Attorney-General Steven Chong ’82 assumed office as the seventh Attorney-General of Singapore on 25 June 2012. He speaks to Victor Katheyas ’13 about encouraging young lawyers, and maintaining passion and professionalism in the law. (Photos by Kelvin Ma ’03, Mofyphotos)
LawLink: What’s been keeping you busy lately?
Attorney-General (AG): (Laughing) Are you seriously asking me that question? Haven’t you been reading the papers?
LawLink: There’s a lot going on right now at the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC). What are your more pressing commitments?
AG: When I decided to do this job, I had a couple of priorities.
First, I was sensitive to the fact that we’ve had a number of AGs over the last few years. So I wanted to ensure that there would be stability and consistency. So I spent some time understanding the changes introduced by my predecessor AG Sundaresh Menon ’86 – who was my partner at Rajan & Tann for many years– I wanted to ensure that I understood the thinking behind his policies and could carry through those policies. And that was my way of demonstrating to my officers that this would be a fairly seamless change.
Second, I wanted to know the nature of the work; because this is like a big law firm. But it is unique in the sense that unlike private practice which is profit driven, here, I don’t have to look for the next brief and I have no billing targets to meet. However in discharging my duties, I must bear in mind the social impact of my decision, about public perception of the office.
Public confidence in the judiciary and in the prosecution arm is critical to our society. One of my big challenges, moving forward, is to strike a balance in deciding when and how to engage the social media. I have done it in the last month because I felt it was necessary. But it is not always possible for this office to respond to every criticism, every comment.
The third is to examine what refinements can be introduced in the working relationship between AGC and the enforcement agencies to maintain a fair, efficient and effective criminal justice system. I have initiated a couple of projects since I came on board. My senior officers are working through the details for implementation.
And you must have realised that since I’ve come on board there’s been a lot of high-profile prosecutions. So my own case theory is that perhaps my predecessor thought that I’d be bored so he decided to keep all the interesting cases for me to manage. (Laughs) For sure there is never a dull moment in AGC!
A History-Making Class
LawLink: You were part of the Class of 1982. This is a class that Professor Robert C Beckman remembers very fondly. ( Editor: see Professor Beckman’s interview in the May 2012 issue of LawLink. )This class has produced Judges of Appeal, Attorneys-General, Senior Counsel, Deans, professors andmanaging partners. What was it like to be part of that class?
AG: First, it was a very small class – no more than 80 of us. Because it was a small cohort, we knew each other quite well. So, if you ask me did we think we were special (laughing), I can say yes? (Laughs harder)
I think if you had asked me, when we were in Law School, that in thirty years’ time two of my classmates would be in the Court of Appeal, that I would be the Attorney-General, that Davinder (Singh SC’82) would be the Managing Partner of Drew & Napier, I probably wouldn’t have thought that would happen!
But did I think that we would produce some great lawyers? I would say, “yes”. I think it was a very special class. Several of my classmates became my colleagues. Davinder was my partner for 15 years at Drew & Napier. Jimmy (Yim ’82) was my partner for close to 10 years. Leena Pinsler ’82 was my partner for 15 years in Drew and thereafter at Rajah & Tann. VK (Justice V K Rajah ’82) was my partner in Rajah & Tann for six years before he went to the Bench. Justice Phang and Justice Rajah were my fellow judges on the Bench. So I was very fortunate to have worked with a number of my classmates. In my new office as the AG, I work with government agencies like the Singapore Land Authority - Chief Executive Vincent Hoong ’82 was my classmate. Head of Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority,Juthika Ramanathan ’82, was also my classmate.
So what is really special is that throughout my entire career I’ve always worked with my classmates.
His Short-Lived Football Career
LawLink: What do you remember best of your Law School days?
AG: Nothing to do with law. Football!
Because our class was very small, we didn’t have that many sportsmen. So our soccer team was our squash team, tennis team and our captain’s ballteam. In short, our all-purpose sports team.
When we were in final year, we got to the finals of inter-year soccer competition. In the finals we played the first year team and, if my memor yserves me right, more than half that team represented the faculty and a number of them played for the university. I “volunteered” to play goalie, even though I was more comfortable playing as a left-winger. (Laughs)
The whole game was in our half, because they were attacking us throughout the match. We had one shot where the ball crossed the other half,and Peter Ng ’82 scored the only goal of the match. Through that miracle, we became unexpected and some would say undeserving champions of the inter-year soccer. (Laughs) That was quite a coup.
LawLink: Who else was in that team?
AG: VK; Davinder; Low Kee Yang ’82, who was Acting Dean of Singapore Management University Law School; Tan Peng Chin ’82, who’s Managing Partner of his own firm; Cheong Gay Eng ’82, Raymond Gwee ’82, Vincent Hoong ’82, Koh Boon Hai ’82, Louis D’Souza ’82, Koh Juay Kherng ’82 …
All-Star Jessup Team
AG:I suppose the most significant event, which defined my time in NUS, was my participation in the Jessup Moots. It was an incredible experience. Other Jessup mooters from my class eventually became my partners – Davinder, Jimmy and VK. I am the only member of the team who can say, “I was a partner with all three of them” (not at the same time).
LawLink: So between football and the Jessups, if you had to choose…
AG: The Jessups, definitely! Fantastic experience. Our win in football was a fluke!
By the time we finished the preliminary rounds at the Jessups, we had run out of money!
We were fortunate: one of our former Law School lecturers, Ralph Tyler III (who taught us evidence) had returned to practice in Washington DC - we slept in his living room in the advanced stages of the competition because we couldn’t afford a hotel. That was because in those days, funding was limited to only 2 students. After our win, we wrote a paper to convince the faculty to send 4 members to have any decent chance to do well in the competition. It was accepted. Subsequent teams benefitted from our recommendation.
We were there to have a good time! We were watching movies, enjoying ourselves … we hardly spent anytime sparring with each other. By then, we were either ready or not.
We didn’t have a coach with us at the competition unlike many of the other teams. While preparing in Singapore, Prof Beckman advised us closely. We did many, many drafts, and we barely made the submission deadline, because the critical period leading to the deadline was also our exam period. Iremembered when we finished our last exam paper, we camped in Beckman’s house overnight to finalise the submissions.
Our Respondent’s memorial won the Richard Baxter prize for the best overall memorial. In the printing, we actually missed out part of a sentence. So when we reviewed it, we realised that the sentence ended abruptly … But we still won! (Laughs) Best memorial of the entire competition! (Laughs harder)
I think it showed that with preparation, with passion and focus and teamwork, Singapore students and Singapore lawyers can compete at the highest level.
And I think that was very good for Singapore Incorporated, very good for NUS Law School, very good for the Singapore Bar. The NUS Jessup programme groomed a whole generation of litigators, many of whom have since become Senior Counsel.
One of the challenges of the present generation of young lawyers is their lack of air time in court. In my time, we were provided with ample opportunities to cut our teeth in court. I did my first trial in my first year. I argued my first appeal in the Court of Appeal in my first year. It’s unheard of these days.