Members will know that Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong retired on 6 November, after a long and brilliant career in the law.
The Prime Minister wrote a valedictory letter to the Chief Justice on 2 November, and there were many other tributes from the Bench, the Bar, and the Academia.
It is my honour today to pay tribute in this House to Chief Justice Chan, one of our greatest jurists and legal minds.
The Judiciary and the Chief Justice
Our constitutional framework enshrines the rule of law, the independence of the courts, and the separation of powers
The Constitution establishes the Judiciary as a separate and independent institution, and charges it with the responsibility to interpret the law, and apply it to cases which come before the courts.
In the discharge of its functions, the Judiciary acts independently and impartially. Every person, including the Government, is equal before the law.
At the head of the Judiciary is the Chief Justice. Through his judgments and extra-judicial writings, his presidency over appellate hearings, and even his personal conduct, the Chief Justice sets the tone for the administration of justice in Singapore.
It is a heavy responsibility, and Singapore has been singularly fortunate that, for the past six years, that responsibility has been discharged by Chief Justice Chan.
Sir, the Chief Justice came from a humble background. He lived in a communal house in Ipoh, started his education late because of the war, and could not speak English when he first went to school.
But adversity did not slow him down. He was one of the top students in the Senior Cambridge School Certificate in 1955, with eight distinctions.
He could not decide what to read at university. He was not thinking of doing law – he had no idea what a legal career would be like. Happily for Singapore, he was persuaded to do law by his English literature teacher, Dr. Etherton, who said that he had a “very crafty mind” – in a good sense. And the rest, as they say, is history – Dr. Etherton’s intervention proved fateful for Singapore and our legal profession.
Chief Justice Chan joined the inaugural LL.B. class of ‘61 in the then University of Malaya, and was one of the top students in a class that produced several other students who went on to hold high positions in the law.
The Chief Justice is probably unique in having to litigate for his own admission to the Bar. He graduated and started serving pupillage before a University of Malaya degree was recognised, and applied for an abridgement of time on this ground.
The Chairman of Bar Council resisted the application, arguing that the legislation required “grounds”, i.e. more than one ground. That technical argument was dismissed by the court, whose judgment is still in the law reports: Re Chan Sek Keong  Malayan Law Journal 88. As the new Chief Justice said last week, Chief Justice Chan was entirely correct, a pattern that was to repeat itself over and over again in the next fifty years.
Chief Justice Chan practised briefly in Kuala Lumpur before joining Braddell Brothers in Singapore in 1963. He did so because he wanted to continue to be with then his girlfriend, Elisabeth Eber, whom he later married.
Later, the Chief Justice joined Shook Lin & Bok, where he rose to become the managing partner and one of Singapore’s leading banking and corporate lawyers, with a complete mastery of the law and a keen understanding of commercial and practical realities. He was the counsel of choice for many banks and financial institutions, and drafted many of the standard banking and corporate documents which were used throughout Singapore in the late 1970s and in the 1980s. The advice he gave to clients was not only sound, but also simply and succinctly put forward.
The lawyers in this House will know that it is more difficult to give succinct advice, because you cannot hide behind verbiage. And the Chief Justice never hid behind verbiage. I once had to advise on a guarantee which was drafted by the Chief Justice. It comprised two paragraphs, in a telex. The party which challenged the validity of the guarantee – perhaps because it looked too short to be a guarantee! – later backed down. Though brief, the document was clear and accurate. That was the hallmark of the Chief Justice: in the way he gave his advice, in the way he drafted documents and in the way he wrote his judgments.
The Chief Justice’s skill and expertise as a lawyer was highlighted on a broader canvas during the Pan-Electric collapse of 1985. At the height of the crisis, stockbrokers were unable to settle forward contracts involving Pan-Electric shares. This led to a domino effect and the stockbroking system suffered a liquidity crunch. The Stock Exchange had to be closed for the first and only time in December 1985.
During the closure, the Chief Justice was called upon to draft what were called lifeboat agreements, to extend credit from banks to the insolvent stockbroking firms. There were no clear precedents, and time was of the essence.
Chief Justice Chan rose to the occasion. He did the job quickly and he did it well. The agreements he drafted restored liquidity to the system, ensured the survival of the Stock Exchange, and preserved Singapore’s standing as a financial centre. This can be said to be the Chief Justice’s finest moment as a corporate, banking lawyer.
Judicial Commissioner and Judge
Chief Justice Chan was appointed a Judicial Commissioner in 1986 – the first person to be so appointed. He was later elevated to be a Judge in 1988.
During his first judicial tenure, from 1986 to 1992, the Chief Justice demonstrated the independence of mind and the keenness of analysis that lawyers today are familiar with. In this period, he heard a fair number of public law cases, and in his own words, “The decisions are fairly divided between those decided for and against the Government.”
It was during this period that I started my own career in the law. With Members’ indulgence, I will recount a personal anecdote.
In 1987, I appeared as a junior, with Mr. Joseph Grimberg in a case before the Chief Justice. The precedents were not clear. While Mr. Grimberg was making his arguments, the Chief Justice somehow noticed – I don’t know how, perhaps it showed in my face – that I was keen for a point to be made. He asked Mr. Grimberg to ask me what the point was. I was quite struck that the Chief Justice noticed everything in his court – he was so alert that he even picked up on the thought processes of a junior, and pursued the point. In the end, the Chief Justice, despite being new on the Bench, was prepared to apply his own assessment of the precedents, rather than simply follow them, because on the facts it was just to do so. His handling of the case, both in the way he conducted the hearing, as well as his legal analysis, left a deep impression on me.
Thereafter, I appeared before the Chief Justice in several other cases and, like many members of the Bar, I considered it a pleasure and privilege to appear before him. He had an excellent judicial temperament – no flourish, no hyperbole, no drama. He always cut to the chase, succinct. He was usually well ahead of counsel, and on top of all the issues – a first rate, world-class judicial mind. As Chief Justice Menon said last week, Chief Justice Chan was almost always the perfect judge to hear a case – any case.
In 1992, Chief Justice Chan was appointed the third Attorney-General of Singapore.
As Public Prosecutor, he had the constitutional responsibility for instituting and conducting prosecutions. He acted firmly and in the public interest. At the same time, he was also fair to the accused. An example was the case of Louis Pius Gilbert (2003), where the Chief Justice took the view that the High Court had exceeded its sentencing jurisdiction. He authorised a criminal reference to the Court of Appeal to have the law clarified, and the sentence imposed on the accused reduced.
As Attorney-General, he defined the mission of his Chambers as being to “enhance the rule of law and constitutional government in Singapore by providing sound legal advice and assistance in developing a fair and responsible legal system, furthering good public administration, and protecting the interests of the state and of the people.” He enhanced the capabilities of the Attorney-General’s Chambers by strengthening the Civil and Criminal Divisions, and setting up the International Affairs Division and the Law Reform and Law Revision Division. His successors have built on this strong foundation, and today the AGC has a full-fledged team of first-rate lawyers, numbering about 250, with the breadth and depth of expertise, to discharge its prosecutorial functions and to advise and assist the Government on all legal matters.
The Chief Justice also contributed significantly to the reform of the law. One of his achievements was in relation to the reception of English Law in Singapore, a topic on which he had written as a young lawyer, in 1961. In 1993, he persuaded the Government to amend section 5 of the Civil Law Act and enact the Application of English Law Act. The amendments ceased the automatic reception of English Law which had begun in 1826 with the Second Charter of Justice, while preserving key English enactments on commercial law.
As the first Law Officer, the Chief Justice personally argued five cases in court, four of which are reported. In two of these cases, I was privileged to appear opposite him. All his legal qualities were fully apparent, including his fairness to his opponents in court.
In addition, as his speeches show, Chief Justice Chan thought about a broad range of issues concerning the law, including the state of the Bar and legal practice in Singapore; the social, economic and international conditions in which the legal framework operated; and the higher values of the law and the legal profession.
As Attorney-General, and later as Chief Justice, Chief Justice Chan played a leading role in the Pedra Branca litgation. He presented our case before the International Court of Justice in a very clear manner, together with Professor Jayakumar, Professor Tommy Koh, and others. The ICJ decisively upheld Singapore’s sovereignty over Pedra Branca. I should mention that Chief Justice’s personal interests – outside of the law, he is a keen student of history – helped substantially in presenting Singapore’s case. His collection of South East Asian history books, one of the largest in Singapore, was extensively used for the ICJ hearing.
Mr Chan was appointed as Chief Justice in 2006. The appointment was received with great enthusiasm by the legal community.
Chan Sek Keong the Chief Justice was very much like Chan Sek Keong the man – humble, unassuming, with a powerful intellect and with a keen sense of integrity.
Outside of the courtroom, Chief Justice Chan demanded that lawyers meet the highest standards of professional conduct, and took decisive measures to safeguard clients’ monies from errant lawyers. He constantly encouraged the legal fraternity, from Senior Counsel to law student, to do more pro bono work, to improve access to justice for the less fortunate amongst us. He emphasised the need for competent advocacy in all areas of litigation. He started the Young Amicus Curiae scheme where young lawyers could assist Judges hearing Magistrate’s Appeals, and expose themselves to criminal work. He stressed the need for top tier advocacy in commercial cases. He observed that top Senior Counsel were often retained by large institutions, rendering them unable or unavailable to act against such institutions. The result was that small law firms and individual clients who wanted representation against large institutions could not instruct Senior Counsel. He thus advocated that Queen’s Counsel be allowed to appear more freely in our courts, so that small law firms and individual clients can instruct them. He made this point twice, in two separate Opening of the Legal Year speeches.
As a judge, Chief Justice believed that “judgments should be expressed in a language that a reasonably educated layman can understand”, and indeed his judgments stand out for their clarity and simple elegance.
He believed in procedural fairness, that “litigants must come away from the court with the feeling that even though they lost, they have had their day in court and have been heard.”
He believed that the function of judges was to interpret and to apply the law, and not to legislate or make policy in the guise of adjudication. In that sense, he was a legal positivist.
At the same time, he also believed that judges had a role in developing the law interstitially, consonant with national values and fundamental principles of the common law. To promote the practice development of Singapore law, he issued a Practice Direction that Singapore cases should be cited in preference to foreign cases. In the course of his judicial career, he wrote almost 380 judgments, or more than 30 a year. His judgments, which span many areas of the law, will continue to influence our jurisprudence for many years to come.
He believed in justice for the common man. In one case, ordered the Law Society, to investigate a lawyer who had engaged in what he considered to be wasteful litigation over a minor insurance claim.
Above all, the Chief Justice was a firm believer in the rule of law and the duty of the court to uphold the law. In a lecture in 2010, he offered a robust rebuke to those who doubted the independence of the Judiciary.
Sir, when the boy from Ipoh came to Singapore to study, settle down, and start a career in the law, it was Singapore which ultimately benefited. In doing this, the Chief Justice followed in the footsteps of his two illustrious predecessors as Chief Justice. He, like them, was born and bred in Malaysia, but crossed the Causeway to become a proud son and pillar of his adoptive country. In that sense, Sir, Chief Justice Menon is our first non-Malaysian Chief Justice.
Sir, the Chief Justice rose from humble beginnings to serve in all the high offices of the law – Judge, Attorney-General and Chief Justice. His tenure has strengthened the Rule of Law in Singapore, and he has cemented his place as one of Singapore’s greatest jurists, if not the greatest.
He retires with the great respect and warm affection of all who have worked with him and have appeared before him.
On behalf of the Government, it is my distinct privilege to thank him for his service to Singapore, in the course of a long and illustrious life in the law, spanning almost fifty years.