Former chief justice Yong Pung How left an impact on Singapore law, finance and government

Former chief justice Yong Pung How, best remembered for his bold and wide-ranging reforms to Singapore's judiciary - from abolishing wigs for judges and bibs for lawyers to clearing a backlog of cases - died yesterday. He was 93. Mr Yong left the law
Former chief justice Yong Pung How is best remembered for his bold and wide-ranging reforms to Singapore's judiciary.BUSINESS TIMES FILE PHOTO

Tributes pour in, lauding former CJ's judiciary revamp and his work with GIC, MAS, OCBC

Former chief justice Yong Pung How, who implemented key reforms to transform the Singapore court system into a model of efficiency, died yesterday. He was 93.

He is survived by his wife, Madam Cheang Wei Woo, and their daughter, Ms Yong Ying-I, who is permanent secretary at the Ministry of Communications and Information.

Mr Yong and Madam Cheang met in 1950 when they were both studying in London. They married in 1955, when he was 29 and she, 26.

Tributes poured in yesterday from across the many areas in which Mr Yong had left an impact, in a career that spanned the Government, law and finance.

The legal fraternity saluted him for revamping Singapore's judiciary in his 16 years as the country's top judge from 1990 to 2006.

"Yong Pung How was a towering figure in the law. 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," said National University of Singapore law dean Simon Chesterman.

Singapore Management University law dean Goh Yihan described Mr Yong as a titan of the Singapore legal system, which he said "is world-class and internationally recognised because of Mr Yong's steadfast push towards modernisation and efficiency in the 1990s".

Mr Yong was born on April 11, 1926, in Kuala Lumpur, the only son in a family of six children. His father Yong Shook Lin was a prominent lawyer who co-founded the firm Shook Lin & Bok.

He read law at Downing College in Cambridge University after World War II, and it was there where he would strike up a lifelong friendship with Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who would go on to be Singapore's founding prime minister.

Mr Yong was admitted to the Singapore Bar in 1964 and migrated to Singapore with his family in 1969. He was a senior partner with Shook Lin & Bok until 1970.

He then went into merchant banking and finance, ending up as chairman and chief executive officer of OCBC Bank from 1983 to 1989.

 
 

On a secondment from OCBC from 1981 to 1983, he helped form the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation - Singapore's sovereign wealth fund, now known as GIC - and became its first managing director.

He was also managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) from 1982 to 1983, working closely with Dr Goh Keng Swee, who was chairman.

GIC CEO Lim Chow Kiat said Mr Yong's contributions were foundational. "He incorporated it as a private limited company, a form GIC still operates by, so that it can focus solely on managing the foreign reserves," said Mr Lim.

Mr Yong worked with the appropriate ministries on a rigorous governance framework for GIC and was instrumental in recruiting the first investment managers globally, ensuring that the officers were armed with sharp investment skills, as well as a strong sense of rigour and conviction, said Mr Lim. "We appreciate that what GIC is today is the product of Mr Yong's talents in manifold areas: legal, banking, business and administration."

MAS credited Mr Yong for steering the authority and the financial sector through a period of slower growth globally. "He helped implement a new approach towards reserves management, where foreign assets in excess of what MAS needed to manage the Singapore dollar were transferred to the newly created GIC for long-term investment by the Government," it added in a statement.

OCBC's group CEO Samuel Tsien said that when Mr Yong led the bank, it was a time of change, especially in consumer banking, when customer demand for services significantly increased amid intense competition.

Under Mr Yong, OCBC rolled out the largest network of ATMs in Singapore and was also the first to introduce Sunday and night banking.

He also drove the growth in the bank's property and residential loan areas, and modernised the look of OCBC's Chinese sailing vessel symbol that forms part of its current logo.

 
 

Still, the part of his career that he is perhaps best known for was to come.

On July 1, 1989, at age 63 - despite nearly two decades away from law and having already once declined an offer to be a judge - Mr Yong was persuaded by Mr Lee to join the judiciary with a view to him becoming the chief justice.

He was appointed a Supreme Court judge and took office as the chief justice a year later on Sept 28, 1990. When Mr Yong took the helm at the judiciary, there was a backlog of more than 2,000 cases.

He introduced case management measures that cleared the backlog by the mid-1990s and reduced the time for cases to be concluded.

He harnessed technology to streamline court procedures, set up specialist courts, raised the salaries for judges to attract legal talent and initiated the Justice's Law Clerk scheme to recruit top law graduates to the legal service.

In his first speech as chief justice, he abolished the traditional wigs worn by judges and lawyers, and salutations such as "My Lord" or "Your Lordship" for Supreme Court judges.

"In the place of these relics, the legacy Mr Yong left behind is a world-class judiciary staffed by first-rate legal talent and deploying cutting-edge technological advances," said Law Society president Gregory Vijayendran.

 
 

At the time, Mr Yong's push for efficiency gave rise to questions about whether justice was being rushed. Lawyers quit in droves as they were stressed by court deadlines. Besides his efforts to reform court processes and strengthen the quality of the Bench, Mr Yong also chose to hear all appeals of criminal cases from the State Courts, which were then known as the Subordinate Courts.

He developed a reputation for being tough and enhancing the sentences of those who appeared before him, even as he gave second chances to offenders with psychiatric problems.

Mr Yong was also well-known for his acerbic observations in the courtroom. Once, he was told by the defence counsel that an 18-year-old boy who had sex with a minor was given probation by a district judge. Mr Yong said of the judge: "Maybe he should be put on probation."

He also produced the most judgments in the history of the Singapore Bench, with a total tally of 882 written judgments.

He retired on April 10, 2006, at the age of 80.

His many achievements aside, Mr Yong said his finest hour in life had nothing to do with his illustrious career as chief justice.

In an interview in 2004, he said: "I would say it was the day I married my wife. We have been married for 50 years now, and I still consider her my best friend.

"To stay happily married with a good reputation and a close-knit family must be one of anybody's happiest achievements in life, whatever the work you do."

The wake will be held at 48A Nassim Road between 5pm and 10pm from today to Sunday. The cortege will leave for Mandai Crematorium on Monday for a private funeral service.

Correction note: This article has been edited for clarity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2020, with the headline 'Yong left an impact on Singapore law, finance and govt'. Print Edition | Subscribe