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Judicial Commissioner Goh Yihan: Speech delivered at the Valedictory Reference 2022



Chief Justice,
Minister Indranee Rajah,
Mr Attorney,
Mr Adrian Tan,
Mr Davinder Singh,
Mr Scott Tan,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

1. I would like to thank the Chief Justice for giving me this opportunity to join in the tribute of an outstanding man. It is a privilege to join in this tribute, to a person whom I have been blessed to know as a boss, scholar and ultimately mentor in my career and life. In all of these capacities I have known Justice Phang, I, and many others, have been touched by his kindness and humanity.

Justice Phang as a boss during law clerkship

2. I first knew Justice Phang in 2006 when I joined the Supreme Court as a law clerk. I understand that Mr Scott Tan will speak on behalf of the law clerks later. For my part, I only highlight one of many experiences that shows Justice Phang’s kindness and humanity. And this is how Justice Phang takes the effort to reply every email with his customary ‘many thanks’, even if my last reply was a similar ‘thank you’. In this email equivalent of the contractual battle of the forms with his law clerks, Justice Phang almost always had the last shot, unless the previous email was sent at 3am. Justice Phang did not have to reply. But he made it an effort to let his law clerks know that he appreciated their work.

Justice Phang as a Scholar

3. After finishing my term as a law clerk, I entered academia. In that capacity, I had the privilege of knowing Justice Phang as a scholar. It may be odd to speak of knowing him as a scholar when he was still a judge. But it is not unarguable that Justice Phang never left academia. In fact, after his departure for the Bench in 2005, he continued to contribute to academic publications at such a pace and quality that would put most tenured faculty to shame.

4. In a sterling academic career, Justice Phang published over 260 academic works, which include 15 books and 101 full-length articles in top law journals both in Singapore and abroad. Between 1982 and 2000, Justice Phang taught at the NUS Faculty of Law, and was appointed Professor of Law in 1999. He was then appointed Professor of Law at SMU in 2000 and made Chair of the Department of Law at the Lee Kong Chian School of Business in 2001. In that capacity, he helped to lay the foundation for what is today a fully-fledged law school at SMU. In this sense, Justice Phang was a key founding member of the SMU Yong Pung How School of Law. Without his efforts and contributions in those initial years, the law school would not be what it is today.

5. Justice Phang’s scholarship is centred on contract law. In this area, he is most well-known for his work in the local edition of Cheshire, Fifoot and Furmston’s Law of Contract. This was the first publication on the law of contract in Singapore. This was no mean feat considering that Justice Phang had to piece together the state of Singapore law that had developed over many decades since our independence. This important work laid the foundation for the indigenous development of our contract law, which led to the Academy Publishing’s The Law of Contract in Singapore, the first truly local publication on the subject.

6. Apart from contract law, Justice Phang’s scholarship also spans many areas of law, such as legal theory. One other major area is the Singapore legal system and its history. Justice Phang’s interest in the Singapore legal system culminated in the publication of his book, The Development of Singapore Law, which was based on his SJD thesis at Harvard Law School. His writings in this area laid the firm foundation for the Singapore legal system to flourish and progress. And it also showed a personal devotion and belief in the promise of our own legal system.

7. Beyond his prolific publications, I wish to highlight three lessons I learned from Justice Phang as a scholar, which I think would be helpful to existing scholars as well.

8. First, Justice Phang showed an unwillingness to be confined as a scholar in thought and reach, for the common law is inherently international. In my early days as an academic, I wrote a case note on a local decision. Justice Phang’s advice when I sought his views on where to publish this note was ‘you should submit it to an international journal (at least at first instance)’. This encapsulates Justice Phang’s approach to scholarship: dare to go beyond Singapore, for at the end of the day, we are in the contest of ideas and there is no necessary disadvantage being from Singapore. With that approach, Justice Phang broke multiple barriers as a scholar. He was the first Singapore scholar to publish in many of the top international law journals. His boldness broke the barrier for many of us who came after him. We now have the chance to be bold on the international stage only because of Justice Phang’s pioneering efforts.

9. Second, Justice Phang has always endeavoured to integrate the theoretical with the practical in his scholarship. Indeed, as he has noted himself, “the true measure of academic scholarship lies not only in its value as a resource for students, lawyers, judges as well as other legal scholars but also in the practical influence it has on the development of the law itself” [emphasis in original].[1] He proceeded to observe that “the highest accolade that can be paid to a piece of legal scholarship occurs when it is considered sufficiently important to be cited by a court”.[2] By this and any measure, the influence of Justice Phang’s scholarship on the law has been unmatched. His academic publications have been cited over 1,000 times by courts and scholars from no less than 25 jurisdictions. These citations have resulted in very real developments in the law not only in Singapore but overseas.

10. Third, above all his accomplishments as a scholar, Justice Phang personified what it means to be always kind to your fellow scholars and students. Justice Phang has always said it is important to maintain a sense of perspective in academia, where the stakes are not quite so high. Justice Phang lived this. When he was at SMU, he co-authored numerous pieces with younger colleagues by way of mentorship and opportunity. Also, about a year ago, some students from SMU started a new student-run journal. Justice Phang volunteered a recent piece on the giants of contract law for the journal. He did not have to do either of these things. But he did them, I believe, because he wanted to encourage the next generation of scholars and students. And that is the measure of a man whose kindness shines through and through.

Beloved mentor

11. Above all, apart from knowing Justice Phang as a boss and scholar, I have been privileged to have had him as a beloved mentor, and a father figure, for much of my career and personal life. I just want to recount one particular instance which I think exemplifies all that he stands for.

12. I remember an occasion about a decade ago when I was troubled by a personal matter. I had come to the Supreme Court to go through some textbook proofs with Justice Phang in his office. We had dinner after that. He always had that uncanny ability to sense when someone had some unspoken problem and he sensed this in me that evening. As we walked towards the train station, he suddenly, without warning, placed his hands around my shoulders in a fairly crowded Raffles City entrance. He said simply, let us pray. And he did, with absolutely no regard to the people around him. And there he was, a sitting judge of the highest court of the land, with a young academic, in a sea of passers-by. And after he was done, we chatted. We stood there and spoke for a long time until he sensed I was feeling better.

13. This, I think, neatly sums up the tributes we have heard and will hear today. Justice Phang is that rare individual who will literally drop everything for you. And it does not matter who you might be. So long as you have a problem and it comes squarely within his purview, he will be there. That is truly the measure of a man who chooses to be kind, not because it is easy to do but precisely because it is hard. His enduring lesson for all of us is to be kind. And be kind, especially to those who may not be in a position to help you in return.


14. To conclude, Justice Phang has sometimes, in his self-effacing nature, reflected how he has never won a teaching award. Similarly, in the lead-up to this Reference, he sometimes wondered to those around him how many would show up. Dear Judge, I think you can see it for yourself today. Not only has the profession turned up in full force, but perhaps significantly, many of your former law clerks and students have come as well. The best teachers do not need medals around their necks, for their reward is that of inspiring the next generation, and whose life goes over into other lives. And to this, please know that you have, through your kindness and humanity, and as a boss, scholar, or mentor, inspired a generation of men and women to be like you, to be kind and to be humble, and to live in service of others.

15. In every email that Justice Phang sends in his battle of the emails with his law clerks, he will always end with ‘with warmest regards’. It is a signature that many of his former clerks, new to the world of business emails, picked up and stuck with, including myself. It is a simple greeting but one that captures the kindness and humanity that we all have come to know Justice Phang for. As you had said on another occasion, Justice Phang, do not forget us, for we will never forget you. I will miss you very much at the court, where you have been such a pillar of strength and support. But I know that you will continue to be a kindling force and a revealing power to many lives even in your retirement. For now, with the warmest of regards, dear Judge, may I wish you a very fulfilling retirement, and thank you for being that guiding star in the lives of so many, including mine.

16. Thank you.

[1] See Andrew Phang, “Theory as Practice and Practice as Theory – The Integrated and Integral Contract Scholarship of Professor Michael Furmston” (2014) 31 JCL 12 at 46.

[2] See Andrew Phang, “Theory as Practice and Practice as Theory – The Integrated and Integral Contract Scholarship of Professor Michael Furmston” (2014) 31 JCL 12 at 46.

Topics: speech, speeches


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