AuthorThe Honourable the Chief Justice Sundaresh MENON Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Publication year2019
Published date01 December 2019
Date01 December 2019
I. Introduction

1 Distinguished guests, fellow members of the Academy and friends, let me first express my sincere gratitude to the Annual Lecture Organising Committee and its Chair, Justice Vinodh Coomaraswamy, for inviting me to deliver the 25th Singapore Academy of Law (“the Academy”) Annual Lecture. The inaugural lecture was delivered by the Rt Hon Lord Taylor of Gosforth, then Lord Chief Justice of England, and this rostrum has since been graced by the Chief Justices of several major Commonwealth as well as some non-Commonwealth jurisdictions, with one notable exception: no Singaporean has ever delivered the Annual Lecture.1 I am therefore very greatly honoured and humbled to have been accorded this privilege. Given that the Academy celebrates its 30th birthday this year, I can think of no better topic for this lecture than the Academy itself, whose life and development over the last 30 years have been closely intertwined with that of the legal profession.

2 Soren Kierkegaard famously said, “Life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards.” As we look back on the sometimes colourful and tumultuous life of the Academy, we will, I hope, understand more fully how far we have come, what unites us as a profession, and how we might prepare to meet the challenges that lie ahead of us.

3 My lecture is in three parts. First, I will trace the Academy's journey from troubled infancy to mature adulthood in the hope that it will remind us of how improbable, and therefore how precious, an achievement this is. Next, I will turn to the motto of the Academy, honor est in honorante, and reflect on what the values of honour and service mean and how they have united us in the noble venture to administer justice. Finally, I will look ahead to the challenges of the future and explain why I think the Academy could be integral to their resolution.

II. Foundation: The first 25 years of the Academy

4 I begin with the past, which, it has been said, is a foreign country.2 Legal practice in Singapore at the close of the 1980s was still clothed in the trappings of the English legal system. Our judges were addressed as “my Lord” and “your Lordship”; lawyers wore stiff wing collars and bibs; and judges and prosecutors also wore horse-hair wigs.3 Whatever their sartorial merits, I do not think anyone would disagree that wing collars and wigs were simply out of place in the context of our “shirt-sleeves” culture and our tropical weather. But the anachronistic nature of our professional attire was symptomatic of a wider disconnect between the legal profession and the rest of Singapore, then still quite newly independent and already defined by a keen sense of pragmatism.

5 Whereas the rest of society was busy going about the business of building a new nation, the machinery of justice was sclerotic. It was said that judges were known to “grant adjournments on fairly flimsy grounds”, while lawyers would collude to send complex cases “to sleep for years on end”.4 An action begun by writ might have to wait five or more years before being tried, and at least another two years before being heard on appeal.5 Professional development stagnated due to over-reliance on Queen's Counsel;6 and there were criticisms that law

graduates were not sufficiently practice-oriented; that practitioners were not interested in continuing legal education; and that the Singapore Legal Service was out of touch with the realities of legal practice.7

6 But perhaps most worrying of all was a sense of disunity between the Bench and the Bar, the seeds of which had been sown some years earlier in January 1986. The Law Society had just elected as its president Mr Francis Seow, a former Solicitor-General with a reputation for brazenness and eloquence.8 At the Opening of the 1986 Legal Year, Mr Seow delivered a barnstorming speech. He claimed that the Bar was in a “restless mood” and blamed this on the discourtesy that lawyers were shown in court, complaining that they “too often … encountered the insolence of office, [and] the vicissitudes of temperament and tolerance”. Mr Seow protested that the Bar, together with the courts and the Legal Service, were part of “an equal trinity” and “deserve[d] as much respect as the other arms of justice” failing which, he warned, there would come “a greater restlessness and a deepening gloom”.9 An incensed Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin set aside his prepared address and responded ex tempore, retorting: “Though we may be a trinity, we are not an equal trinity.” He continued: “Whether or not an individual member of the Bar who appears before the Bench deserves the respect which he claims, depends on him and on him alone. He has to earn it.”10

7 Over the next few months, the relationship between the Law Society and the Government grew increasingly strained, much of the heat having been generated by a critical press release the Society had issued on the Newspaper and Printing Presses Bill.11 In August 1986, the Government introduced amendments to the Legal Profession Act12 which, among other things, tightened the eligibility requirements for holding office in the Law Society and limited the Society to commenting only on bills submitted to it.13 These reportedly “caused considerable unhappiness within the profession”,14 and as one consequence of the

amendments, Mr Seow, who had twice been suspended from practice, was automatically disqualified from the presidency of the Society.15

8 Sometime after the amendments to the Legal Profession Act, the Singapore Academy of Law Bill16 was presented to Parliament. The Academy was to be the first institution in this part of the world to unite the four arms of the legal fraternity – Bench, Bar, Legal Service and academia – under a single aegis.17 The Second Minister for Law, who delivered the second reading speech, spoke of a place modelled on the English Inns of Court where members of the fraternity might “meet in an informal atmosphere”, just as a barrister might “lunch and dine with his fellow members in the Inn Hall, use the Inn library, and join in the social life of the Inn”.18 The hope was that these interactions would give rise to a “collegiate spirit in the legal fraternity”,19 lead to higher professional standards, and imbue the profession with a sense of honour and a love of the law.20

9 This early articulation of the Academy's raison d'être might have come across as simplistic, unduly optimistic and even naively hopeful. But hindsight and the wisdom of experience have taught us otherwise. In reflecting on this, I was especially struck by something that Chief Justice Wee said in his ex tempore response at the Opening of the 1986 Legal Year, where he warned that:

Unless there is unity and a willingness to co-operate among all who have anything to do with the administration of justice, there will be no success for anyone.

10 I extract from that statement, the following propositions:

(a) all members of the Academy are engaged in a mission to administer justice, which is a high mission that transcends our individual hopes, ambitions and desires;

(b) the achievement of this mission depends greatly on the key stakeholders from the Bench, Bar, Legal Service, and academia coming together in unity of purpose and the recognition that the pursuit of justice is a higher calling that demands fidelity and focus; and

(c) the differences that must inevitably arise from time to time are far less important than the need to prioritise that higher purpose which should bind us all.

11 I think that Chief Justice Wee, who by that time had already spent 23 years as Chief Justice laying the judicial foundations for a system of justice that would serve a new nation, saw a real risk that those involved in its execution were stratified and disunited. The establishment of the Academy was driven by the need for an institution that would unite the whole profession in that common purpose which I have spoken about and imbue it with a genuine appreciation of its central values. Although the emphasis at the time was on a “place” where the members of the profession could meet and interact, that was only part of this wider mission.

12 That was the context in which the Academy came into being on II August 1988. However, there remained disaffected and distrustful segments of the profession that saw it as part of a plan to emasculate the Law Society and subject lawyers to greater censorship and closer supervision.21 Some lawyers refused to pay their subscription fees as a form of protest, hoping to be kicked out of the Academy altogether,22 while others boycotted its premises, refusing even to step in when invited. As late as 1995, one senior lawyer, speaking to the Straits Times, described the establishment of the Academy as “an attempt to divide the profession”.23 When the Academy's endowment committee went canvassing for donations, they came back “empty-handed … and with egg on their faces”.24 As a result, the Academy was forced to increase its fees to stay afloat, but this only stoked the enmity of the Bar.

13 The animosity was felt strongly enough that Chief Justice Wee saw the need to reassure the Law Society at its Annual Dinner in 1988 that the Academy was not meant to displace it, but was instead a

complementary body that sought to promote fellowship amongst the entire fraternity and to instil in each member “a love for the law and a deep sense of dedication and pride” [emphasis added].25 Elaborating on this at the Opening of the 1990 Legal Year, Chief Justice Wee hailed the Academy as being “representative of all that the administration of justice and the legal profession stand for: honour, integrity, industry and competence”.26 Whatever his audience may have thought then, the Academy has in the past three decades overcome the inauspicious circumstances of its birth to prove the truth of those words. Time will not permit me to recount this at length, but I...

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