IN CONVERSATION WITH PROFS KEVIN TAN AND THIO LI-ANN
The academics explain why it’s about time we look at Singapore’s constitutional developments again.
BY ASHUTOSH RAVIKRISHNAN
The prospect of speaking to Professors Kevin Tan and Thio Li-ann about constitutional and administrative law seemed daunting. After all, as Prof Tan quips mid-way through our interview, the duo has over 60 years of experience between them in teaching the subject. But when we meet for a virtual discussion one Friday morning, the long-time colleagues are congenial and easy to understand.
Prof Tan is slightly more senior of the two, having joined the National University of Singapore (NUS) as a faculty member in 1986. “Back then, you didn’t have the luxury of deciding what you teach,” he recalls. “Of course, you did get to indicate a preference. All through law school, I was interested in public law more than commercial law, and so then-Dean Prof Tan Sook Yee said, ‘This guy is going to teach constitutional and public law.’”
Prof Thio shares a similar account, recounting her experience when she joined NUS five years later. “I was asked to teach public law and as an idealistic 23-year-old, I thought it sounded interesting, so I gave it a try.” She adds that their paths crossed shortly after: “Kevin came barrelling down the corridor, bringing with him the first edition of Constitutional Law in Malaysia and Singapore. The book was an excellent introduction to Singapore’s constitutional law but I remember being shocked that there were so many cases from India and Malaysia there.” She had then wondered aloud why there hadn’t been a book purely focussed on Singapore cases, to which Prof Tan replied, “There just aren’t that many.”
MORE CASES TO STUDY
That has changed dramatically in the three decades since, a fact that Prof Tan credits to the evolving profile of our judiciary. “Previous generations of judges were educated largely in the United Kingdom, which does not have a written constitution. And their judgments mirrored this training; they were reliant on administrative law precedents from Malaysia and elsewhere, and did not engage in in-depth analyses of the actual written constitution!”
He continues, “But these days, a new breed of Singapore-educated judges sit on the Bench and they look at the law through a much more local lens.” This shift was accompanied by a growing sense that Singapore law had to be more autochthonous, something that academics like Profs Tan and Thio had pushed for much of their careers.
Adds Prof Thio, “Beyond a change in the Bench and its philosophy, we’ve also seen an exponential rise in the number of substantial cases that need some time to digest. I used to joke that in the past, you’d have one significant case every five years. Now, it might be that you have one every five months or even quicker than that. Not only are there more judgments, most of them are also much more sophisticated and instructive.”
Just like its distinctive take on the Westminster system (with the GRC, NCMP and NMP schemes), Singapore has also adopted a unique approach to its constitution. More than 50 amendments have been made, with 2016’s amendments to the Elected Presidency being the most recent. Prof Thio shares that this has not gone unnoticed by the global legal community, with the late American Supreme Court judge Antonin Scalia commenting on it during a visit to Singapore in 2016. “He was very struck by a speech by PM Lee where he had alluded to developing the constitution. It was an alien concept to him!” This is because constitutions elsewhere are near-impossible to amend, leading to certain Supreme Courts seeking to change the constitution by interpretation, raising questions of judicial overreach.
Given these developments, it’s only natural that Profs Tan and Thio have penned a new edition of their earlier title, this time opting for a Singapore-centric focus and expanding it encompass the rapidly growing field of administrative law. This is reflected in the title of the book, Constitutional and Administrative Law in Singapore: Cases, Materials and Commentary, which is now the fourth edition of the book. Commenting on the experience, Prof Tan says, “At the end of the day, it’s an intellectual and pedagogical exercise. We all read the same articles and cases, but our perspectives are different and this affects which cases we choose to teach from.” Prof Thio agrees, concluding, “It’s like iron sharpening iron.” “It’s always fun working with Li-ann … sometimes stressful,” quips Prof Tan. “But always a pleasure.”
Constitutional and Administrative Law in Singapore: Cases, Materials and Commentary is available now. Profs Tan and Thio will be presenting a webinar on the subject on April 21, where they will also be joined by Assistant Professors Benjamin Joshua Ong and Kenny Chng of the Singapore Management University. Registrations are now open and a bundle deal (book + webinar) is also available.
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