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Statement by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon on behalf of the Singapore Judiciary on the passing of former Chief Justice Yong Pung How

9 January 2020 – The Judiciary is deeply grieved by the passing of our former Chief Justice Mr Yong Pung How. Over the course of his tenure as Chief Justice from 1990 to 2006, Mr Yong established himself as a foundational figure in our legal and indeed our nation’s history. He leaves behind a legacy that is nothing less than the modern and progressive Judiciary and legal system that Singapore has today.

2. Mr Yong was a prodigiously talented individual whose diverse gifts and interests brought him beyond the law into business, finance and public administration. In each field he entered, Mr Yong reached its pinnacle. After almost two decades in legal practice, he decided, in 1971, to enter the world of finance and investment, where he was equally successful. Less than a decade later, he became the first Managing Director of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC), and in 1983, he was appointed the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC). Mr Yong returned to the law in 1989 as a Judge of the Supreme Court and assumed office as Singapore’s second Chief Justice on 28 September 1990. In the 16 years that followed, Mr Yong proved himself not only to be an eminent jurist but also a visionary leader, an astute administrator, and a reformer of boundless energy.

3. At the time of his Welcome Reference on 8 October 1990, the courts groaned under a backlog of 2,000 suits, which, at that time, would have taken many years to dispose of. Mr Yong met the considerable challenge before him with steely resolve, declaring that in the months to come, “as we gain a better appreciation of the … things which might be done in the name of progress, we shall not hesitate to do them”. He set to work immediately, implementing a suite of changes that transformed the Judiciary and the legal system. Among other things, he introduced the system of pre-trial conferences, streamlined and simplified court procedures, fostered a culture of diligence and efficiency in case management, established the Night Courts, expanded the Bench, increased the number of court sittings and daily hearing hours, redesigned the hiring and remuneration policies of the Judiciary and Legal Service to attract and retain a fair share of the best legal talent, launched the Electronic Filing System and the Technology Courts, established the Singapore Law Reports, and opened the Singapore Mediation Centre. By the Opening of the Legal Year in 1994, the backlog had largely been reduced to a footnote in our legal history. 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.

4. His jurisprudential approach was marked by pragmatism, boldness and conviction. In the civil law, Mr Yong’s approach was practical and commercially sensitive, undoubtedly informed by his long experience in business and finance. In his words, “[t]he function of the court is to try as far as practical experience allows, to ensure that the reasonable expectations of honest men are not disappointed”. In the criminal law, Mr Yong saw the first responsibility of the courts as the protection of the public, tempered by a sensitivity to the individual’s potential for rehabilitation. While his emphasis on deterrence as a principle of criminal justice is well-known, Mr Yong never overlooked those who deserved a second chance. He famously observed that for young offenders in their formative years, rehabilitation would generally be the dominant sentencing consideration, which became a hallowed principle that continues to guide us two decades later.

5. Upon his retirement on 10 April 2006, the accolades for Mr Yong came from both near and far. At a farewell dinner hosted at the Istana, President S R Nathan spoke of how Mr Yong had “always impressed [him] as a clear-minded individual, forthright, principled, fair-minded and above all a warm and humorous person”. The Right Honourable Lord Bingham of Cornhill, then Senior Lord of Appeal in Ordinary of the United Kingdom, remarked that Singapore’s “legal and judicial systems [had] flourished as never before” under his leadership, and The Right Honourable The Lord Woolf of Barnes, former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, lauded him “for creating in Singapore a legal system which is a model for the remainder of the common law world”. Perhaps the highest and most moving accolade were the quiet words of our founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew: “Appointing you as Chief Justice was one of my best decisions. … You have done Singapore a service.”

6. All of us – the Judiciary, the legal profession, and indeed every Singapore citizen – owe Mr Yong an immense debt of gratitude: for his heart of service, his sense of justice, and for dedicating his life, wholly and without reserve, to the nation he loved. His passing is truly this nation’s loss.

7. We extend our deepest condolences to Mr Yong’s family at this difficult time.




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