It’s been a very eventful year for Professor Yeo Tiong Min SC ’90 so far – 2012 began with his appointment to Senior Counsel, and less than a month later it was announced that he was to be the new Dean of Singapore Management University (SMU)’s School of Law. He speaks to Adeline Ang ’96 about what comes next.
LawLink: Congratulations on being appointed Singapore's first Honorary Senior Counsel this year, just before being appointed new Dean of SMU Law School!
Professor Yeo Tiong Min SC: Thank you. I am still reeling from shock.
LL: How do you feel about receiving both these major appointments in such quick succession?
YTM: Honestly, I felt deeply honoured by both. Over the years, Singapore courts have increasingly been receptive to academic contributions, and my appointment as Honorary Senior Counsel demonstrates the commitment of the judiciary to continue to engage with the academia. I feel a profound satisfaction that my work can make a positive contribution to the development of the law.
Being appointed Senior Counsel, however, is not like getting an award that you can display on your shelf and forget about. It comes with certain responsibilities, like contributing to the development of the legal system, mentoring younger ones and setting an example.
My separate appointment by SMU to be the next Dean of the Law School came coincidentally at about the same time, and I felt very honoured to be asked to lead the young Law School in the next phase of its development.
LL: How do you think your tour of duty as Dean will be different from that of your predecessor, Professor Michael Furmston?
YTM: Prof Furmston’s priority as the first Dean was to build up the foundations of a good law school, and he has done so admirably. As the School is still very young, there is still much foundational work that needs to be continued. The curriculum is just one example. At the same time, we do have to start thinking about the next phase of development, particularly in terms of improving the reputation of SMU Law School regionally and globally, and enhancing the engagement of SMU Law School with the legal and wider community, and building up post-graduate and continuing legal education programmes.
LL: With the changes that you have in mind for the curriculum review at SMU, how different will future SMU Law graduates be from future NUS Law graduates?
YTM: We are comparing moving targets since it appears that NUS Law Faculty is undertaking its own curriculum review. My own concern is that our graduates should be equipped (within the constraints of a university context) to deal with increasing complexities in the workplace. This includes the hard doctrinal law and the skills of legal analysis that comes with it, certain practical skills like negotiation and advocacy and presentations to clients, as well as softer skills of teamwork and collaboration. And, of course, a social conscience – which is a hallmark of SMU.
LL: What would you say to NUS Law students or alumni who view SMU Law School as the "enemy"; or who view the two law schools as rivals?
YTM: I think some degree of rivalry is inevitable; competition has been part of the landscape once it was decided that there was to be a second law school.
I think friendly rivalry can be a constructive force. On the other hand, enmity is just baseless and useless. At the core the two law schools have common missions after all, and there is potential for mutually beneficial co-operation and collaboration.
LL: What are your most memorable experiences from your time in NUS, both as a law student as well as an academic for 17 years?
YTM: My most memorable experiences as a law student in NUS were: on the one hand, being taught by a number of wonderful teachers – for example, now-Judge of Appeal Andrew Phang ’82 and Professor Tan Yock Lin – who inspired my love for the law; and on the other, the great fun I had with my friends in study groups, school activities, and of course the parties.
My most memorable moments as an academic in NUS included teaching some very bright students a few of whom subsequently became my colleagues.
LL: What activities did you participate in during your Law School days?
YTM: Fairly tame stuff like Singapore Law Review, Law Camp, concerts, and various class committees.
LL: And would you care to tell us more about the parties you had as a student?
YTM: I shall leave that to your imagination.
LL: How do you think your own Law School experiences (as a student and an academic) will inform how you approach your Deanship?
YTM: I think that managing a law school is a quite a different job from being an academic. In the twenty years I spent with NUS, I had seen dramatic changes to the respective environments for law students and law academics. However, I think one constant is that the foundation of a good law school lies in a strong body of academics dedicated to teaching, research, and service.
LL: What advice would you give law students today?
YTM: The legal landscape in Singapore has been changing quickly, and is set to change even more in the coming years. This is due to economic forces drifting towards Asia as well as a strong impetus from the Singapore government to grow the legal sector. It will be a challenging but exciting time ahead for future lawyers.
A solid grounding in legal knowledge and analysis remains the essential requirement for a lawyer. Not everything can be learnt in school and in any event laws change all the time, so the most important skill to pick up after four years of study is the legal methodology that will enable them to find, analyse and synthesize legal resources.
Nowadays lawyers also need to be versatile and adaptable to rapidly changing environments. Law students should work towards understanding the commercial, social and economic contexts in which lawyers work, whether local, regional or global.
There are also important life skills like teamwork and time management, and values of course, many of which cannot really be directly taught; they have to be learnt through the various academic and extra-curricular opportunities provided in their universities.
Law school provides the base of professional training, but university life should be a time for the students not only to ponder what careers they want to pursue, but also to reflect on what kind of persons they want to become.
In short, I think law students should really maximise their time in the university, and use the opportunities available to develop their character as well as life skills.
LL: In your view, how can lawyers, legal counsel and other law alumni help the two law schools to develop the legal profession?
YTM: They are doing quite a lot already, in terms of monetary contributions to sponsor prizes, scholarships, bursaries and various activities and events, contributions to moot and advocacy coaching, and the provision of opportunities for internships, for law students. They have also been involved in giving talks to our students not just to inject a sense of realism into the academic subjects, but also to inform them about the practical realities of different types of legal careers.
I think there is scope for more interaction between the profession/alumni and law students and even faculty, to give the law schools a better appreciation of the changing landscape that the legal profession is facing, so that the law schools can respond better to such changes.