Yong Pung How dies: Shanmugam, CJ Menon and legal fraternity pay tribute to former chief justice

Former chief justice Yong Pung How speaking at the opening of the legal year for 2005 in City Hall, on Jan 8, 2005.
Former chief justice Yong Pung How speaking at the opening of the legal year for 2005 in City Hall, on Jan 8, 2005.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Singapore's former chief justice Yong Pung How, who died on Thursday morning (Jan 9), aged 93, was a "selfless titan who dedicated himself to building up Singapore and her institutions", said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam.

Paying tribute to Mr Yong in a Facebook post, Mr Shanmugam said that he was privileged and fortunate to have been a practising lawyer when Mr Yong was a High Court judge and then Chief Justice from 1990 to 2006.

"Appearing before CJ Yong was always an experience. Recently, I was reminded that in the Court of Appeal, he once told me (when I stood up to argue my client's case), to put away all my notes and to argue from memory! I had about 30 seconds to collect my thoughts and put my client's case to the Court of Appeal," recalled Mr Shanmugam, who said that Mr Yong was "sharp, immensely practical, and formidable to appear before".

"It is also fair to say that he evoked mixed reactions among those who had to appear before him - if you knew your work, were prepared, and didn't waste his time, then you would be okay. Otherwise, you would get to hear, very directly, what he thought of your case," he added.

Mr Yong, who took helm at the judiciary in September 1990, also "shook the Bar out of its lethargy and modernised it", said Mr Shanmugam.

"Its old habits were changed, sometimes kicking and screaming. And he transformed our judiciary, through a relentless push for progress and excellence," said Mr Shanmugam, noting that Mr Yong had introduced close to 1,000 initiatives in the then Subordinate Courts within a decade of taking office.

"His efforts contributed greatly to Singapore now being regarded as a trusted international legal centre, with a strong judiciary. Our system is what it is today, because of his unparalleled vision and foresight," he added.

In a statement, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon also said that the judiciary is "deeply grieved" by Mr Yong's passing, and extended condolences to Mr Yong's family on behalf of the judiciary.

When Mr Yong took office as chief justice in 1990, the courts "groaned under a backlog of 2,000 suits, which, at that time, would have taken many years to dispose of", recalled Mr Menon.

But Mr Yong met the challenge before him with steely resolve, Mr Menon said, and implemented a suite of changes that transformed the judiciary and the legal system.

Among other things, he introduced the system of pre-trial conferences, streamlined and simplified court procedures, established the Night Courts, launched the Electronic Filing System and the Technology Courts, and opened the Singapore Mediation Centre.

"By the opening of the legal year in 1994, the backlog had largely been reduced to a footnote in our legal history. In successfully modernising the justice system and expeditiously clearing the backlog, Mr Yong's tenure as chief justice perhaps stands as the most consequential in our history," said Mr Menon.

 
 
 
 

His jurisprudential approach was also marked by pragmatism, boldness and conviction, he said.

"In the civil law, Mr Yong's approach was practical and commercially sensitive, undoubtedly informed by his long experience in business and finance... In the criminal law, Mr Yong saw the first responsibility of the courts as the protection of the public, tempered by a sensitivity to the individual's potential for rehabilitation.

"While his emphasis on deterrence as a principle of criminal justice is well-known, Mr Yong never overlooked those who deserved a second chance," said Mr Menon.

He recalled how Mr Yong had famously observed that rehabilitation would generally be the dominant sentencing consideration for young offenders in their formative years. "(It) became a hallowed principle that continues to guide us two decades later."

Professor Simon Chesterman, dean of the National University of Singapore's Faculty of Law, described Mr Yong as a "towering figure in the law" in a Facebook post.

"Respected as Chief Justice - and occasionally feared - the sweeping reforms that he introduced helped establish Singapore's reputation as a legal hub with a world class judiciary. His legacy includes the enduring respect for the rule of law within Singapore, as well as the Republic's international standing as a fair, impartial, and efficient centre for dispute resolution," said Prof Chesterman.