to drive our public-private sector partnerships and projects, and our thought leadership programmes.
22. Amongst the entire team, there is one person who warrants a particular mention. She, more than any other individual, personifies the SAL’s energy, passion and commitment to its mission. This very day, as it happens, marks the 20th Anniversary of Serene Wee joining the SAL. Serene Wee was brought in by Chief Justice Yong Pung How to help him professionalise the management of the Academy. She has stayed the course and fought the good fight well. All of us owe her an immense debt of gratitude.
23. SAL would not have come so far but for the tireless and unwavering commitment of its members. This evening is also an occasion to honour those SAL members who have made key contributions in promoting its objectives by presenting the Singapore Law Merit Award and the SAL Merit Award.
24. These awards launched in 2008, and awarded once every five years, are meant to signify our deep appreciation and to acknowledge the special contributions made by SAL members. The Singapore Law Merit Award is given to individuals for their contributions to the development of Singapore Law, while the SAL Merit Award is given to individuals for services they have rendered in promoting and advancing the objectives of the SAL.
25. I am pleased to announce that the recipients of the Singapore Law Merit Award 2013 are:
1. Mr Chow Kok Fong
2. Professor Ng-Loy Wee Loon
3. Assistant Professor Goh Yihan
26. The recipients of the SAL Merit Awards 2013 are:
1. Solicitor-General Mrs Koh Juat Jong, SC
2. Associate Professor Eleanor Wong
3. Mr Francis Xavier, SC
4. Associate Professor Debbie Ong
5. Mr Cavinder Bull, SC
6. Mr Yeong Zee Kin
27. Ladies and Gentlemen, the SAL can take considerable pride in what it has achieved in the past 25 years. As we face the future, our goal is to make even greater contributions to the legal profession in Singapore and to our society-at-large. We approach the next 25 years with confidence that if we pull together and continue to harness our collective strengths, we will meet the challenges and demands of Singapore’s changing legal, social and economic landscape. I ask for your continued goodwill and support in these aspirations. With it, I have no doubt our goals will be achieved.
28. I wish you a lovely evening. I thank you once again for being here. Thank you very much.