Tributes pour in for retiring Judge of Appeal Chao

Ministers, judges laud Justice Chao Hick Tin and his contributions at valedictory reference

Justice Chao Hick Tin at yesterday's valedictory reference at the Supreme Court Auditorium. Justice Chao, who began his legal career in 1967 in the Attorney-General's Chambers, will retire today on his 75th birthday.
Justice Chao Hick Tin at yesterday's valedictory reference at the Supreme Court Auditorium. Justice Chao, who began his legal career in 1967 in the Attorney-General's Chambers, will retire today on his 75th birthday.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin, the only judge to have served under all four post-independence Chief Justices, will retire today on his 75th birthday, after over 50 years in public service.

Yesterday, a rare valedictory reference - last held in 1990 for retiring Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin - was conducted to honour Justice Chao and his contributions.

It was attended by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, Law Minister K. Shanmugam as well as fellow judges and lawyers.

Mr Shanmugam, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, former deputy prime minister S. Jayakumar, Attorney-General Lucien Wong, Law Society president Gregory Vijayendran, Supreme Court Registrar Vincent Hoong and Judge of Appeal Andrew Phang gave speeches paying tribute to him.

They lauded Justice Chao for his well-known attributes, such as his humanity, patience and kindness, as well as his practical wisdom, clarity of thought and the courage to do what he believed was right.

A book of essays by 17 contributors, titled A Judge For The Ages, which focuses on Justice Chao's work as a judge in diverse areas of law, was also launched at the event. It was edited by Justice Phang and Professor Goh Yihan, dean of Singapore Management University's School of Law.


In the 1980s, appearing in some of our courts could be like being caught in a tempest. So the calmness and kindness in Justice Chao's court was like getting a safe refuge.

LAW MINISTER K. SHANMUGAM, who was a young lawyer in the 1980s taking on his first significant High Court case when he appeared before Justice Chao, then a judicial commissioner.


I admired the way he would doggedly protect and promote Singapore's interests. If ever there was a situation where I needed a tough comrade in arms, Chao Hick Tin would be that person.

FORMER DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER AND LAW MINISTER S. JAYAKUMAR, who has worked together with Justice Chao in the context of international negotiations and diplomacy.


I do not exaggerate when I say that Justice Chao is the most loved of all the judges... I hope that my colleagues will not take offence when I say that none of us comes close in this particular regard.


Mr Shanmugam revealed how Justice Chao, as a 25-year-old legal officer in the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC), played a role in Singapore's long-term water security when he attended a United Nations Conference on the Law of Treaties in 1968, following Singapore's separation from Malaysia in 1965.

During discussions, the Malaysian representative acknowledged that "some treaties might be so fundamental to the very existence of states that they simply could not be dispensed with, whatever political differences might arise", said Mr Shanmugam.

The representative said the treaty under which Malaysia had to supply a certain quantity of water daily to Singapore "could not be terminated or suspended between the two states for any political reason".

Mr Shanmugam said Justice Chao, on hearing this and realising how important it was as water from Malaysia was linked to Singapore's very survival, reiterated that the Malaysian representative had said that "even the severance of diplomatic relations... would not affect the water agreement between Singapore and Malaysia".

In doing so, Justice Chao had put on official record Malaysia's express confirmation that the water agreements cannot be terminated, whatever political differences might arise, said Mr Shanmugam. And the importance of having that acknowledgement, "as a matter of UN record", was that it has given Singapore added confidence whenever Malaysia took issue with the water agreements.

"We owe Justice Chao a deep debt of gratitude."

Justice Chao obtained his bachelor's degree in law from University College London in 1965, and his master's degree a year later.

He began his legal career in 1967 in the AGC.

He was appointed judicial commissioner in 1987 and elevated to a High Court Judge three years later. He was appointed a Judge of Appeal in 1999.

He was made Attorney-General in 2006, returning to the Bench as Judge of Appeal and vice-president of the Court of Appeal in 2008.

As a legal officer advancing Singapore's interests in the international arena for 20 years, Justice Chao was also involved in the Pedra Branca dispute from the late 1970s, and was a key member of the team that negotiated the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Professor Jayakumar, who was then law minister, recounted how Justice Chao played a pivotal role in fighting to ensure Singapore's navigational interests.

Despite the many capacities in which Justice Chao has impacted Singapore's legal history, it will be his 28 years as a judge that will likely be remembered most vividly, said Chief Justice Menon.

"It was as a judge that he epitomised the human face of justice, and what a lovely face it was; it was as a judge that he contributed a vast tract of jurisprudence that will have an immense and lasting influence on Singapore law for decades to come; it was as a judge that he expressed his deep love for the law most visibly," he added.

Speakers also shared light-hearted anecdotes.

Prof Jayakumar revealed how Justice Chao is an excellent cook who would rustle up fantastic meals after working sessions, while he and the others, including Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh, washed the dishes.

Attorney-General Wong related how Justice Chao, who was part of the Singapore delegation for the Asean Law Association conference, was left behind in the Jakarta airport because he chose to go shopping while the others were ushered to the VIP lounge.

"Unflappable as always, he just took the next flight back, with his shopping no less."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2017, with the headline 'Tributes pour in for retiring Judge of Appeal Chao'. Subscribe