Ex-staff used to call former chief justice Yong Pung How 'Papa'

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon arriving at the wake with his wife. He described Mr Yong as having "a wonderful heart for the people who worked with him". Ms Phyllis See (centre, in white), speaking to reporters at the wake yesterday. Ms See, 71, was s
President Halimah Yacob, flanked by Mrs Mildred Tan (left), who is an alternate member of the Council of Presidential Advisers, and Ms Jennie Chua, Community Chest adviser, leaving after attending the wake of former chief justice Yong Pung How yesterday. Former senior minister S. Jayakumar can be seen in the background talking to Mr Yong's wife, Madam Cheang Wei Woo.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon arriving at the wake with his wife. He described Mr Yong as having "a wonderful heart for the people who worked with him". Ms Phyllis See (centre, in white), speaking to reporters at the wake yesterday. Ms See, 71, was s
Ms Phyllis See (centre, in white), speaking to reporters at the wake yesterday. Ms See, 71, was secretary to Mr Yong for 35 years, and recalled him as a strict boss who was very kind to his staff. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon arriving at the wake with his wife. He described Mr Yong as having "a wonderful heart for the people who worked with him". Ms Phyllis See (centre, in white), speaking to reporters at the wake yesterday. Ms See, 71, was s
Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam and his wife Jane Ittogi at the wake. He recalled Mr Yong's remarkable ability to remember details about people he met.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon arriving at the wake with his wife. He described Mr Yong as having "a wonderful heart for the people who worked with him". Ms Phyllis See (centre, in white), speaking to reporters at the wake yesterday. Ms See, 71, was s
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon arriving at the wake with his wife. He described Mr Yong as having "a wonderful heart for the people who worked with him". ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon arriving at the wake with his wife. He described Mr Yong as having "a wonderful heart for the people who worked with him". Ms Phyllis See (centre, in white), speaking to reporters at the wake yesterday. Ms See, 71, was s
Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said that the country had "lost a great Singaporean" with Mr Yong's death.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

They recall former chief justice's warm, personal touch, dedication to legal service

For 35 years, Ms Phyllis See was secretary to former chief justice Yong Pung How, having followed him from his days in merchant banking until he retired as Singapore's top judge.

Yesterday, the 71-year-old was among scores of people who paid their respects at the wake for Mr Yong, who died on Thursday at the age of 93.

"In the court, they find that he was very strict because he was trying to hurry them over the backlog, but actually he was very nice, he was very kind to the staff," she said of her former boss.

She was referring to the reforms Mr Yong implemented to clear a backlog of 2,000 court cases when he took the helm at the judiciary in 1990.

Ms See was accompanied by three others who also worked as secretaries for Mr Yong at the Singapore International Merchant Bankers (Simbl) in the 1970s.

The others, who declined to be named, said he was a very caring boss. They used to call him "Papa", and he would tell them stories about his younger days as he sat with them for lunch.

He had high standards and made them work on Labour Day, but he would buy them a nice lunch and give them a day off later, they added.

President Halimah Yacob, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon were among the steady stream of visitors who attended the wake.

CJ Menon, who was appointed to the Bench 10 days before Mr Yong retired in April 2006, also spoke of his kindness.

"He was extremely good to the judges and the staff. He had a wonderful heart for the people who worked with him, and he really looked after them and nurtured their careers," he told reporters.

"I think that is reflected in the sort of loyalty and support those who worked with him have been giving to the family. So, we really do miss him very much."

 
 
 
 

At the wake, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong recounted that he was managing director of Neptune Orient Lines when he first met Mr Yong.

Mr Yong, who came to see Mr Goh in his capacity as managing director of Simbl, was looking to see whether the bank could do some ship financing for NOL.

"We, being a government-owned company, did not need any help. Thereafter, I met him occasionally, socially," said Mr Goh.

He recalled Mr Yong was appointed chief justice a few months before he became prime minister.

"Mr Lee Kuan Yew consulted me as to his appointment, which I happily agreed to. He did a great job. I had, as prime minister, no problems whatsoever with the Bench, and he looked out for the judiciary very, very well."

"We have lost a great Singaporean," said Mr Goh.

Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said: "He had an unusual combination of intellectual acuity, the ability to make decisions, but also a very personable style and remarkable memory for human detail, sometimes going back decades... about the individuals he knew and met.

"And he was quite a raconteur, a wonderful storyteller.

  • EMERITUS SENIOR MINISTER GOH CHOK TONG

    "We have lost a great Singaporean.

    "I first met him many years ago when I was the managing director of Neptune Orient Lines. He came to see me in his capacity as MD of Singapore International Merchant Bankers, trying to see whether they could do some ship financing for NOL. We, being a government-owned company, did not need any help. Thereafter I met him occasionally, socially.

    "I am grateful to him as the chief justice of Singapore when I was the prime minister. He was appointed a few months before I became PM. Mr Lee Kuan Yew consulted me as to his appointment, which I happily agreed to. He did a great job. I had, as prime minister, no problems whatsoever with the Bench, and he looked out for the judiciary very, very well."

  • SENIOR MINISTER THARMAN SHANMUGARATNAM

    "He had an unusual combination of intellectual acuity, the ability to make decisions, but also a very personable style and remarkable memory for human detail, sometimes going back decades... about the individuals he knew and met.

    "And he was quite a raconteur, a wonderful storyteller. Singapore owes a lot to Mr Yong."

  • MS PHYLLIS SEE, 71, SECRETARY TO MR YONG 

    "In the court, they find that he was very strict because he was trying to hurry them over the backlog, but actually he was very nice, he was very kind to the staff."

"Singapore owes a lot to Mr Yong," said Mr Tharman.

Similarly, many lawyers who worked for Mr Yong as Justices' Law Clerks (JLCs) spoke of his kindness, amazing memory and personal touch.

Speaking to The Straits Times, Senior Counsel Cavinder Bull, chief executive of Drew & Napier, said: "I remember when my son was born in New York a couple of years after I had left the courts, my wife and I received a handwritten letter from the Chief with the warmest words of congratulations.

"When I saw him after returning to Singapore, he immediately asked after my wife and son by name."

Another former JLC, Mr Chou Sean Yu, a partner at WongPartnership, said those who worked for Mr Yong had the privilege of experiencing his "warm, lovely human side".

"He made the effort to get to know all of us who worked for him and would remember very specific personal aspects.

"Even years after I had left the courts, each time he saw me, he would remember where I grew up in Malaysia and mention it," said Mr Chou.

Another former JLC, Member of Parliament and lawyer Christopher de Souza of Lee & Lee, expressed gratitude to Mr Yong.

He told reporters at the wake: "He was always sharing his wisdom and his insights, his experiences.

"He was completely honest about the difficulties that life would present and how to overcome them. He didn't sugar-coat things. And he took so many of us young officers under his wing."

In a Facebook post on the night of Mr Yong's death, Mr de Souza recounted how, with other young law students in England, he listened intently as Mr Yong told them to consider a career in the legal service.

Former senior minister S. Jayakumar, who was also a long-serving law minister, told reporters at the wake that every time Mr Yong went to the United Kingdom, he would make it a point to visit British universities to talk to outstanding law students there to interest them in a career in the legal service and the judicial service.

"I thought that was quite amazing and wonderful for him to have shown so much dedication in trying to bring talent back to our legal service," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2020, with the headline 'Ex-staff used to call Yong Pung How 'Papa''. Print Edition | Subscribe