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The Singapore Law Gazette

Tan Hee Joek

I met Hee Joek as an undergraduate at Oxford University. He was a PSC Scholar who had been awarded an overseas scholarship to do law, tenable in the Singapore Legal Service. Over time, we became friends, studying most days together in the law library. But also spending time exploring the UK and Europe together.

Hee Joek was a very methodical student, determined not to waste the opportunity which had been given to him to study law in an invigorating academic environment. I learned later that his father had obtained a law degree in London as a mature student, after which he established the eponymous law firm “Tan See Swan & Co”. Perhaps his father’s profession influenced the choice of career of his children – all three would go on to become lawyers.

To me, Hee Joek was quite a unique person, in that he was always entirely honest and true to his beliefs. I disagreed with some of his views, but I never doubted in the slightest that he held them with conviction. He never said anything for effect or because he thought that was what you wanted to hear. He spoke truthfully about what he thought, but was never patronising. Combined with his strong sense of justice, this trait was later to mark him out, in my view, as one of Singapore’s best criminal lawyers of his generation.

He spent eight years in the Attorney-General’s Chambers, of which five were spent in the Civil Division, and the remaining three in Crime Division as a DPP. He established himself as a highly reliable and trustworthy public servant and colleague. But it was at the Criminal Bar that Hee Joek came into his own. He had a clear passion for justice and the under trodden, and was prepared to take cases as far as he could.

He soon developed a reputation as an honest and dedicated criminal defence lawyer, who put his clients’ interests first, and did not prioritise his fees. He was never afraid of taking a case to trial. It was because of this that he often represented fellow members of the bar, and also many serving and former public servants. In fact, many people who knew Hee Joek, whether from the private or public sector, would routinely refer clients to him if they needed criminal law advice.

Despite his busy schedule, Hee Joek always made time for pro bono work. He was committed to helping people clear their names if he felt they had a good case, no matter that they couldn’t afford to pay his fees. Hee Joek’s cases were featured in the television series “Verdict” (which can be viewed on MeWatch) where Hee Joek was interviewed. In one case (Rajasegaran s/o Balakrishnan v PP [2008] SGDC 299), Hee Joek defended a single father who was charged for retaining stolen cough syrup, which his friend entrusted him to keep. Despite the fact that his client was found guilty at the trial, Hee Joek believed in his client and filed an appeal against the conviction. On appeal, the High Court found that the quantity of the cough syrup alone was insufficient to show that the accused had reason to believe that the cough syrup was stolen and ordered an acquittal. Not many know this, but the appeal was heard very shortly after the passing of Hee Joek’s father.

In another case which he argued pro bono, Hee Joek defended a man who took some pills he bought from a street vendor for his erectile dysfunction. The man subsequently tested positive for “Ice”. Hee Joek successfully persuaded the Court to acquit the man of the offence.

I would mention two other cases which Hee Joek argued at the appellate stage.

Teo Seng Tiong v PP [2021] 2 SLR 642

The offender, Mr Teo, was driving his lorry when he met two cyclists riding abreast on the left lane of a two-lane road. As there were other vehicles travelling on the right lane, Mr Teo tried to squeeze his lorry through so as to overtake the cyclists. Unhappy that the lorry drove so close to him, one cyclist struck the lorry’s left mirror causing a part of it to break off. In retaliation, Mr Teo swerved into the path of the cyclist, making contact with him, and causing the cyclist to fall. Mr Teo, represented by another counsel, claimed trial but was convicted and sentenced to a seven-week imprisonment term.

The public was divided by the Court’s decision. Most thought that the cyclist was partially to be blamed for Mr Teo’s action since he was the initial aggressor. While they accepted that Mr Teo had gone overboard, they did not think that an imprisonment term was justified, much less for seven weeks, since the cyclist suffered only minor injuries.

Mr Teo decided to appeal both his conviction and sentence and Hee Joek represented him. Hee Joek argued that the District Judge had erred when he took into consideration various traffic violations committed by Mr Teo which were subsequently compounded, and held that they were an aggravating factor. His argument was nevertheless rejected and the appeals were dismissed.

Undeterred, Hee Joek filed a Criminal Reference to the Court of Appeal. He argued that a prior composition was not a conviction, and that it should not be regarded as an antecedent. The Court of Appeal ultimately held that a compounded offence could be considered an aggravating factor during the sentencing process, but the Court acknowledged that there were conflicting High Court decisions on this issue, and took the opportunity to clarify the law.

GCO v PP [2019] 3 SLR 1402

The offender had peeped over the shower cubicle wall in a female toilet at a residence hall of a university. The offender was served with a 12-month conditional warning for this offence. However, two months after being served with the conditional warning, he molested another female in the university and was charged for both offences. The offender, represented by another counsel, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment with three strokes of the cane.

Hee Joek represented the offender at the appeal. He argued that the District Judge was wrong to have considered the offender’s breach of the conditional warning as an aggravating factor. The High Court agreed with Hee Joek and held that a conditional warning is a merely a threat to the offender that he will be charged if he continued offending and this had no legal effect in sentencing. The High Court reduced the sentence to a fine of $2,000 and eight months’ imprisonment with no caning.

In the Best Traditions of the Criminal Bar

Hee Joek was an extremely likeable man. Nobody had a bad word to say about him. He was kind and gentle, and would often break into a mischievous and charming grin. In court he was tenacious and tough, but always honest and fair. I would tell him often not to go easy on the DPPs and he never did – no quarter given, and none asked for. But he was always professional and treated opponents with respect. He was willing to fight for what he believed in, without regard to personal cost. He represented, to me, the best traditions of the Criminal Bar. In recognition of his leadership qualities, he was elected to be the President of the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore in November 2022.

Hee Joek was a personal friend who will be deeply missed by all, but I am sure that his memory will live on in those whose lives he had touched and impacted. And his life will continue to serve as an inspiration to many others.

Tai Wei Shyong, SC
Deputy Attorney-General

The Law Gazette is the official publication of the Law Society of Singapore.