The Honourable the Chief Justice, Mr Sundaresh Menon
Judges of the Supreme Court
Former Chief Justices, Mr Yong Pung How and Mr Chan Sek Keong
Distinguished Guests and Members of the Singapore Academy of Law
1. Today, we honour former Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong’s contributions to the development of Singapore law and its legal system.
2. Mr Chan was born in 1937 in Ipoh. As Malaya was occupied by the Japanese from 1942 to 1945, he was unable to enrol in the primary class in an English school until he was eight years old. He received his primary, secondary and post-secondary education in Anderson School, Ipoh. He did well in his Cambridge Certificate examination in 1955 and also in his Matriculation examination for admission to an Arts degree course in the University of Malaya in Singapore. Fate intervened, in 1957, when he was advised by his English teacher to read law in the newly-founded Department of Law in the University of Malaya.
3. Mr Chan graduated with a Second Upper LLB (Hons) degree, in 1961, which helped him at the outset of his career to take the law into his hands and confront the law’s delay by petitioning the High Court of Malaya to abridge the duration of his pupillage. Notwithstanding the vigorous objection of the Chairman of the Bar Council, who was also the leading advocate of his time in Malaya, judgment was given in his favour by an outstanding judge who creatively interpreted the relevant statutory provision. This decision, which is reported in the Malayan Law Journal, inspired him to look at the law in a different light.
4. Mr Chan practised as a litigation lawyer, a conveyancer, a solicitor and a corporate lawyer for 25 years – from 1962 to 1986. He was an outstanding practitioner. He knew his law and was frequently consulted by other lawyers on trust and land law and also on banking law after he had built up a sizable banking practice in what was then the largest banking law firm in Singapore, which was headed by Mr L P Thean. His most important accomplishment as a corporate lawyer was to draft, on the spot, the Lifeboat Agreement which played a crucial role in averting a major crisis in the securities market and paved the way for its rehabilitation and prosperity.
5. Mr Chan’s career in public service began when he was appointed Singapore’s first Judicial Commissioner in 1986. Two years later, he was elevated to the Bench and became a Judge of the Supreme Court. In 1992, he was appointed Attorney-General, a capacity in which he would serve for 14 years. His contributions in that role would have a substantial impact on the Attorney-General’s Chambers in the administration of criminal justice in Singapore. Under his leadership, the Chambers grew from a modest and relatively small outfit into a large and modern organisation. In establishing departments, such as the International Affairs Division and the Law Reform and Revision Division, he sowed the seeds that now enable and equip the Attorney-General’s Chambers to handle a whole range of complex, legal issues.
6. Mr Chan was also behind key statutory enactments that have had a decisive impact on the law. He was instrumental in advising the Government to pass the Application of English Law Act. This injected certainty into our law and facilitated the development of an autochthonous legal system suited to our unique social, economic and political circumstances. He initiated the introduction of s 9A to the Interpretation Act, thereby allowing a more rational approach to statutory interpretation suitable for a more mature legal system. He also established the Criminal Procedure Code Review Committee, which led to the reform of the Criminal Procedure Code (“CPC”) and the passage of the CPC 2010.
7. As Attorney-General, Mr Chan was amongst the first group of lawyers to be appointed Senior Counsel. He would exercise his advocacy skills at the highest levels with the most at stake by successfully arguing the first and only constitutional reference case before a special Constitutional Tribunal, and also in leading the Singapore legal team to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in relation to the land reclamation case, and the Pedra Branca case before the International Court of Justice.
8. Mr Chan returned to lead the Judiciary as Chief Justice in 2006 and it is in that capacity that he probably has had the greatest impact on our legal system. His exemplary judicial temperament, already noted from his time as a Judicial Commissioner and Supreme Court Judge, truly came into its own under the heaviest mantle of all. It was in Chief Justice Chan’s judgments that his great learning and sheer talent were made manifest. In just over 12 years spent as Judicial Commissioner, Judge and Chief Justice, he authored more than 380 judgments, many of them seminal decisions. The Supreme Court flourished under Chief Justice Chan’s leadership and its jurisprudence has taken on a distinctly Singaporean character.
9. Mr Chan has also made significant contributions to the work of the Academy. He has chaired various committees including the Law Reform Committee, the LawNet Management Committee, the Council of Law Reporting and the Legal Education & Studies Committee. As Chairman of the Council of Law Reporting, he initiated the huge editorial project for the reissue of the Singapore Law Reports. He was also a key driving force behind the launch of Academy Publishing.
10. As lawyers, it is our duty and privilege to serve justice by representing our clients. In many respects, Mr Chan’s client has been our nation; his beneficiary, justice writ large. Mr Chan has presented those of us who follow in his footsteps with a solid foundation upon which to develop the Singapore legal system, but has also set us a lofty standard that we can only strive to meet. The Honorary Fellowship for Life and Membership for Life that is bestowed upon Mr Chan today is the Academy’s acknowledgment of his diverse accomplishments and incomparable contributions to the legal profession and our nation.
11. The Senate and the members of the Academy present Mr Chan Sek Keong, Honorary Member for Life and Fellow for Life of the Singapore Academy of Law.