The Ipoh boy who spoke no English... and rose to be Chief JusticeThis is an excerpt of a tribute delivered by Law Minister K. Shanmugam in Parliament on Monday to Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong, who retired on Nov 6.
SINGAPORE'S 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.
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.
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......
Chief Justice Chan joined the inaugural LL.B. class of 1961 in the then University of Malaya, and was one of the top students in a class
CHIEF Justice Chan practised briefly in Kuala Lumpur then in Singapore because he wanted to continue to be with then his girlfriend, Elisabeth Eber, whom he later married.
He was the counsel of choice for many banks and financial institutions, and drafted many of the standard banking and corporate documents used throughout Singapore in the late 1970s and in the 1980s.
Judicial commissioner and judge
CHIEF Justice Chan was appointed a Judicial Commissioner (JC) in 1986 - the first person to be so appointed. He was later elevated to be a Judge in 1988. 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".
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.
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.
As Attorney-General, and later as Chief Justice, Chief Justice Chan played a leading role in the Pedra Branca litigation.
He presented our case before the International Court of Justice in a very clear manner, together with Professor S. Jayakumar, Professor Tommy Koh and others. The ICJ decisively upheld Singapore's sovereignty over Pedra Branca. Chief Justice's personal interests - 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.
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.
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.
In the course of his judicial career, he wrote almost 380 judgments, or more than 30 a year.
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.
- The Straits Times Singapore
Note (source unknown):
All 3 former Chief Justices in S'pore were former Malaysians.
The first, Wee Chong Jin was from Penang Free School. The second, Yong Pung How (nicknamed the "Hanging judge"?) was an ex-VI boy in KL.
And the third, Ipoh-born Chan Sek Keong, hailed from King Edward VII School in Taiping, and later the Anderson School in Ipoh.
Had they remained in Malaysia, they might have made it to the level of a Sessions Court judge, if they are lucky.
Our nation's loss is the little RED DOT's gain.