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Justice Andrew Phang: Speech delivered at the Valedictory Reference 2022

VALEDICTORY REFERENCE FOR
JUSTICE ANDREW PHANG
 

Chief Justice,
Minister Indranee Rajah,
Mr Attorney,
Judicial Commissioner Goh,
Mr Adrian Tan,
Mr Davinder Singh,
Mr Scott Tan,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen:

1. I would like to express my profound gratitude to all who have spoken today and, indeed, all who have taken the time and trouble to honour me with your presence at today’s reference. I am truly humbled. I am also not a little embarrassed, not least because of my natural makeup (which is that I am at my most comfortable when I am in the background).

2. Whilst you have heard about what I have achieved, I truly believe that every significant achievement in one’s life is the result not only of one’s own commitment and hard work but also (and more importantly) the efforts of others. Looking back on my own life, I would not be here today without the immeasurable love and profound guidance of my late parents. And on a daily basis (for as long as I can remember), my dear wife has constantly supported me in ways too numerous to mention – all this while achieving much success in her own right as a scholar. She – and my daughters – constantly remind me how important family is and how I need to strive always to be a better person each day, both within and outside the family.

3. At the courts, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon has always been a constant source of support and encouragement. He is not only a jurist of the first rank with a world-class reputation that has justly brought him accolades both within Singapore as well as internationally. He is also a person whose exceeding humility and humanity have touched not only my life but also the lives of all who have had the privilege to work under him. I am also so grateful to all my colleagues throughout the years, whose support has been indispensable and very greatly appreciated.  I would like to especially thank Justice V K Rajah who helped me as I transited from legal academia to the Bench.  More importantly, this year marks half a century of friendship.  I would also like to thank Justice Chao Hick Tin for his mentorship and friendship over many years.

4. I would also like to take this opportunity to remember the late Chief Justice Yong Pung How.  It was his – if I may say so – bold recommendation at the time which resulted in my being appointed to the High Court (and, subsequently, the Court of Appeal). That decision profoundly changed the course of my professional life over the past (almost) eighteen years. I am truly grateful to him not only on a personal level but also for how he (in addition to developing Singapore law) established – during his tenure as Chief Justice – the foundations upon which Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong and, subsequently, Chief Justice Menon, could proceed to lead the courts in developing Singapore law in a manner that has received a recognition that has stretched beyond the shores of Singapore. Foundations entail so very much effort and yet are, by their nature, not as obvious as the building that has been erected upon them. It was an extremely arduous task to oversee the clearing of the backlog in the courts but without doing so, our courts could not even have begun to develop Singapore law to the degree that we see today. The nation owes him a great debt of gratitude.

5. I now want to address the legal profession as well as those who will join this honourable profession.  I want, in particular, to address what gives meaning and purpose to what we do as lawyers and as human beings – for the one is inextricably connected to the other. And it is this: that we must always do our very best, regardless of where we are and the task which has been allotted to us and we must trust that what we do will touch lives for the better. This applies not only in the professional context but also the family context as well. Trusting that we have touched lives for the better is, in my view, of vital importance because we often measure one’s significance by the professional heights one has reached in terms of status, power and material wealth. Let me suggest that this is an erroneous approach, not least because it means that the vast majority of us could never find meaning, significance or purpose in our lives. Such an approach also ignores the fact that true success in touching lives cannot be measured by such a simplistic metric and, indeed, cannot often be measured at all. Let me elaborate from my own experience.

6. When I was a mere clerk in the army, I nevertheless strove to do the best I could. That is why, till this day, I still recall being so quietly proud at having my perfect copy typescript pinned up on the class noticeboard whilst attending an advanced clerk course. It was nothing in itself but it was symbolic of the fact that by sheer determination and practice, I managed to overcome my inherent lack of manual dexterity and was able to contribute in my small way. Put simply, I was determined to be the best clerk that I could be.

7. When I entered law school, I was determined to be the best law student I could be in the sense of cultivating a love for the law. Believe it or not, grades were not the primary motivation because there were many courses in which an A grade was not awarded.

8. When I began lecturing in law school, my mother, who was a gifted teacher and principal, was appalled that I would be “unleashed” on my unsuspecting students after only two days of lectures at the then Institute of Education. Notwithstanding that, I tried – for well over two decades – to be the best lecturer I could be, caring for my students not merely as receptacles to be filled with legal knowledge but also as people to engage with not just on law but also on life itself. The law is a marvellous vehicle for discussing life and life values (without, of course, imposing one’s own views in a dogmatic fashion). I also strove to be the best researcher I could be. Put simply, I embraced legal academia as a real calling.

9. It came as a bolt from the blue when I was asked to join the Bench. I then strove to be the best judge that I could be. It was not an easy task at first. Indeed, after joining the Bench, I recall being in Hong Kong to deliver a public lecture. One of the first questions I was asked was what it was like to be a judge after having been a legal academic for such a long time. I still remember my response vividly. It was unscripted and instinctive but quite picturesque. I likened the initial transition as follows: being a legal academic was like wearing gloves that were crafted by its maker who knew not only the size of my hands but also the best material from which to craft those gloves, with the material fitting so well that it felt like it was a part of me, whereas being a judge was like climbing up an almost perpendicular wall with no safety harness! I am grateful that after so many years now on the Bench, the experience generates much less apprehension.

10. What I draw from my life’s journey is, first, that life is unpredictable. As I alluded to, not all of us will reach the pinnacle of material success. In my view, however, that does not prevent us from having lives filled with meaning and purpose. Had I continued as a clerk or a secretary (as in the army), I would still have tried my best to be the best clerk or secretary I could be and would have found meaning in being just that. And, as already mentioned, I strove to be the best lecturer I could be and had I remained in legal academia, I would have been content in finding meaning in that calling. Indeed, as I reflected upon each stage of my life’s journey, the attitude has been the same. As importantly, I always made it a point to make time for my family. Nobody is indispensable at the workplace but we are indispensable to our families.

11. But, you may ask, how then do we measure whether we have touched other lives? It might be easier to discern this in our family context for obvious reasons. That is why I mentioned that we must trust that our efforts have touched other lives (including those of clients and, for legal academics, those of your students). I believe that as I was given, you, too, will be given tangible encouragement along the way – and that will keep you going. For example, I believe that I was not the most popular lecturer because I did not spoon-feed my students but, on occasion, I would receive a heartfelt card or letter and that encouragement kept me going. I have taken some time to emphasise that we must always do our very best, regardless of where we are and the task which has been allotted to us and we must trust that what we do will touch lives for the better – and that this applies not only in the professional context but also the family context as well – because I believe that this life principle will help sustain you in your professional and life journeys. It has certainly sustained me for over four decades. In my view, this is not mere blue sky idealism but you need to have the courage to live it out in order to validate it through your own tangible experience. Indeed, in the context of legal practice, Chief Justice Menon pointed out, in his Mass Call Address earlier this year, that the legal profession is an honourable profession that comprises the core attributes of integrity, excellence and service that must be put into practice.  When we live out our professional lives in this way, even hard work takes on meaning and purpose as opposed to being viewed as mere drudgery.

12. Books, articles and judgments will become outdated with time. You can leave behind material wealth but you cannot take it with you. However, the life you have touched (even if the person concerned does not thank you expressly) is part of a living legacy. Whilst you might not be able to measure success in this context in conventional terms, I believe that if you have touched even one life for the better, that is more precious than all the material accolades the world has to offer (and it is very likely that you would in fact have touched far more lives than that). This is not to downplay the achievements of those who are materially successful but if you happen to fall within this category, wear your honours lightly and use your talents and resources to enrich the lives of others. Above all, never neglect your family – value them and love them – for they are irreplaceable to you as you are to them.

13. Thank you once again, and may I wish everyone good health, happiness, and all the very best in all your future endeavours.

 

 

2022/11/30

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