A Teacher and a Judge
Tribute to Justice of Appeal Andrew Phang
On 28 November, the Chief Justice, the Attorney-General and other top names in the legal profession gathered in the Supreme Court to pay tribute to Justice of Appeal Andrew Phang Boon Leong in a valedictory reference held in his honour.
This is only the third time the judiciary has held a valedictory reference – the first was in 1990 for retiring Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin, and the second in 2017 when Justice Chao Hick Tin retired as Justice of Appeal.
Law Society President Adrian Tan spoke at the Valedictory Reference on behalf of the legal profession. This is what he said.
Imagine it is the middle of the night. You are standing at a traffic junction. There are no cars around. There is no human being in sight. It is beginning to drizzle. Your house is across the street. You want to walk across the road, get out of the rain, and go home.
But the traffic light is against you. It is displaying a red man. You look around. The place is deserted. You hear thunder and you see lightning.
Will you break the law, and cross the street?
That was the question posed to me by my lecturer and tutor, Dr Andrew Phang, as he then was. He may not remember asking this question. But I certainly do.
The year was 1990. I was a student in his Jurisprudence class. At the time, Dr Phang was already a luminary among law students. His stellar results, his copious articles and books, and his intense lectures were the stuff of legend. The student body viewed him with a blend of awe and pride. He was a genius, yet one of our own. He was our genius.
For those of us who elected to study Jurisprudence, he introduced us to H L A Hart, Jeremy Bentham, Ronald Dworkin, and the joys of American Realism. In class, in discussing our readings, Dr Phang would probe and draw out our ideas, before dismantling them, and sending us back to square one. Often, we would struggle to cope with his rapid-fire questions, his speed of thought, and his unmatched knowledge of the subject matter.
Often, after each class, we would say to one another, “Thank goodness, once we graduate and start practising, we won’t have to face that interrogation ever again.”
It was in one of those jurisprudence tutorials that he asked us what we would do, at that hypothetical traffic junction. As pedestrians, waiting in the middle of the night, with no one around, would we cross the road when the light was against us?
Some students said yes, they would. They gave their reasons: a lack of harm, extenuating circumstances, a purposive interpretation of the Road Traffic Act. Our tutor was unimpressed. In fact, he was quite surprised.
To him, the answer was obvious: we should never break the law. Even if no one is watching, we should always observe all the rules. That was what he taught us. That was what he taught generations of lawyers: we should obey the law. We should always act as if there was an invisible judge watching us. This made an enormous impression on all of us in his Jurisprudence class, that day in 1990.
1990 doesn’t seem like such a long time ago. To those of a certain age, it seems like only yesterday. But let me paint you a picture of Singapore in 1990: the Prime Minister was Lee Kuan Yew. The Chief Justice was Wee Chong Jin. The first MRT line was completed in that year. That year, the first Nominated Members of Parliament were appointed. That year, Singapore motorists paid good money to buy the first Certificates of Entitlement or COEs. There was no e-mail, no internet, no social media. Seen in this light, it does seem like a bygone era. It was 20th century Singapore.
To many more students of that era, Dr Phang was the one who taught us the Singapore legal system, the reception of English law, the Second Charter of Justice, and section 5 of the Civil Law Act. He was the one who introduced us to the odd situation that Singapore then found itself in: an independent republic which continued to rely on England for commercial law, and which looked to a foreign court, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in the United Kingdom, as its highest court. That was 20th century Singapore, with its 20th century judicial system, warts, and all.
As students and idealistic young lawyers, we longed for a day where we would have our own, self-contained legal system. We yearned for Singapore to have its own body of judicial decisions. We wanted to see a time when Singapore court cases were cited at home, and abroad, as the leading decisions of their time. That would be a legal system we would be so proud of.
As the 20th century departed, and we entered a new millennium, our tutor was appointed to the High Court Bench. Thereafter, he rose to be a Judge of Appeal, and then became the Vice-President of the Court of Appeal.
Many of us, his former students, were now practising lawyers. We found ourselves in hearings before Justice Phang. In many respects, he was the same person, only more so. Let me explain.
In court, as he had been in university, he had no airs, and didn’t require anyone to stand on ceremony. He would be utterly well-prepared, having read all our submissions, all our authorities, and all the authorities we had overlooked. He would immediately come to grips with our arguments, shake, rattle, and roll each of our propositions to see whether they or we would fall apart. Using that piercing intellect of his, he would poke holes in our submissions. He would then examine our resulting, perforated cases, and tell us what he thought. Advocates appearing before Justice Phang found the experience to be demanding, and daunting, requiring us to confront flaws in our assumptions, gaps in our reasoning, and flimsiness of our conclusions. Often, we would leave a Justice Phang hearing more educated and enlightened by the experience.
To the members of the Bar, Justice Phang also revealed himself to be a hardworking, passionate, and prolific judge. He heard many cases. He asked many questions. And he wrote many, many, many judgments. He authored, not dozens, but hundreds of them.
Over the years, case by case, decision by decision, Justice Phang added to and enriched the Singapore Court’s body of decisions. He was a stalwart member of the new judiciary that built Singaporean jurisprudence. For those of us who studied law in the 20th century, we were excited to see the judiciary of the 21st century carry the torch for our nation as respected thought leaders. More and more, courts in other jurisdictions were citing Singapore cases, and being persuaded by Singapore decisions, in important areas of the law. Today, our Supreme Court leads the way, in grappling with and ruling on the emerging legal issues of the 21st century.
For practitioners, Justice Phang’s decisions were not only numerous, they were also significant, and covered practically every aspect of the law, from procedure to equity to oppression to contract. Practitioners found that it was almost impossible to attend a hearing without one or more of Justice Phang’s decisions being cited, so influential was his writing. A list of his decisions would read like a collection of our Supreme Court’s greatest hits.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that the legal community admires Justice Phang for his phenomenal energy, vast legal knowledge, and ferocious intellectual rigour. For those of us who were his former students, we see that each of his judgments was as analytical, detailed, and thoughtful as we would expect from our former teacher. In each grounds of decision written by Justice Phang, we still see the mind of our tutor Dr Phang: examining each issue, challenging each proposition, and explaining each conclusion. His great gift is to see where the law had been, where it was today, and where it might go, in the years ahead.
On this occasion of his Valedictory Reference, the lawyers of Singapore salute your Honour Justice Phang. Thanks to your Honour’s prodigious body of work, we know that, even after retirement, your Honour Justice Phang will continue to live in our heads, as our invisible judge, continuing to guide us, test us, and enlighten us. That is your Honour’s legacy, to the lawyers and the people of Singapore. The members of the Law Society join the members of the wider legal community, and the judiciary in celebrating your Honour’s tireless service, many achievements and immense contribution to the jurisprudence of our country.
Justice Phang, we are well aware of your Honour’s modesty and humility. If these words of truthful and justified praise unsettle your Honour, all I can say is: Your Honour has a right of reply later on.
On a personal note, as one of the many students whom you taught and influenced, may I say that when I look at you, you have retained your youthful spark, sharp mind, and that single-minded devotion to the law that you tried to instill in us, all those decades ago. When I look at you, I see the tutor that you were, the jurist that you are, and the teacher you have always been to me. I will follow you anywhere. Except, perhaps, to a traffic light junction.
I wish you good health and happiness in the years to come.
Photos: Singapore Courts