I was a professor at the University of Bristol, and had been since I went to Bristol in 1978 as professor. I came here in '87. And I have a friend Francis Reynolds who was in the same year with me at Oxford who has taught all his life in Oxford who'd been coming to Singapore for some time. And he suggested to the then dean, Tan Sook Yee, that she might discuss the possibility of coming with me, which she did and I came.
We have, we have a centre for Islamic law and finance [International Islamic Law & Finance Centre]. And that's, that is interdisciplinary, a lot of the work that's been done in this case is driven by finance and actually bankers are probably more interested in this than lawyers or there are more bankers than lawyers who are interested in this. And similarly there is certainly scope for joint work in the area of law and finance, non-Islamic, all the conventional finance. And most of the work of this kind will actually have to be done, I think, by teams of people partly from law and partly from finance, possibly from accounting. But you could, you could imagine somebody who's actually dual qualified.
Yes, well lawyers are obviously concerned with how disputes are resolved. One of the ways in which disputes are resolved is by going to court which is an obviously lawyer-like activity. But there's a whole range of other ways, some of them are quite like going to court, like arbitration, which is not done by courts but where the process is quite similar. And some of them are done, the other extreme you have negotiation and then you have mediation which is a form of helping people to negotiate. And it's coming to be recognised that you need actually, in order to solve as many disputes as possible, you need to have a range of techniques and that for many purposes, litigation is a very expensive way of doing it and therefore other forms should be tried first. And this has not only sort of domestic but also international implications. Singapore has serious ambitions to be a major regional centre for arbitration. It has developed a new arbitration centre in Maxwell Chambers. Our interest in dispute resolution law fits in with that, I think we will be teaching students, it's quite a lot of work for students and when we have a master's [degree] it'll be more. But we're also helping with the training of people doing things of this kind, arbitrators and mediators and so on.
I recall my days at SMU to be…I remember the students around me were very competitive and it was stressful four years. But I would say to prospective law students, enjoy your time in SMU. It might be stressful, it might be competitive but don’t forget to go on your law exchange. Don’t forget to just enjoy the silly moments you have during your group work, during your group discussions and just enjoy the process.
I think the fact that SMU has a strong emphasis on pro bono work is very important. I also think that many students come into the program, thinking that they want to go into the big firms because they see that as a way of being successful or being recognized for being successful. I want to just say that I think you learn so much more if you are in a smaller or medium-sized firm simply because you’re hands-on in there and your connection with your partners and your bosses and your clients is so much more direct. The learning curve is much steeper when you’re in the small firm. And especially when you start out, it may not actually hurt to have some of that. And I’ve done my first trial in my first year and that is not an opportunity that many people in a larger firm, these people are not gonna have that. And I think you also get more direct guidance because you’ve got a partner who’s just above you and you can go to him. But of course having said that, it really depends on the division in the large firm you’re in, some of them do operate that way and some small firms you might not enjoy that as well but I just say keep your mind open to other alternatives because it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve got to get into the big 4 or 5 firms, otherwise you’re not going to make it. I think pro bono work is an excellent way of getting an insight into actual problems that people have.
I guess some of the challenges would be not having seniors above us. We didn’t know who to go to when we had difficulty understanding the subject. We only had each other. So we needed to discuss among ourselves, whatever you were studying at that point in time. Our first test was contract law. It was during the semester. And I guess the law professor sat us all down when he was revealing the result. The result was really bad and they had a pep-talk for us because it was the first test we had as law students. None of us knew how to answer the questions. I think none of us really knew what kind of questions were coming out. And it was quite an experience, because the grades were really bad and we were afraid that this was going to be what law school was like.
I remember it was in Year Three; I was having a casual conversation with Professor David Smith after we discussed the outline of my research paper. He was just asking me how I felt about entering the working world. I said to him, “Well, professor, you know I am not the most brilliant or the most outstanding student out there, so I guess I just follow the usual route, be one of the junior lawyers entering the working world and just slogging my nights out.” I remember at that point in time, he turned serious. He looked at me in the eye and said, “No, Yvonne, you’re not just one of the many out there. You’re special.” I was quite taken aback by his statement. I didn’t expect him to say that to me. And till this day, I really cherish this memory fondly, because whenever I feel that I am just one of the many out there, I recall what he said and just tried to find that something special he saw in me and try to work things out.
As you know under the SMU system, all students are supposed to do ten weeks of internship and that's very important for, it's important I think for all students but it's particularly important for law students because it enables them to see what actually happens in real life. The internship fair, we had twenty-six firms of lawyers, including the government legal service and the Attorney General's office who came and had stands and talked to people, it would be second-year students who'll be the main group. You can't do internships in the first summer or at least they don't count. So most of the internships were done either between the second and third year or between the third and fourth year.
And this is an opportunity for students to make contacts. So far this has been very successful, I mean that the people have got internships that, the internships were undoubtedly one of the major factors in determining whether you get a training contract and if you, under the Singapore system, after you have a law degree, you have to pass through two more stages before you become a lawyer. You have to, there's another exam, which is not done by the universities, there's a course for that which will take six months. Then you have to do six-months training contract. So you can't get to be a lawyer if you can't find somebody who'll give you a training contract. Experience shows that successful internships are the best way to get training contracts. And so far the first cohort seems to have done very well in getting training contracts. A lot will depend on how well the first cohort get on when they're actually doing the training contract and when they actually get jobs. If they make people feel that SMU law graduates are okay, this will be a big forward step, yes.
My first day at school was a Tuesday. I remember I was just waiting to go to school, not thinking much about it and on Monday I was just chatting with some people I’d got to know during law camp. And they were asking me how prepared I was for the first lesson. And I thought to myself, “Don’t you just go to class and write down things that the professor says?” Apparently not. They were all reading before class and I panicked. I can’t remember whether I had my books with me yet but I was panicky. I did not expect to have to read before class. So after I came to class, not everyone had already read up before that but there was some who really knew the stuff. So I just lost then at my first class and listening to the professor speak. It was quite an intimidating experience.
I think the first semester for most of us passed in a haze of confusion and fear, I would say. Simply because I think being in any new courses is already difficult, but when you are put in a program which is accelerated, because the law degree we complete within two years or three years, and unlike the LLB program which extends over four years and the students only take a few law modules, we take only law modules. And they had arranged the timetable such that we had 5.5 credit units in the first semester, which was very heavy for a bunch of us who A: had not been in school for a while and B: didn’t know how to read, you know, even find the case let alone read it. So, we really didn’t know what we were doing.
I think if there was any point at which people might have considered “okay maybe I should just leave now and save myself the trouble”, that would have been it. But I think the fact that everyone else was in the same boat and we were all suffering together, if you like, that helped. What we did is we gathered together as a group and we actually went to see our professors to let them know that we just thought this was too much and we couldn’t deal with it. They couldn’t, of course, do anything at that point but what they did was in subsequent years, it is now down to 4 credit units in the first term. So I think even though we probably didn’t help ourselves very much, we managed to help our juniors, which is really good.
I think we learnt after that how to read cases. You know, it’s a lot, you really need to know what you’re looking for when you read it. If you read and you don’t know what you are looking for, you spend a lot of time reading and not really getting the point and then going to class feeling quite lost only to discover the point was something else completely different from what you thought the point was. But all this is not uncommon to any law students, I think, in the first term. It’s just that the load was so heavy that it made it doubly hard. We learnt of a time how to get quicker and faster. We also learnt to organize ourselves. This was advice that we were able to give to our junior so we hoped that they were able to do this much quicker than we were, which were to set up groups for things like, you know, gathering the cases, and making copies and sending them out and all those sorts of things. And all that helped, eventually. And I think the teachers were quite understanding.
The other additional burden you have when you are a post-graduate student is you’re trained to think in a certain way in your field. And every field has a particular “language” or way of viewing the world. And this is what you’ve been doing for, you know, X number of years, you ask questions almost instinctively from a certain angle or direction. And now you pretty much have got to learn a new language, a new way of looking at things. That is not easy. It’s almost harder to do that when you’ve already got a preset way rather than when you don’t have any ways in the first place. But these are all things that we learnt along the way. And the positive side of having people with diverse experiences, we had engineers, people who worked in the finance sector, journalists, teachers, we even had a surgeon, the positive side of this is that cases and the law operate in society and, you know, they cuts across all these industries. And so what our classmates brought to the table was, you know, all their experiences in this line and this field. They helped us to understand cases in a way that I think if we were all were law students and nothing else, we wouldn’t have had those insights. And I think that’s also now what my class contributes to the legal industry, is that there’s a whole bunch of people out there now who actually have expertise in both. So while the learning was difficult, I think at the end of the day that learning was also doubly rewarding for these reasons.
Actually the first job I had was at Rajah & Tann Shipping. I met my employers there through a shipping course that I did during my 4th year. So SMU actually engaged them to teach at an electives, the Shipping & Admiralty Law Course, so there were 3 partners who taught the course and I got a job after that. Because I did internship and I liked it there, so I did a job there. I just carried on after that. I must say that the course they taught was rather interesting because it was the first time it was taught by practitioners. As much as we had everything written down in books, they also shared their experiences and what they do in their daily lives, like arresting a ship, the considerations they have for arresting a ship, the urgency, the many interests to balance. All this we didn’t get from the books, so it was quite an interesting course.
Recruiting students again you’ve got to give the talk. We had to go to junior colleges to talk, alright, and that’s quite challenging. So again you got to tell these prospective students what it is about SMU law which would be better than NUS law, or different, at least. And again that was not easy, because, you know, NUS was in existence for 50 years, you know, so we are new, we’re totally new so, yeah, so we have to explain the distinctive. And the distinctives would be the holistic curriculum, because there’s this significant portion of non-law which we believe is actually very important. And indeed it is, it is because when you graduate and go out and practise, you find that the learning curve is very steep. You’re trying to advise your client on a particular thing, let’s a say a financial transaction. To properly structure it and document it you’ve to understand the financial structure. So we were very sure that the context of law was very important. Yeah and that was one of the attractions of our programme. We also included compulsory law courses which NUS did not have as compulsory, but which we thought were important to give a law graduate the skills and knowledge to excel in practice.
Some unusual courses would be that we have this course called, Economic Analysis of Law. This is something that was first started, I think, by the Chicago Law School. Right, so that was unusual. One reason why I included that was that I had the privilege to meet up with this gentleman called Gerhard Casper. He was President Emeritus of Stanford. He was also before that the dean of Chicago Law School. So we met him because he was part of the QAFU team, Quality Assurance for Universities. So I had a chat with him. A brilliant man, really brilliant man. He suggested that is one course that we should have. So we have that course.
We have another course called Commercial Conflict of Laws. Conflict of Laws is about how in an international environment the laws of many countries come into play. And Singapore is so international in its transactions, you know, and this area of law, which is very difficult area of law, keeps cropping up and it becomes more and more important. So we decided to make that compulsory as well. And there were another, two or three other courses. So apart from being holistic we had these core law courses which we thought were critical for cultivating very good lawyers.
Actually we just worked on our own. And you just reminded me of something. When we were planning our curriculum we came up with certain distinctives, distinctive features of our curriculum. And interestingly enough, a few weeks later, Harvard Law School, the Harvard Law School, announced changes to the curriculum. And they came up with three changes. Two of them were what we had included, and third one we were considering. So I thought it’s not bad, that on our own effort we came up with a programme which included things that number one in US also thought were important.
So I think they appeared in our third year. At that point in time, after two years in law school, we were quite comfortable with each other. Some students were more outspoken than others; some students were just very laid-back. But when we shared electives with these JD students, it was a different experience altogether. They were much, much more outspoken. They would challenge the professor in class and it was in those ways that we never imagined. They would use their experiences to ask the professor “why is the law this way? From my experience, it shouldn’t be this way. It’s wrong.” And to us, that was rather confrontational. So we were just looking at them and wondering what they were thinking but it was quite interesting because they had experiences brought along with them. They had prior experiences with the law. They came to the law school with a motive, with an objective in mind. And it was quite apparent from the questions they asked and it was quite refreshing, I must say because when we entered law school, we entered as a clean slate. So the interaction was quite interesting, I must say.
Even within my JD class, we had a range of ages. We had students from 22 to 46 years and that’s a really diverse class. We learnt a lot from each other, I think, especially those of us who are not particularly technologically savvy, we picked up a lot from our younger classmates. And I think, we literally from different generations, we do have different ways of seeing the world. And I think when we went into the electives and attended classes which were predominantly with LLB students, we could see why sometimes when the LLB students came into our classes to do a make-up class, they would get very stressed simply because the way the classes operated was very different. The LLB classes, generally speaking, they were very much on-task to finish everything in the outline that they were supposed to cover and they just needed to know the proper answer and go on. I mean, of course they’re all prepared, I am not saying they didn’t. But in the JD class, often what would happen is people would just find something that really, you know, peeved them or interested them and the discussion would just go off on a tangent and the comment we used to get is, “You guys never stop talking”. And I think, actually even for your teachers, because we were the first batch, they had to learn how to manage this class because if not, what would happen is that we would finish our three hours and not get through the outline. They hadn’t foreseen this often because, I think, maybe most of them were not experienced in teaching us but they quickly learnt that and quickly started to manage us a little better. I think we also realized that we needed to do that. So, it was actually good to add attend classes with the LLBs because we could see that there is a very different style of learning, much more functional and I guess that introduced a certain discipline into how we worked as well. But I think we hoped that we also broadened the perspectives for them.
Alright. In keeping with SMU philosophy of having internships, I think as a preparation for work, SMU law students also have to go for internships. So they typically spend a period of time either with a law firm or as, with the legal department of a company, or even with the legal service, such as the courts, et cetera. So during this period of time they just get exposure to law. And the internship has been very valuable. From time to time when I meet lawyers I ask them, “So how do you find SMU students?” So actually I’ve got very good reports from them. They find our students to be very responsive, responsible. Yeah, so it is very valuable thing.
I just want to add something about the SMU programme. That one of the things that we made compulsory was the study mission, so every law student goes through a study mission. I mean, I think that study mission’s a very valuable experience for SMU students, alright. You go to another country, you visit companies, listen to what the people from the profession industry, the government, and you do some project and report on something. So, we thought that the study mission is, was a very good thing. So that is one of the compulsory aspects of SMU’s law programme.
We felt that the commercial practice was much more important. We felt that Singapore’s growing as an international commercial centre, and that was where the demand was. So we thought what’s more important was to train lawyers who could work in the region. Alright, so that was the primary focus. So we were not that interested in other areas of practice like conveyancing, family law, et cetera. We thought the most important was to service the international needs of Singapore.
I did two major internships, one smaller one. One was with the Attorney General’s Chambers and this was because I was really just wanted to have an insight into how things operated, you know, how prosecutions were done. And they had very good structured program for internships. I spent four weeks, I believe, in AGC. They actually rotated us across different divisions that they have, and they have, I believe, six or so. But we spent most of the time in the state prosecution division and criminal justice division so we were mostly working on the actual criminal cases and we got to see how prosecutors put things together. And they actually had, you know, hands-on things that we had to do including writing, if you like, the charge paper, doing sentencing, summaries and all these things and actually going to court. They had a mock thing when we had to go to court and pretend to be prosecutors in a plead-guilty mention. So all these were very interesting and I had a very good mentor in the AGC, who actually, I think above and beyond, was trying to explain how the thinking goes in AGC and I think this is very useful now because I do criminal defense work and it helps me to see the case from the perspective of the prosecutor and it helps me to understand how the prosecution might be thinking about this case. That, I think, is a unique insight that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
The other very special internship was the Singapore Academy of Law litigation internship program, which lasted about also 4 weeks I believe. This was very special because it had an attachment to the Subordinate Court and an attachment to the Supreme Court, a short attachment to AGC, and then about 2 or 3 weeks when we were attached to a senior council. And this is really unique because you don’t get these insights and I think the best part for that was we were at the Subordinate Court, the judges were talking to us and, you know, interacting with us in a way that, I think, as practitioners, you would never have access to the judges this way. And they actually could give their point of view on many things and share what they thought were important, and not just in terms of any given case but what is important for you as a lawyer to be doing, what you should bring to the table and things like that. So that was a very unique experience. And of course tailing the senior council you get to see how he thinks and how he prepares his cases. This was yeah, good fun. These are things that, I think, the fact that it was a compulsory internship program never felt like a burden. It actually felt like an amazing opportunity.
Further demand. There was room within the profession to add some more graduates. We take roughly 30 into the JD programme so if you take the 120 and 30 we have about 150 annually that can go out. And the other was to provide an opportunity for people who had, who wanted to go into law, but who had studied something else or done something else, to have that opportunity here within Singapore, and not have to go to the UK or Australia or US or somewhere.
We kept talking about the possibility of a second law school. I say we, I would raise it with the minister and the perm sec [permanent secretary]. The president has more dealing with the permanent secretary than anybody else within a ministry. And it’s an issue that just kept surfacing again. And I can’t remember which year it was but I think it was 2006, the Government created a committee called the Third Committee on the Supply of Lawyers. Now the Government’s always doing committees to study different possibilities for Singapore’s development. And there had already been two committees that had looked at the legal profession and now this is the third one.
And this committee held hearings, they did research, they talked to a lot of people et cetera, and determined that Singapore did not have enough lawyers. Now why Singapore did not have enough lawyers, two reasons. One, domestically it’s a fairly small legal market, five million people on the island. You only need a certain number of people to do estate’s work, or matrimonial, or something like that, or automobile accidents. And it had only been the one law school for a long time. But Singapore has been focussing for a long time on being a major centre for banking, finance, corporate development, major research by pharmaceuticals, regional headquarters for MNCs [multinational corporations], all that sort of thing. Those are businesses that have great needs for lawyers of a certain quality, well trained, can handle that sort of thing. And there are a number of foreign law firms who had set up branch offices here really to attend to those needs.
The second thing that was kind of interesting in the legal profession’s home planning was the idea that Singapore should become a resource place for law for the region, to encourage businesses that were operating in Southeast Asia or other parts of Asia to choose Singapore law as the governing law because it’s very well developed, it’s stable, it’s part of the Commonwealth system. You can come to court here, and you can get a fair hearing, and you know you can, and it will be expeditious, and you can trust the system and all that.
And secondly, to be a place for the resolution of disputes, arbitration, mediation and litigation. But to do that you have to have a certain critical mass of quality lawyers. And the Third Committee said we don’t have enough. And there are three ways, three things we can, we recommend be done to deal with this situation. One, was to increase by a certain amount the intake at NUS. Second, was to create a second law school. And there the idea was competition is good in business, should be good in universities too. And SMU by that time had shown that it was successful. And three, to liberalise some of the rules on the admission of foreign-trained lawyers to practice in Singapore. Complicated series of rules on that which I won’t go into but that’s been implemented.
And so that was 2006 and then I got a call from the ministry, from the permanent secretary saying, “When can you launch your law school?” (laughter) And so we really got on a fast track then and there was appointed a curriculum working group to help design and develop the curriculum for the new SMU law school. So we launched it, first students came in 2007. I’ve never seen a law school get of the ground quite so quickly.
We were asked to send in a proposal in October ’05, we sent a proposal in November ’05. And in July ’06 we were given in-principle approval. And in January ’07 it was announced that SMU would start a law school. And in August we began with our first batch. So it’s pretty fast, so from the time we’re asked to send in a proposal we sent it in, in a month. And about six months later, seven months later we were given in-principle approval. And another six months later it was finalised, yeah. And it was a very hectic period, very.
When we were thinking about how to do the proposal, we had to come up with arguments which were compelling. So, as I recall it, we said that SMU should be permitted to start a law school for three reasons. First of all for diversity, alright, because we want to provide a different kind of university education. Secondly, for competition’s sake, because it’s not good to have a monopoly. And that argument was quite attractive because Singapore had not long before that, instituted the Competition Act, right. So it’s in keeping with the flavour of the time. And the third reason I gave was that it’s part of a national progression of the development of SMU. So these were the three reasons given, right.
And on diversity, you know, the idea was again to give holistic education. In NUS the law programme is very specialised, it’s almost all, completely law that you study. We were proposing something pretty different. We actually proposed as much as 40 percent non-law; the final model accepted was 30 percent non-law, yeah. So in terms of diversity we wanted some different approach to legal education. Yeah, so, diversity, competition and natural development. I told my colleagues, I say, if I look at it the proposal is compelling enough, but whether we’ll get it or not, it’s about 50-50, yeah.
I was very thrilled to receive the post-graduate scholarship, the Kwa Geok Choo scholarship. As you know, she was Mrs. Lee Kuan Yew, she was a lawyer herself, she was a mom. And to me, I thought this was one of the best things I could receive because she represented, to me, someone much much more skilled than I am, but in the same situation, at least as a lawyer, as a mom. And I felt that that was very inspiring. She was a very good role model, if you like, from that perspective.
From day one we wanted to have law, so that was natural, but then it turned out to be almost the last one in this whole entrée of things. Because law you need to go through a lot of governmental bureaucracy to get it, okay. When it was time to have the law school, the original plan was to have JD [Juris Doctor] just like the American style law school. But then the local requirements on the ground—if you talk to people they would tell you that JD is something new, JD is not fully understood—why do you have to have a postgraduate school in law and not at the undergraduate level? So there are a lot of pros and cons. So the decision was to go with the undergraduate law, but then we have a broader-based law content than NUS. NUS is a very British law school and the bulk of the content is in law. For SMU when we first put it together, it was a lot more liberal arts-oriented and today it is about seventy percent which is fine.
I think it’s the first J.D. programme in Singapore, yeah. Right. The J.D. we’re now having our second batch of J.D. The J.D. programme, just to step back a bit, J.D. is the American concept whereby law is studied as a second degree. So you study another degree, and then you study law. J.D. was a natural thing to add to our programme. So because there’re people who took a first degree in another discipline, and later on decided that they’re very interested in law, including, in fact, many of our SMU students. Alright, so it was a natural thing to do, to offer this facility for people to switch into law, or maybe adding to their expertise, you know. Alright, so and it was not difficult to do, because we’ve got a programme that’s 70% law 30% non-law. So basically, take out the 30% non-law and do the 70% law, so that essentially is the J.D. programme
We had some discussion about was the importance of getting a law school as part of the university. If you looked at what's called a cognate kind of an intellectual connections between disciplines and how they enrich each other make a strong argument that the law school provides a cognate-tight connection or can to business, to accounting, information systems, even to parts of the arts and sciences. And having it missing was like having a piece of a puzzle where the other pieces were not as tightly integrated as they could be, because you didn't have a law school participating as part of the community. And Woody, an attorney, dean of the law school [at Emory University], was a natural to make the case.
I think that the first time this emerged was when we had a visitor by the name of Howard Hunter. Yeah, who became SMU’s third president. So he had visited us in the early days. And I think he proposed a law school for SMU.
That’s because law is a discipline with so much substance, so many areas of specialisation, et cetera. So if you want to study law there’s a lot that can, needs to be studied. So at NUS for example law was a four year programme. Yeah, so if you wanted to have a law degree you definitely needed a separate law school.
In the first place the authorities must agree that you can start a law school. And typically if there was some attempt to start a law school, then the argument would be that, no, NUS law faculty is good enough. Alright. And in fact when we were proposing a law school the third time round, I say third time because I believe there was a second time where Andrew Pang who was then chair of law department proposed a law school, alright.
I think the first one was by Howard Hunter, second one was Andrew Pang, and the third one was when I was department chair and I was asked to put a proposal. So, in a way, third time lucky I guess. So that was the third time we had proposed.
SMU, in class, one of the assessment components was participation. So that was sometimes 20% of the grade, so we were made to speak up in class. We were made to ask questions when there were speakers. That really encouraged us to speak up. As Singaporean, you don’t really speak up but that really encouraged us to speak up when something is at stake. And I particularly like the presentations that we need to do as part of our curriculum. Usually, we would have a hypothetical to discuss within the group, and we were made to present our answers or our solutions to the hypothetical after that. I particularly liked the magical moment whereby we finally found the solution to the hypothetical and the group presented it in a way we thought was correct.