It’s now the end of exam season, but prior to the final burst of revision my colleagues and I invited our students out to a re-imagined send off. The “Farewell Dinner” was attended by most of our graduating class, including strong representation from our LL.M. students also.
Held at the NUSS Guild House, our student hosts presented a series of tongue-in-cheek awards to their peers. Many also took the chance to grab a photo with their teachers and, in particular, Professor Tan Cheng Han whose term as Dean covered most of their time at NUS Law.
Last month we also celebrated the life of a remarkable Singaporean lawyer: Madam Kwa Geok Choo. A dinner in her honour was attended by dignitaries including the President and Prime Minister of Singapore, the leadership of NUS, and distinguished lawyers and supporters of NUS Law.
I had only met Mdm Kwa briefly, but her reputation preceded her. Brilliant and sharp-minded, she wore her intelligence lightly. She wasn’t the sort of person who had to show that she was the smartest person in the room. Though often she was.
Known by many primarily for her lifelong partnership with Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Mdm Kwa was a pioneer and a role model in her own right. She topped the Senior Cambridge Exam in her year for the whole of Malaya and Singapore, later earning a First Class Diploma in Arts from Raffles College, a predecessor institution of NUS. She read law at Cambridge on a Queen’s Scholarship, where she became the first Asian woman to graduate with first-class honours. She later started a law firm with Mr Lee and his brother, excelling as a conveyancing lawyer and mentoring many others in the process. A signal achievement was drafting the critical water agreements that guaranteed Singapore access to water from Johor after Separation.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with Principal Benefactors
In her honour, NUS Law established a series of initiatives reflecting different aspects of her life and legacy, which were launched at the dinner.
Among other things, Mdm Kwa stands for the idea that deserving students should not be limited in their achievements by financial circumstance. To that end, we established the Kwa Geok Choo Bursary for undergraduate students, and the Kwa Geok Choo Scholarship for graduate students.
Secondly, Mdm Kwa’s work in conveyancing and the importance of property law to Singapore’s development are recognised in the Kwa Geok Choo Professorship in Property Law. Its first appointee is Professor Kevin Gray, of Cambridge University — and it is particularly apt that the first chair comes from Cambridge, where Mdm Kwa obtained her own law degree.
Thirdly, Mdm Kwa’s commitment to Singapore being an outward looking country with a thriving legal discourse is reflected in the Kwa Geok Choo Distinguished Visitors Programme. We recently had our first such visitor, Gary Born — widely recognised as one of the few people who are at the top of the practice of international arbitration as well as being one of the leading scholars in the field.
NUS Law is lucky to have the support of government in offering a solid foundation for our activities. But to reach the very top tier of law schools in the world — and to ensure that in doing so we do not leave deserving students behind — we must seek additional support from the wider community. The dinner was an opportunity to honour that support and to recognize the lasting contribution and enduring legacy of Mdm Kwa Geok Choo.
One of the many strengths of NUS Law is the way in which we build on and leverage our position in Asia. This month sees two significant initiatives that reinforce that strength.
The first is the return of the ASLI Conference to NUS Law.
Deans and Representatives of our ASLI founding institutions
The Asian Law Institute (ASLI) was established at NUS Law in 2003 through the united effort of several leading law schools in Asia. Those schools and the partners who have since joined us represent a diverse intellectual community united by the desire to encourage interaction amongst legal scholars in Asia and those working on Asian law-related issues.
The acronym ASLI was chosen because it means “indigenous” or “original” in several Asian languages. This reflects the essence of the institution, which aims to be a truly home-grown Asian law institute in Asia.
ASLI’s main activities include a Fellowship programme and publications including the leading Asian Journal of Comparative Law and a working paper series. But the highlight of the year is the annual ASLI Conference, which provides an opportunity for scholars to meet, exchange views, and forge personal and professional networks that will advance legal studies in our region and beyond.
This year’s theme is “Law: An Asian Identity?” The question mark is appropriate, as the diversity of ASLI itself suggests that a single Asian identity would be an illusion. Yet the theme does highlight a key line of inquiry for many of us: whether and to what extent there are distinctive responses (linked to culture, politics, religion, history, and so on) to legal problems. You can find out more about the conference here.
The decision to launch the Centre is part of a strategy to position NUS Law as Asia’s Global Law School. The new Centre is the first of its kind to be established in Asia. It builds on NUS Law’s collaborations with other law schools around the region as part of ASLI.
Our goal is nothing less than moving the focus of Asian legal studies as a discipline from Europe and North America to Singapore.
In recent years, NUS Law has hired an outstanding group of younger scholars specializing on East, South, and South-East Asia. This new Centre offers the chance to capitalize on those developments and provide a critical mass for comparative work.
The Centre will also attract top students and researchers from around the world. But it is also likely to be of interest to practitioners, government, and the media for its expertise on country-specific and regional trends. A case in point is Myanmar/Burma, whose future will be significantly affected by the role played by law in its political and economic evolution.