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Yong Pung How remembered as chief justice who made lawyers work hard and scrutinised 'big bullies'

SINGAPORE — Former chief justice Yong Pung How, who died at the age of 93 on Thursday (Jan 9), was known as someone who watched out for those with less power and money, and who made sure lawyers were on their toes and thinking on their feet.

Yong Pung How remembered as chief justice who made lawyers work hard and scrutinised 'big bullies'

Former chief justice Yong Pung How (pictured) at the launch of the book, Up Close with Lee Kuan Yew, held at the National Gallery on March 15, 2016.

SINGAPORE — Former chief justice Yong Pung How, who died at the age of 93 on Thursday (Jan 9), was known as someone who watched out for those with less power and money, and who made sure lawyers were on their toes and thinking on their feet.

Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam said that as a High Court judge, Yong once made him put away all his notes and argue a case in the Court of Appeal from memory when he was a practising lawyer.

Recalling the incident, Mr Shanmugam said in a Facebook post on Thursday: “I had about 30 seconds to collect my thoughts and put my client’s case to the Court of Appeal.”

He added that Yong was “sharp, immensely practical and formidable” to appear before in court.

“It is also fair to say that he evoked mixed reactions among those who had to appear before him — if you knew your work, were prepared, and didn’t waste his time, then you would be okay. Otherwise, you would get to hear very directly, what he thought of your case,” Mr Shanmugam wrote.

When Yong took over to head the judiciary in September 1990, he introduced sweeping measures to clear the backlog of more than 2,000 cases quickly.

And if anyone had been told to appear in court at night after office hours, it was also part of his revamp of the administration there.

Yong’s thinking was that the public should not have to take time off work for minor offences, and that was how the “night court” came to be.

In his 16-year tenure, he streamlined court procedures by launching the electronic filing system, raised the salaries for judges to attract and retain the best legal talent, and increased the number of court sittings and daily hearing hours, among other measures.

By 1994, the backlog of court cases was significantly reduced and the time taken for cases to be concluded was also shortened.

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said: “In successfully modernising the justice system and expeditiously clearing the backlog, Mr Yong’s tenure as chief justice perhaps stands as the most consequential in our history.”

He added that Singapore’s second chief justice — who succeeded Wee Chong Jin— was a “foundational figure” in the country’s history and who left behind a legacy that is “nothing less than the modern and progressive judiciary and legal system that Singapore has today”.

SERVING THE COUNTRY

After the Supreme Court confirmed his death on Thursday, tributes quickly poured in from veteran lawyers, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, as well as President Halimah Yacob who called the former chief justice a “shining example of a gentleman who responded to the nation’s call to serve”.

In a Facebook post where she shared a letter written to Yong’s wife, Madam Cheang Wei Woo, President Halimah extended her condolences to his family and called his career in the private sector and public service remarkable.

“Even after he retired, he continued to serve Singapore in various capacities, most notably as a member of the Council of Presidential Advisers from 2007 to 2013, during which he advised former presidents SR Nathan and Tony Tan,” she said.

PM Lee said that it was in the judiciary that Yong left his deepest mark.

“In less than a decade, case disposal times in the High Court came down from five years to below 18 months.”

“While the Bar may have protested because of the pressure they came under, there is no doubt at all that Mr Yong’s determination successfully brought our legal system into the 21st century,” he added.

Mr Shanmugam considered himself privileged to have been a practising lawyer when Yong was a High Court judge and later, chief justice.

“(Chief Justice) Yong shook the Bar out of its lethargy and modernised it… and he transformed our judiciary, through a relentless push for progress and excellence — within a decade of taking office, he introduced close to 1,000 initiatives in the then-Subordinate Courts,” he said in his Facebook post.

‘SMALL BUSINESSES SHOULD NOT BE VICTIMISED’

Veteran lawyers Ashok Kumar from BlackOak LLC and Lok Vi Ming from LVM Law Chambers remember Yong as a firm but fair person who had a heart for the underdog.

Mr Lok recalled a time when he appeared before Yong in court for an injunction to stop a party from selling products that his clients claimed were passed off as theirs.

Although the injunction was granted, Yong was not prepared to let Mr Lok and his clients go without some closing thoughts.

“He reminded me that though businesses must abide by rules of fair play and honesty, that does not mean that big businesses with big legal teams and huge legal budgets will be allowed to use such advantage to bully small businesses,” Mr Lok said.

Yong also told Mr Lok that he will be carefully scrutinising every application to make sure that small businesses were not victimised.

Mr Lok added: “Gesturing in the direction of the Singapore River, Mr Yong said to me, ‘Many of our successful homegrown businesses today grew from humble beginnings along the Singapore River. They succeeded largely due to hard work and fortitude, and also because they were given a chance’.”

Mr Kumar said that Yong brought good strength to Singapore’s legal system with high-calibre appointments and the introduction of technology.

Professor Tan Eng Chye, president of the National University of Singapore (NUS), remembers Yong not just as an outstanding public servant and a man of many talents, but as an ardent champion of education as well.

His financial contribution has enabled the university to “advance and deepen our teaching and research in areas including medicine, music, law, and public policy, which are critical to the growth and development of the country”, he said.

Prof Tan added that Yong was a generous benefactor to the university and a trusted friend.

“Singapore has lost an eminent chief justice, one who served the nation with great integrity and dedication. We send our deepest condolences to Mrs Yong and Ms Yong Ying-I. The NUS community mourns the loss of an illustrious alumnus,” Prof Tan said.

GOOD FRIENDS WITH LEE KUAN YEW

In a condolence letter to Mrs Yong, PM Lee wrote that like many in his generation, Yong grew up in Malaya but came to Singapore and made major contributions here.

Yong was born on April 11, 1926 in Kuala Lumpur — the only son of six children of lawyer Yong Shook Lin and his Hong Kong-born wife Yu Tak Fong.

As a young man, he studied law at Downing College in Cambridge, England. There, he became friends with fellow student Lee Kuan Yew, who later became Singapore’s first prime minister. Both of them obtained a first in the first-year law examinations.

Yong graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Cambridge University in 1949, and qualified as a barrister-at-law of London’s Inner Temple in 1951.

He returned to Kuala Lumpur the following year and practised law as a partner of law firm Shook Lin & Bok until 1970.

In 1953, he was appointed as arbitrator to resolve a dispute between the colonial government and a union, which was represented by then-lawyer Lee Kuan Yew.

After the racial riots in Kuala Lumpur in 1969, Yong moved out of Malaysia to live in Singapore with his family. 

Two years later, he left legal practice and joined Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) as a director and was made the bank’s chairman and chief executive officer in 1983.

In the early 1980s, after helping form the Government Investment Corporation, which manages Singapore's foreign reserves, Yong moved on to become the managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

After his career switch to the banking sector, he was offered a position as a Supreme Court judge in 1976 by Lee Kuan Yew.

Yong rejected the first time.

Then in 1989, when Lee Kuan Yew was looking for a new chief justice, Yong’s name was put up for consideration by several judges.

Sharing his exchange with the senior statesman in a book titled Up Close with Lee Kuan Yew: Insights from Colleagues and Friends, Yong said he was told to make a decision quickly.

“He practically scolded me, bringing up the fact that I had declined his offer to be a Supreme Court judge in 1972.

“He said there was no time to waste. I asked him what I was supposed to do. He said, ‘Become chief justice! Just clean up the whole thing, you know what to do’.”

When Yong retired from the post in April 2006, Lee Kuan Yew said in a letter that making him chief justice was “one of the best decisions” he had made, for Yong had “put the courts in excellent shape”.

PM Lee said that the close friendship between Yong and his father was based on “mutual respect, forged in their fight against colonialism, and reinforced by their shared commitment to build this nation”.

He added that those fortuitous enough to have worked directly with Yong would remember the deep interest he took in their lives and his “quiet effort” to look after the welfare of long-serving employees when they retired.

“In these last few weeks, as he lay ill in hospital, his former law clerks were among his most regular visitors,” PM Lee noted.

Despite transforming the legal system in Singapore into a world-class one, Yong said in a 2004 interview with Inter Se, a magazine published by the Singapore Academy of Law, that his “finest hour” in his life had nothing to do with his illustrious career.

"I would say it was the day I married my wife. We have been married for 50 years now, and I still consider her my best friend.

“To stay happily married with a good reputation and a close-knit family must be one of anybody's happiest achievements in life, whatever the work you do.”

Related topics

Yong Pung How death chief justice court legal government Lee Kuan Yew OCBC

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