Chan Sek Keong



Chan Sek Keong (b. 6 November 1937, Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia–)1 is a trained lawyer who has held several key appointments in Singapore’s judiciary and civil service. He has served variously as independent Singapore’s first Judicial Commissioner, third Attorney-General and third Chief Justice, among other public appointments.

Early life and education
Chan Sek Keong was born in Ipoh, Malaya (now Malaysia), in 1937 to a bank clerk. He was one of five children. During the Japanese Occupation of Malaya (1941–1945), Chan and his siblings lived with their paternal grandfather in Taiping. They returned to live in Ipoh following the end of the occupation.2


Chan’s father enrolled him in Ipoh’s Anderson School in 1946.3 He was the top performing Malaya student in the 1955 Senior Cambridge School Certificate Examinations, scoring eight distinctions.4 Chan had originally wanted to study economics but was persuaded by his literature teacher at Anderson, Alan Etherton, to take up law. Chan succeeded in gaining entry into the law programme of the University of Malaya (Singapore division) following an interview with Professor Lionel Astor Sheridan of the university’s law department.5

In 1961, Chan graduated from the University of Malaya with a Bachelor of Law (Class Two, Upper Division) degree.6 He was among the first batch of 22 locally trained law graduates.7

Early career
After graduation, Chan did his pupillage under Peter Mooney at the law firm Bannon & Bailey in Kuala Lumpur.8 In 1962, Chan became the first Singapore-educated law graduate to be admitted to the Federal Bar of Malaya, but only after his application for admission was heard in court.9


The law then did not allow locally trained law graduates to be admitted to the bar. The Federal Bar opposed Chan’s and two other applications for admission on the legal grounds that they were required to study in chambers for a period of time before being allowed to practice the law. Chan challenged the ruling by pointing out that the government had delayed the passing of the Advocates and Solicitors Act. This meant that his degree was not officially recognised until after the Act was passed on 21 September 1961 even though he had graduated in January that year. Chan argued that the period of notice should be shortened on this special ground. The court ruled in Chan’s favour and he was admitted to the Federal Bar in 1962.10

In 1963, Chan joined the Singapore-based law firm Braddell Brothers.11 Between 1963 and 1970, Chan also lectured part-time at the Law Faculty of the University of Singapore (previously the Singapore division of the University of Malaya).12 In his early years as a lawyer, Chan dealt with both civil and criminal cases.13 In 1969, Chan joined the law firm Shook Lin and Bok.14 He became its managing partner in 1983, but left the firm in 1986 when he was appointed Judicial Commissioner.15

Judicial Commissioner (1986–1988)
Chan was appointed Singapore’s first Judicial Commissioner (JC) in 1986 for a term of two years. A JC is vested with the same powers and functions as a Supreme Court Judge16 and is usually appointed when there is a contingency, for example, to deal with a backlog of cases at the Supreme Court.17


In 1987, Chan was appointed by the government to head the Commission of Inquiry into the Teh Cheang Wan affair.18 Teh, who was the Minister for National Development at that time, was investigated by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) for accepting S$800,000 in bribes. Teh committed suicide in December 1986 before he was charged for the offences.19 The commission was established to look into several issues pertaining to the affair, including the effectiveness of the CPIB in the investigation.

Judge of the Supreme Court (1988–2002)
In 1988, Chan was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court.20 During his time on the bench, Chan heard various high-profile cases, including one that saw the release of four Internal Security Act detainees who had been arrested in connection with the 1987 Marxist conspiracy.21 He also presided over the case of the Alkaff descendents who wanted a redistribution of the multimillion-dollar family fortune.22


Attorney-General (1992–2006)
Chan was appointed Attorney-General (AG) in 1992 for a two-year term following the retirement of AG Tan Boon Teik.23 He was reappointed for a three-year term in 1994.24 He eventually served 14 years in this position.

As AG, Chan chaired a high-level committee that recommended capping the number of law graduates and practising lawyers in Singapore in order to raise the standards of the legal profession.25 He also initiated the streamlining of court procedures for civil cases in a bid to shorten trial times.26


During Chan’s tenure as AG, several high profile legal cases with international implications were heard. These included the trials of American teen Michael Fay for vandalism, Filipino maid Flor Contemplacion for murder, American academic Christopher Lingle for contempt of court, and businessman Rajan Pillai for fraud. Chan took the Law Society to task for not defending Singapore’s legal system, which had been criticised by the foreign media for its handling of these cases.27 He also reminded lawyers to be careful about what comments they made to the foreign press regarding Singapore’s legal system.28

Chan appeared in court twice in his role as AG to argue for two separate cases involving the Official Secrets Act. One of the cases involved current Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who was then an economist with the Monetary Authority of Singapore. The case involved the disclosure of flash estimates to the press days before it was officially announced.29

Chief Justice (2006–2012)
In 2006, Chan was appointed Chief Justice (CJ) of Singapore for a three-year term following the retirement of CJ Yong Pung How.30 He was reappointed as CJ in 2009.31


During his time as CJ, Chan introduced several initiatives to improve the processes of administering justice. In the same month that he was appointed CJ, Chan established the Community Court. This was a specialist court that heard cases related to social issues such as attempted suicides, underage sex, young offenders and offenders with mental deficiencies. The Community Court allowed for more sentencing options such as counselling and probation instead of jail time.32

Chan also initiated the Specialist Judge scheme in 2006, where leading members of the legal fraternity were called to preside over cases in their areas of expertise in the Subordinate Courts.33 In 2007, Chan launched the Bail Court to deal with cases related to the bail process while the accused waited for their cases to be heard.34

Chan retired as CJ on 6 November 2012, which coincided with his 75th birthday. He was succeeded as CJ by Sundaresh Menon.35

Other appointments and awards
Chan has also sat on various panels and committees over the years. He was a member of the Law Revision and Reform Committee set up in 1989 to update and modernise Singapore’s laws.36 In 1992, he was appointed a member of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights.37 In 2006, Chan became chairman of the council. He was reappointed to the chairmanship in 2012 for three years.38 From 1992 to 2002, he was also on the board of the Monetary Authority of Singapore.39 Chan was a member of the Military Court of Appeal between 1971 and 1986. Between 1992 and 2002, Chan served as the Judge Advocate-General.40


In 2008, Chan was awarded the Order of Temasek (Second Class) for his work as CJ, AG and his contributions to the Pedra Branca case.41 That same year, Chan became the first Singaporean to be made an honorary senior member of England’s Society of Lincoln’s Inn, one of the four Inns of Court in London.42

In 2009, Chan received the International Jurist Award in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the administration of justice. Chan was the first Asian to receive the award, which was presented to him by the International Council of Jurists.43 He was made an honorary member of the Singapore Law Society in 2012.44

On 1 October 2013, Chan joined the Law Faculty of the National University of Singapore as its first Distinguished Fellow for a period of three years. In this honorary appointment, Chan would pursue research and writing projects as well as share his legal experience with law students.45 On 1 November 2013, Chan became only the sixth person to be awarded the title of Honorary Member for Life and Fellow for Life by the Singapore Academy of Law.46

Family
Wife:
Elizabeth Eber47

Children: 3 daughters48

Career timeline
1961:
Graduated from the University of Malaya (Singapore division) with a law degree; served pupillage at the law firm Bannon & Bailey in Kuala Lumpur.
1962: Admitted to the Federal Bar of Malaya.
1963:
Joined Singapore law firm Braddell Brothers.
1967:
Appointed to the Board of Legal Education.49

1969: Joined law firm Shook Lin and Bok.
1986: Appointed as Singapore’s first Judicial Commissioner.
1988: Appointed as Supreme Court Judge.
1992:
Appointed as Attorney-General; made a member of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights.
2003: Led the Singapore legal team in the case over Pedra Branca.
2006: Appointed Chief Justice; made chairman of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights.
2008: First Singaporean to be made an honorary senior member of the Society of Lincoln’s Inn, England; awarded Order of Temasek (2nd Class).
2009: Reappointed Chief Justice; first Asian jurist to receive the International Jurist Award.
2012: Reappointed as chairman of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights; retired as Chief Justice; made honorary member of Law Society.50
2013: Appointed National University of Singapore Law Faculty’s first Distinguished Fellow for a period of three years; became sixth person to be awarded title of Honorary Member for Life and Fellow for Life by the Singapore Academy of Law.



Author

Jaime Koh



References
1. In conversation: An interview with the Honourable Attorney-General, Mr Chan Sek Keong. In Chao, H. T., et al. (Eds.). (2012). The law in his hands: A tribute to Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong. Singapore: Academy Publishing, p. 13. (Call no.: RSING 347.595703534 LAW); Vijayan, K. C. (2012, November 5). Leaving behind a stronger legacy. The Straits Times, p. 23. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. In conversation: An interview with the Honourable Attorney-General, Mr Chan Sek Keong. In Chao, H. T., et al. (Eds.). (2012). The law in his hands: A tribute to Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong. Singapore: Academy Publishing, pp. 13–14. (Call no.: RSING 347.595703534 LAW)
3. Memories of Anderson School 1946–1957. In Chao, H. T., et al. (Eds.). (2012). The law in his hands: A tribute to Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong. Singapore: Academy Publishing, p. 33. (Call no.: RSING 347.595703534 LAW)
4. Yeo, T. M. and Hor, M. An extraordinary life. In Chao, H. T., et al. (Eds.). (2012). The law in his hands: A tribute to Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong. Singapore: Academy Publishing, p. 6. (Call no.: RSING 347.595703534 LAW)
5. In conversation: An interview with the Honourable Attorney-General, Mr Chan Sek Keong. In Chao, H. T., et al. (Eds.). (2012). The law in his hands: A tribute to Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong. Singapore: Academy Publishing, pp.14–16. (Call no.: RSING 347.595703534 LAW)
6. Final law exam: Pass list. (1961, January 12). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Teh, J. L. (2011, January 23). S’pore’s 1st law class 50 years on. The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. In conversation: An interview with the Honourable Attorney-General, Mr Chan Sek Keong. In Chao, H. T., et al. (Eds.). (2012). The law in his hands: A tribute to Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong. Singapore: Academy Publishing, p. 19. (Call no.: RSING 347.595703534 LAW)
9. Our tribute to AG. In Chao, H. T., et al. (Eds.). (2012). The law in his hands: A tribute to Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong. Singapore: Academy Publishing, pp. 44–45. (Call no.: RSING 347.595703534 LAW)
10. Judge overrules Bar Council, admits three law graduates. (1962, February 1). The Straits Times, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Our tribute to AG. In Chao, H. T., et al. (Eds.). (2012). The law in his hands: A tribute to Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong. Singapore: Academy Publishing, p. 45. (Call no.: RSING 347.595703534 LAW)
11. In conversation: An interview with the Honourable Attorney-General, Mr Chan Sek Keong. In Chao, H. T., et al. (Eds.). (2012). The law in his hands: A tribute to Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong. Singapore: Academy Publishing, p. 19. (Call no.: RSING 347.595703534 LAW)
12. Ngoo, I. (1986, May 31). Singapore’s first Judicial Commissioner appointed. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. In conversation: An interview with the Honourable Attorney-General, Mr Chan Sek Keong. In Chao, H. T., et al. (Eds.). (2012). The law in his hands: A tribute to Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong. Singapore: Academy Publishing, p. 19. (Call no.: RSING 347.595703534 LAW)
14. Singapore’s first Judicial Commissioner appointed. (1986, May 31). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Vijayan, K. C. (2008, October 13). Oldest home-grown law firm turns 90. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Singapore’s first Judicial Commissioner appointed. (1986, May 31). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Hwang, T. F. (1986, June 12). The role of Singapore’s Judicial Commissioner. The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Teh inquiry panel sets up. (1987, March 27). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Teh affair: Hearings to begin on May 25. (1987, May 15). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. S. K. Chan made Supreme Court judge. (1988, June 30). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. ISA detainees re-arrested after release on technicality. (1988, December 9). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Alkaff family takes row to court. (1989, March 31). The Straits Times, p. 22. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Tan, S. (1992, April 24). Boon Teik to retire as AG; Chan Sek Keong to take over. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. A-G Chan reappointed. (1994, May 7). The Straits Times, p. 29. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Henson, B. (1993, April 22). Moves to cap number of law graduates. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Pereira, B. (1994, January 11). Streamlining court procedures will speed up civil cases: AG. The Straits Times, p. 25. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Lim, L. H. (1995, November 18). Law Society failed to defend legal system: A-G. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. A-G: Watch what you say to foreign press. (1995, November 18). The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. Lum, S. (2008, July 28). Former A-G argued two cases involving Official Secrets Act. The Straits Times, p. 26; Raj, C. (1992, December 10). Four charged with violating Official Secrets Act. The Business Times, p. 1; Fernandez, W. (1993, October 22). AG: Why govt must be able to keep sensitive info secret. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. Lawyers welcome Chan Sek Keong’s appointment as new CJ. (2006, April 1). Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved from Factiva 
via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
31. CJ Chan re-appointed. (2009, April 14). The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
32. Fong, T. (2006, May 19). Community court set up to tackle changing social trends. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
33. Wee, L. (2006, June 30). New pilot scheme unveiled for Specialist Judges. The Business Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
34. Quek, C. (2008, September 8). Faster and fairer bail process. The Straits Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
35. Vijayan, K. C. (2012, November 5). Leaving behind a stronger legacy. The Straits Times, p. 23. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
36. Cheng, S. T. (1989, July 31). S’pore starts law reform exercise. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
37. A-G sits on minority rights panel. (1992, November 4). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
38. CJ Chan re-appointed as Chairman of Presidential Council for Minority Rights. (2012, April 11). Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
39. Solicitor-General joins MAS board. (2002, January 3). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
40. Our tribute to AG. In Chao, H. T., et al. (Eds.). (2012). The law in his hands: A tribute to Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong. Singapore: Academy Publishing, p. 51. (Call no.: RSING 347.595703534 LAW)
41. Pedra Branca team recognised for service to Singapore. (2008, August 9). Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
42. CJ Chan re-appointed. (2009, April 14). The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
43. CJ Chan Sek Keong receives top jurist award. (2009, November 26). The Straits Times, p. 57. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
44. Poh, I. (2012, November 10). Ex-CJ Chan honorary member of Law Society. The Straits Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
45. Shiao, V. (2013, October 2). Ex-CJ is first NUS Law distinguished fellow. The Business Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/ 
46. Poh, I. (2013, November 2). Former CJ Chan honoured by S'pore Academy of Law. The Straits Times, p. 18.  Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
47. Citation for Honorary Member of the Law Society – Mr Chan Sek Keong. (2012, December). Law Gazette, p. 10. Retrieved from http://www.lawsociety.org.sg/portals/0/ResourceCentre/eshop/pdf/SLG-December2012.pdf
48. Tan, S. (1992, April 24). Boon Teik to retire as AG; Chan Sek Keong to take over. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
49. Legal education board members. (1967, April 9). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
50. Poh, I. (2012, November 10). Ex-CJ Chan honorary member of Law Society. The Straits Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



Further resources
Jayakumar, S., & Koh, T. (2009). Pedra Branca: The road to the world court. Singapore: NUS Press in association with the MFA Diplomatic Academy, Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
(Call no.: RSING 341.448095957 JAY)

Minister for Law: Tribute to retired Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong by Minister for Law, Mr K Shanmugam, in Parliament. (2012, November 14). Singapore Government News. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/ 



The information in this article is valid as at 5 November 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Personalities
Biographies
Politics and Government