Tan Boon Teik
by Chua, Alvin
Tan Boon Teik (b. 1929, Penang–d. 10 March 2012, Singapore) was the longest-serving attorney-general (1969–92) of independent Singapore.
Education and early career
Tan was educated at the Penang Free School and went on to study law at the University College London (UCL). He graduated with a law degree with honours in 1951 and was called to the bar in England as a barrister-at-law by Middle Temple the following year. Tan then received his master of laws degree from UCL in 1953, and returned to the Federation of Malaya to work as an advocate and solicitor.
In 1955, Tan joined the Singapore Legal Service and served as a magistrate and later deputy registrar of the High Court. He became the director of the Legal Aid Bureau in 19591 and a senior Crown counsel in 1963, with a term as a Rockefeller fellow at UCL between 1961 and 1962. Thereafter, Tan succeeded T. Kulasekaram as solicitor-general in September 1963. He also lectured part-time at the Faculty of Law in the University of Malaya in Singapore,2 and was a member of Singapore’s delegation to the 21st session of the UN General Assembly in New York in 1966, attending the Sixth Committee of International Law.
Outside of his legal career, Tan became a director of the Development Bank of Singapore (now known as DBS Bank) in 19683 and a member of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights in 1970.4
Career as attorney-general
When then Attorney-General (A-G) Ahmad Mohamed Ibrahim became Singapore’s envoy to the United Arab Republic (now Egypt), Tan served as acting A-G from February 1967 to December 1968. He took on the post permanently from 1 January 1969.5 As A-G, Tan filled the roles of the government’s chief legal adviser and public prosecutor, with the power to institute criminal proceedings.
Tan played a significant role in shaping Singapore’s legal environment in the formative post-independence period. Under his stewardship, the Attorney-General’s Chambers produced revised editions of Singapore’s legislation in 1970 and 1985,6 and the first reprint of the Singapore Constitution in 1980. He was part of the Singapore team at the talks to split Malaysia-Singapore Airlines in 1971, and helped to bring about the formation of the Singapore Academy of Law in the late 1980s. Tan also served as the first chairman of the Singapore International Arbitration Centre in 1991.7 He was involved in the drafting and amendments of a number of high-profile statutes, including the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act and revisions of the Internal Security Act and Legal Profession Act.
Tan was the government’s lead counsel in a number of noteworthy cases. In 1971, he acted for the government in Lee Mau Seng v. Minister for Home Affairs, a case that involved four executives of the Nanyang Siang Pau newspaper who had been detained under the Internal Security Act. Lee, who was the managing director of the newspaper, filed an application for the release of his colleagues and himself, which was dismissed by the High Court.8 The judgment was significant for holding, among other things, that preventive detention was the sole responsibility of the president acting in accordance with the advice of the cabinet.
Between 1972 and 1973, Tan successfully prosecuted senior executives of the Gemini Chit Fund Corporation and Stallion Corporation, whose collapse cost some 40,000 investors an estimated S$50 million. In 1974, Tan represented the Department of Radio and Broadcasting, which was named as co-defendant in a defamation suit that the Workers’ Party, led by Joshua Jeyaretnam, brought against a People’s Action Party member of parliament, Tay Boon Too.9 Jeyaretnam lost the case and legal costs were awarded against the Workers’ Party.10 The case was said to have ended the friendship between Jeyaretnam and Tan.11
In connection with Newsweek magazine’s reportage of the case, Tan cited Newsweek for contempt of court in November 1974. A writer and two others connected with the magazine were found guilty and fined.12 Tan also brought contempt of court proceedings and won judgments against Workers’ Party chairman Wong Hong Toy in 1983 and the Asian Wall Street Journal in 198513 and 1991.14
In 1986, Jeyaretnam made a number of allegations concerning Tan and the judiciary in parliament. These included the allegations that the government interfered with transfers within the judiciary and its duties, that the A-G and then Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin were both “beholden” to the prime minister and that Tan had been groomed for high office by the government.15 In June 1986, Tan testified before the commission of inquiry on the judiciary that he had not encountered government interference in his work.16 The commission ruled that Jeyaretnam’s allegations were unfounded.17 Tan also appeared before the parliamentary Committee of Privileges in September where he was questioned by Jeyaretnam. The committee found Jeyaretnam guilty of abusing his parliamentary privilege and fined him.18
Tan retired as A-G in April 1992 and was succeeded by Chan Sek Keong,19 a Supreme Court judge. Tan had stayed on in the post with two extensions of service after he reached the retirement age of 55, due to the difficulty in finding a suitable replacement.20
Corporate, diplomatic and cultural roles
During his stint as A-G, Tan held corporate posts as chairman of the Singapore Petroleum Company (1971–99) 21 and the Insurance Corporation of Singapore (1990–94),22 and was a director at the Development Bank of Singapore (1968–81).23 In 1992, he was appointed as the director of United Industrial Corporation and Singapore Land,24 and the following year became the chairman of Morgan Grenfell Asia Holdings.25 Tan was appointed as a roving ambassador to Hungary and Austria in 1992, and from 1994 was concurrently roving ambassador to the Slovak Republic.26
An amateur pianist and art collector, Tan was instrumental in the formation of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) in 1979, together with then Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee and physics professor Bernard Tan.27 He became the SSO’s founding chairman and held the post until 1999. Tan performed in public a number of times, including at a fundraiser in 1983 that helped raise S$1.3 million for the SSO.28
In 1978, Tan was conferred the Darjah Utama Bakti Cemerlang (Distinguished Service Order). The citation for the award noted that he had “steadfastly shunned the rewards of private practice” in favour of public service.29 For his work as co-chairman of the France-Singapore Business Council, Tan received the rank of “officer” in the Ordre National de la Légion d’honneur (French National Order of the Legion of Honour), France’s highest decoration for a non-head of state.30
From 1997, Tan suffered from Parkinson’s disease. On 10 March 2012, he passed away sustaining internal bleeding from a fall.31 After his death, A-G (now chief justice) Sundaresh Menon said that Tan was “a dominant figure in the Singapore legal landscape… [who] presided over Chambers for 25 years and left an enormous mark on the professionalism and commitment of our officers”.
Wife: Tan Sook Yee (dean of the Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore, 1980-87)
Daughter: Tan Sui Lin
Son: Pip Tan Seng Hin
1. New chief for legal aid bureau. (1959, October 3). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Tan Boon Teik now solicitor general. (1963, September 1). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Development Bank of Singapore (prospectus). (1968, November 13). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Watchdog council keeps room for new govt. (1970, May 3). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Boon Teik appointed attorney-general. (1969, January 3). The Straits Times, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. President, A-G sign revised edition of laws. (1987, March 20). The Straits Times, p. 21. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. International arbitration centre set up in S’pore. (1991, July 6). The Straits Times, p. 40. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Hwang, T. F. (1971, July 14). Nanyang plea fails. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Hwang, T. F. (1974, October 23). A-G: Nothing defamatory about party. The Straits Times, p. 9; Hwang, T. F. (1974, November 2). Judge: WP has not proved the words used. The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Davidson, B. (1983, February 5). WP chairman fined. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. CJ said I was better man for solicitor-general’s job: Jeya. (1986, September 11). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Hwang, T. F. (1974, December 1). $1,500 fine for writer. The Sunday Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. A-G sues Journal for contempt of court. (1985, November 7). The Straits Times, p. 1; Judge rejects challenge to govt by AWSJ. (1988, May 17). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. High Court finds AWSJ guilty of contempt. (1991, January 12). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Ahmad Osman, Jacob, P., & Kwan, W. K. (1987, January 23). Panel finds no truth in Jeya’s allegations. The Straits Times, p. 12; 95 minutes – but Jeya doesn’t put vital issues to A-G. (1986, September 11). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. I was never asked to interfere: A-G. (1986, June 5). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Judiciary inquiry finds no interference by govt. (1986, July 20). The Sunday Times, p. 1; No basis in charge that A-G was groomed for high office. (1987, January 23). The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Jeya ‘used privilege to tarnish CJ’s image’. (1986, September 10). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Tan, S. (1992, April 24). Boon Teik to retire as AG. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Chan Sek Keong to take over. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. AG glad to retire but will miss pressures of work. (1992, April 24). The Straits Times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Chairman is also the Republic’s attorney-general. (1972, May 23). The Straits Times, p. 3; SPC's chairman Tan Boon Teik retires. (1999, August 14). The Business Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. New chairman for ICS. (1990, June 2). The Business Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. New DBS directors. (1981, October 17). The Straits Times, p. 19. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Former A-G appointed UIC, Singland director. (1992, July 25). The Business Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Ex-AG is new chief. (1993, November 10). The New Paper, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Tan Boon Teik named roving ambassador to the Slovak Republic. (1994, May 25). The Straits Times, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. AG glad to retire but will miss pressures of work. (1992, April 24). The Straits Times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. A-G plays for a good cause. (1983, April 13). The Straits Times, p. 6; No money? I’ll play piano. (1999, October 27). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. A-G heads line-up at investiture (1978, December 9). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. Top French award for co-chairman of business council (1998, June 10). The Straits Times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31. Phua, M. P. (2012, March 13). Mr Lee writes to former AG’s wife: I held him in high esteem. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Teo, X. W. (2012, March 12). Former A-G Tan Boon Teik dies aged 83. Today. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/; Vijayan, K. C. (2012, March 12). Long-serving ex-AG Tan Boon Teik dies, aged 83. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
A-G cleared of any wrong-doing. (1988, January 28). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
A-G heads Asia-Africa group. (1988, March 15). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
A-G to cite AWSJ for contempt of court over PM’s libel suit. (1989, December 21). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Chew, M. (1996). Leaders of Singapore. Singapore: Resource Press, pp. 193–196.
(Call no.: RSING 920.05957 CHE)
John, A. (1986, October 10). Tougher laws if necessary: PM. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Judgment of Privy Council flawed, some issues not fully argued, says A-G. (1989, May 8). The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Minister’s action not subject to judicial review. (1989, June 2). The Straits Times, p. 22. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
When courts will review govt decisions: A-G. (1987, December 5). The Straits Times, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
The information in this article is valid as at 2015 and correct as far as we can 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.