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The Singapore Law Gazette

President’s Message

Opening Remarks by Gregory Vijayendran at Book Launch of Selected Essays on Dispute Resolution

It is an incredible privilege for me to share some opening remarks in Michael Hwang SC’s book launch of Selected Essays on Dispute Resolution. Dispute Resolution is timely and thematically appropriate. Many of us know that there is an ongoing public consultation on civil justice reforms. Perhaps, rather presciently when the list of contents was drawn up for this latest offering, one of the chapters included is headlined “How May the Quantum of Legal Costs Claimed by a Winning Party be Controlled”.

It is a high honour to honour one of my illustrious predecessors. Michael Hwang SC went from lawyer to Judicial Commissioner to silk to international arbitrator to Law Society President to Deputy Chief Justice to Chief Justice. That is an exhilarating journey. However, this is neither the setting nor the time to eulogize Michael’s entire achievements. That would take more than 10 minutes.

This evening I present Michael Hwang SC as “Thinker, Teacher, Lawyer, Scribe”.

Not four different persons but four different portraits of the same person.

Thinker

As a thinker, we have benefited from many of Michael’s musings. On a previous occasion, we gleaned gems from his Musings on International Arbitration. Today we have reflections on resolving disputes.

In quickfire fashion, I want to surface three different instances of how we have benefited from Michael Hwang SC as thinker.

First, as thought leader on reforms made to the Women’s Charter. Yes, for those not in the know, Michael has dabbled in family law. According to him, in the earlier part of his career, his portfolio of family cases was as high as 10 per cent. It was therefore no surprise that he was appointed to a Committee established by the Minister of Social Affairs for a comprehensive review of the Women’s Charter. In 1975, recommendations in the report issued by that committee led to reforms in our principal family legislation.

Second, he was the pioneer thinker who initiated the first CLE seminar organised by the Law Society. The first Legal Workshop took place in 1977 at the Shangri-La Hotel. Subsequently, the Local Workshops were renamed Continuing Legal Education seminars. He chaired the relevant Committee for over a decade from 1981 to 1989 and from 1993 to 1995.

Third, he is a creative thinker. Can creativity and a conservative, precedent-based discipline like law go together? I witnessed that. Michael Hwang SC was a mediator of a defamation case I was conducting for a plaintiff for a High Court Suit once. That experience left an indelible impression. He suggested creative solutions for Counsel to consider. This included a statement of clarification to balance both parties’ interests. A creative option not otherwise available to litigants in a defamation suit. In some ways, his conduct of that mediation was a forerunner of the pilot project for conciliation rolled out by the State Courts presently. It was an unconventional problem-solving approach to mediation that leveraged off his expertise in defamation law.

Let me also share with you his thoughtful observations from his latest Musings “Musings on My Career in the Law” in the introductory chapter of the book being launched today: “I count myself lucky to have learnt and practised law at a time when laws were less complex than they are now, because society was less complex. This enabled me to be relatively successful in my practice, armed with fewer skills than a young lawyer now needs to have, particularly in the rapidly changing world of technology, which is forcing the profession to adopt new practices and learn new technologies. The career path I followed in my early years of ‘Jack of all trades, Master of some’ is not a viable option in this day and age (more’s the pity) and specialisation from an early stage seems inevitable.” We need to give him more than a penny for his thoughts for the exceptional wisdom that he continues to share with us about the way of the future.

Teacher

The second portrait of Michael Hwang SC is teacher. His first teaching stint was as Teaching fellow in University of Sydney. How fitting to be magnetized to a university bearing your middle name as your first job. But for the uninitiated, Sydney, Australia was also Michael’s birthplace. So it had an additional personal significance. He taught torts as lecturer, tutor and examiner.

Educated in Oxford, Michael writes that his year at Oxford and Sydney inculcated a lifelong love of the law in all its aspects. That passion has been clearly seen in conflict of laws and company law as his book tells us.

Although he has been typically modest and understated about his teaching record claiming not to be “particularly impressive in terms of statistics”, the value of his pedagogy should not be understated.

His famous ex-students include Kenneth Wee from Sabah who won the University Medal at Sydney Law School. Alan Cameron, Geoffrey Robertson QC and James Spigelman. Tongue in cheek and somewhat self-deprecating, he writes in his musings that his brightest students seemed to have achieved the greatest success in later life in inverse ratio to the number of his lectures they attended. The fewer lectures, the greater their success. As an illustration of that inverse ratio rule, Michael, I’ve attended all your lectures on arbitration during my Fellowship Course for the Singapore Institute of Arbitrators!

But on a serious note, many of us were blessed to come under your tutelage in arbitration. Our depth of understanding and clarity of thought was owed in no small measure to your instructive elucidation of the applicable principles. Long after the lessons from your illuminating lectures ended, the learning points were etched in our minds as a navigational compass.

Lawyer

The third portrait. This will be more than a thumbnail sketch. It is about Michael Hwang SC as lawyer.

Michael has described lawyering as “Exercises in the art of analysis and persuasion”. What a diversity of exercises they were in his own life. In his early years of his legal practice in Allen & Gledhill, he went from company lawyer to debt collection and motor accident to conveyancer. On motor accident practice, he was (in theory) the lawyer for half of the taxi drivers in Singapore. In his words, the skills were acquired “on the job by self-study and tips from [his] seniors in the firm”. He self-taught and self-caught.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he continued to practise as the self-described “Jack of all trades, Master of some”. In equal measure, banking and corporate, property and conveyancing and litigation and arbitration. In banking and corporate law, he went on a rapid learning curve in the world of corporate finance, in property and conveyancing law the early exploration of REITS. Over and above that, he also developed a niche in IP law.

Michael has candidly acknowledged that prior to his JC days, he did not have a huge history of reported judgments bearing his name as Counsel. In his words “for some reason of another, my cases seemed to peter out after the interlocutory stages”. Another reason is the Pan-El crisis that blew up then. He was “extremely busy on major pieces of litigation, but usually managed to obtain the interim relief that [his] clients were seeking,”. If you are able to detonate the atomic bomb of civil litigation, the Mareva Injunction, it’s no wonder matters did not have to proceed to trial!

He next served a stint as Judicial Commissioner pursuant to appointment by Yong Pung How CJ. He describes this as a “wonderful interlude” in his career. He delivered 15 written judgments during this period of slightly more than one-and-a-half year stint as Judicial Commissioner. Old habits died hard. He was the last judge to leave the Court that made him the first judge to be approached for urgent applications after hearing hours. This time, granting the Mareva Injunctions. In his words “the many situations that crop up in any case, where there is no clear law to cover that situation requiring a judge-made solution and new law”. He succinctly describes that as “developing the interstices of the law”.

Several of his erudite judgments have been cited with approval both by the courts as well as in academic writings. Case on point: Hongkong & Shanghai Banking Corporation v United Overseas Bank on restitution for unjust enrichment.

After his stint as Judicial Commissioner ended, he returned to A&G and headed up the litigation department there. It was in this phase of private practice that he received stellar recognition of his advocacy. He was chosen to be in the pioneer cohort of 12 Senior Counsel. Appointed from the ranks of private practice by the Supreme Court. Twenty-one years later, at present he remains the most senior of the Senior Counsel. Perhaps, we should call him Michael Hwang Senior Senior Counsel!

He retired early from A&G at the end of 2002 at the age of 59. This dovetailed with a desire to start up and focus on a practice in international arbitration; primarily as international arbitrator. The growth of his stature as international arbitrator has been unparalleled and phenomenal. Yet, he maintained his advisory role as SC giving legal opinions, acting as expert witness and as Counsel in arguing cases in the High Court pursuant to the IAA. Acting as Counsel became a comparatively rare exception and chiefly in the arbitration-related litigation. Two of them, Kempinski Hotels and Tjong Very Sumito are leading authorities on international arbitration

As lawyer, the pinnacle of service is as Law Society President. Professor Kevin Tan knows all about that having interviewed Michael for Fiat Justitia.

In Michael’s words, he was a “supporter of the Law Society as it seemed a natural extension of [his] persona as a practising lawyer to be involved in the activities of the community forming part of his daily life.” This is the list of his lawyer-leader roles in the Society before his Presidency: Chairman of the Legal Workshops and Continuing Legal Education, Civil Legislation, Ethics, Audit and International Relations Committee and Founder of the Public and International Law Committee as well as present Vice-Chairman.

Apart from being a lawyer engaged in civil litigation and arbitration, at that stage of his career, he could empathise with the problems of the criminal bar, the family lawyers, the conveyancers, the banking and corporate practitioners and the IP Bar. His advocacy prowess was on full display as well. He successfully persuaded the Law Society’s members to accept an increase of $200 per annum in annual subscriptions from 1 April 2010.

As everyone who has served in the office of Presidency knows, it is a “hot seat”. But that did not stop his prolific writing. Five of his personal favourite musings as President from his collection of letters and speeches are in this compendium of essays. He has described himself as a “whackee”. What is a “whackee” ? You should ask him. That should be left for another occasion or for the session to follow.

In his “Musings Chapter” in the present prose, Michael Hwang SC also chronicles what he calls a “unique and distinct part of his legal life” – 13 to 14 years as a Judge of the DIFC Court. From Deputy Chief Justice in 2005 to a climactic culmination of Chief Justice in 2010, leading what he describes as “a competent, commercial Bench supported by a competent, commercial Bar”. In Michael’s words: “It has been a unique experience and in retrospect I felt that my wide general experience in all areas of legal practice, including heavy commercial and financial transactions, gave me a strong grounding in the necessary skills and knowledge to deal with the kinds of problems that I faced in Dubai.”

British scientist Mark Walport once said, “There’s a particular set of values commonly associated with being professional. Experience, expertise, trustworthiness, wisdom and good judgement are all attributes aspired to by senior professional people be they doctors, engineers, lawyers, civil servants or the clergy”. In every lawyerly role played by Michael Hwang SC, there has always been abundant evidence of the experience, expertise, trustworthiness, wisdom and good judgment. In short, nothing short of super-professionalism.

Scribe

I hope all that I’ve touched on so far has whetted your appetite to read the book. And it is this final facet of the main man in today’s proceedings that we must turn to – Michael Hwang SC the Scribe. I use this word in the sense of writer, not religious scholar although Michael is quite religious about his scholarship.

As scribe, what a writer extraordinaire Michael has proved himself to be again and again and again.

As shining examples, Editor in Chief of the Law Relating to Specific Contracts in Singapore and five years ago, Selected Essays on International Arbitration.

I remember his diligence and dedication as he chronicled some of the history for our Golden Jubilee by conducting interviews during my Chairmanship of the Publications Committee years even before Fiat Justitia was conceptualized. That’s history scholarship for you.

In summary, our legal world has been unforgettably inscribed with the writings and articles of Michael Hwang SC. This will be an abiding legacy.

Conclusion

In conclusion, happy double celebration Michael of your 75th Birthday and 50th Anniversary of your call! Law Society celebrated our golden jubilee anniversary last year. But as Thinker, Teacher, Lawyer, Scribe you are a living legend who exemplifies the golden virtues of our legal profession. Golden virtues of lifelong learning and lawyer leadership.

Michael, you suggested in your Essays that your greatest legacy was the MH Alumni. In your words: “To see young lawyers whom I have mentored and nurtured grow in maturity and recognition by the profession is something which will continue to give me joy and gratification as contributing in some way to the growth of the legal profession, particularly the international arbitration community.”

I suggest that your greatest legacy goes beyond the MH Alumni. In some manner, shape or form, all of us gathered here today have come under your tutelage, guidance, mentorship or leadership. I respectfully submit that all of us are your greatest legacy in one way or another. We are privileged to honour you today for being the living legend that you are in a lifetime of law.

President
The Law Society of Singapore