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The Quiet Radical

Dean Tan Cheng Han SC ’87 pens his final Dean’s Diary to alumni 

This is my final message in LawLink as Dean. As many of you will know by now, my colleague Vice-Dean Simon Chesterman will succeed me as the 14th Dean of the law school from 1 January 2012. Simon has served as one of my Vice-Deans for 18 months, and prior to that we worked closely on the NUS-NYU double degree programme. He is a good scholar and administrator and I know he will make an excellent Dean who will take the school to greater heights. I am happy to hand the Deanship to him as the school will be in good hands. I also feel strongly that it is healthy for the Deanship not to be held by any one person for too long as an academic institution thrives on the injection of new ideas and energy.

Prof Tan in Shanghai for a Law Alumni ReunionSome years ago a colleague remarked to me that I have been a ‘radical Dean’. I don’t know whether he is right but I did not set out to be radical; I merely tried to move the school in a direction that I felt it needed to go because of profound changes in the legal landscape that took place during my Deanship. Because of these changes, the school needed to have a more ‘global’ outlook, both in terms of its teaching and research while of course continuing to stay rooted in Singapore and the common law. The increasing complexity of issues that lawyers have to grapple with may also mean that lawyers need a broader inter-disciplinary foundation, and hence the move towards double degree programmes and Minors. More importantly, the school has started to infuse law modules with inter-disciplinary perspectives. Ensuring that legal education is properly contextualized is another way of better preparing law students for professional life. The Legal Writing and Skills programme together with the Legal Clinics module are therefore important curricular additions.

As Asia becomes more important, the law school that is the thought leader on legal issues in Asia will be one of the great law schools of the world. 

The modern law school also has to do more than engage in research that is of relevance to its home jurisdiction even as we acknowledge how important this is. What has been deeply satisfying is the research trajectory of my colleagues and the many exciting collaborative research projects that they are involved in, both with colleagues at NUS from other disciplines, as well as academics from other law schools. When the Centre for Asian Legal Studies is established formally in January 2012 upon the arrival of Professor Andrew Harding from the University of Victoria’s Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives, this will be an important milestone in the law school’s development as Asia’s Global Law School. The vision is a simple yet powerful one. As Asia becomes more important, the law school that is the thought leader on legal issues in Asia will be one of the great law schools of the world. Through the Centre for Asian Legal Studies, NUS Law will initiate, shape and influence debates on important legal issues that affect Asian economies just as the Centre for International Law is becoming an important Asian voice in International Law.

Prof Tan with alumni from the Class of 1989Encouraging students to take greater ownership of their law school experience is also an important learning tool. Students learn best when they are active participants in the learning process, and this should not be confined to the classroom; a ‘whole of school’ approach is important. Another source of great satisfaction for me was to see the creativity of the student community. New clubs under the Law Club such as the Pro Bono Club and Criminal Justice Club were established; the Singapore Law Review started a newsletter, Juris Illuminae; the Mooting and Debating Club established new mooting competitions; there is a vibrant sports culture at the law school, and many other enjoyable events and activities all of which are student-led. I particularly enjoy the Job Fair each year as it brings the profession to our campus and affords me the opportunity to catch up with old friends and former students.

Today’s law school also needs to establish additional revenue streams. The experience of other developed economies suggests that effective government funding of higher education will diminish over time. As a result of this, I felt it necessary for the law school to spend more time and resources on developmental work. Much of this work is directed at building the right platforms for alumni and other well-wishers to support the school. This is a long-term goal. Nevertheless, to my surprise between $30 - $40 million (inclusive of matching grants from government) has been raised over the last decade. This is modest by the standards of many North American law schools, but is an encouraging start in our context.

These and other developments at the law school have been made possible by the happy coincidence of many factors. A great deal of credit goes to my 2 predecessors whom I worked under. Dean Tan Lee Meng ’72 was instrumental in hiring a number of young local faculty who went on to become the core of the law school that his successor, Dean Chin Tet Yung, and I inherited. As a law school is largely determined by its faculty, Dean Tan’s contribution was invaluable. He also concluded the law school’s first student exchange agreement (which was a revolutionary idea in those days) and set the stage for our now very successful student exchange programme. Under Dean Chin’s leadership, the number of exchange agreements expanded rapidly and helped the school to become better known internationally. Dean Chin also made a number of strong hires and substantially increased the range of elective modules available at the school. The present state of the law school can be largely credited to their pioneering work.

My academic and administrative colleagues have been wonderful in their support and I have counted on them to offer contrarian views to keep me from grave error. I have also been fortunate to have in the decanal team strong minded Vice-Deans to ensure that we have robust internal debates. I owe a particular debt to my first Vice-Deans, Bob Beckman and Dora Neo, for putting in place our initial programme. My other Vice-Deans over the last ten and a half years were Teo Keang Sood, Victor Ramraj, Alan Tan ’93 and Goh Mia Yang ’92, followed by A Kumaralingam, Simon Chesterman and Stephen Girvin.

The support from you, our alumni, has also been fantastic. Many of you have opened your cheque books. More importantly, you have given your time to the law school, often in teaching but also with your advice and goodwill.

Prof Tan with alumni from the Class of 1961In this regard, the contributions of our advisory board under the chairmanship of Professor Tommy Koh ’61 have been invaluable. Professor Koh has been the chair of the board for as long as I have been Dean, and he has gone over and above the call of duty in service to his alma mater. From the bottom of my heart I thank all of you; and hope you will continue to show the same goodwill and support to Simon that you have extended to me.

Further change in the school is inevitable. It is unlikely that any institution will be perfect, or perfect for very long. This is the case with NUS Law. I have no doubt that under Simon’s leadership the law school will continue to change and evolve. This is to be welcomed and I look forward to observing the school’s developments from the sidelines.

It has been a privilege to have served as the 13th Dean of the NUS Faculty of Law. There have been many challenges and not a few difficulties. Still, it was very satisfying to play some part in the development of a great Singaporean institution.




Some years ago a colleague remarked to me that I have been a ‘radical Dean’.