SINGAPORE: Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon on Thursday (Jan 9) described the death of Singapore's former top judge Yong Pung How as "truly this nation's loss", saying that his 16-year tenure as chief justice was the "most consequential in our history".
Mr Yong, whose career included stints as a banker and a university chancellor, served as Singapore's second chief justice from 1990 to 2006. He died on Thursday aged 93.
In a written statement on behalf of the Singapore judiciary, Chief Justice Menon called Mr Yong a "prodigiously talented individual" and a “foundational figure” in Singapore’s legal and national history.
“He leaves behind a legacy that is nothing less than the modern and progressive judiciary and legal system that Singapore has today,” said Chief Justice Menon.
FROM CEO OF OCBC TO SINGAPORE’S SECOND CHIEF JUSTICE
Mr Yong was born on Apr 11, 1926, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
He spent almost two decades in legal practice before deciding to enter the finance industry in 1971. During that time, he became the first managing director of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) and later, the CEO and chairman of OCBC Bank.
At the age of 63, Mr Yong returned to the law as a Supreme Court judge in 1989 and was appointed chief justice the following year.
"Mr Yong was a prodigiously talented individual whose diverse gifts and interests brought him beyond the law into business, finance and public administration," Chief Justice Menon said in his statement.
“In each field he entered, Mr Yong reached its pinnacle,” he added.
As chief justice, Mr Yong proved himself "not only to be an eminent jurist but also a visionary leader, an astute administrator, and a reformer of boundless energy", said Chief Justice Menon.
When Mr Yong first became Singapore's top judge, the courts "groaned" under a backlog of 2,000 suits, said Chief Justice Menon, adding that it would have taken many years for the courts to clear.
Mr Yong, however, tackled the challenge with “steely resolve”.
"He set to work immediately, implementing a suite of changes that transformed the judiciary and the legal system," said Chief Justice Menon.
This included introducing the system of pretrial conferences, streamlining court procedures, establishing night courts, expanding the bench, increasing the number of court sittings and daily hearing hours and redesigning policies to attract legal talent, said Chief Justice Menon.
Aside from those, Mr Yong also launched the electronic filing system, established the Singapore Law Reports, and opened the Singapore Mediation Centre.
By 1994, the backlog had "largely been reduced to a footnote in our legal history”, said Chief Justice Menon.
“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.”
A BELIEVER OF SECOND CHANCES
Mr Yong also believed in second chances and rehabilitation, which continues to guide Singapore's judicial system 20 years later.
"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,” said Chief Justice Menon.
"While his emphasis on deterrence as a principle of criminal justice is well-known, Mr Yong never overlooked those who deserved a second chance.
“He famously observed that for young offenders in their formative years, rehabilitation would generally be the dominant sentencing consideration, which became a hallowed principle that continues to guide us two decades later.”
LEADERS HERE AND ABROAD SANG HIS PRAISES
When he retired on Apr 10, 2006, accolades for Mr Yong poured in.
“At a farewell dinner hosted at the Istana, (former) President S R Nathan spoke of how Mr Yong had always 'impressed (him) as a clear-minded individual, forthright, principled, fair-minded and above all a warm and humorous person'," Chief Justice Menon recalled.
From the United Kingdom, Right Honourable Lord Bingham of Cornhill, then Senior Lord of Appeal in Ordinary also praised Mr Yong.
“(He) remarked that Singapore’s 'legal and judicial systems (had) flourished as never before under his leadership',” the chief justice said.
Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew, however, had the “highest and most moving accolade” for Mr Yong, said Chief Justice Menon.
“Appointing you as chief justice was one of my best decisions. … You have done Singapore a service,” Chief Justice Menon cited Mr Lee as saying then.
The chief justice concluded: “All of us – the judiciary, the legal profession, and indeed every Singapore citizen – owe Mr Yong an immense debt of gratitude: for his heart of service, his sense of justice, and for dedicating his life, wholly and without reserve, to the nation he loved.
“His passing is truly this nation’s loss.”
YONG PUNG HOW WAS A "SELFLESS TITAN": K SHANMUGAM
Minister for Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam on Thursday also paid tribute to Mr Yong on Thursday, describing him as someone who was "sharp, immensely practical, and formidable to appear before".
"(Mr Yong) was a great man. A selfless titan, who dedicated himself to building up Singapore, and her institutions. His achievements are well recorded in multiple spheres, beyond the law," Mr Shanmugam said.
He wrote about his experiences with Mr Yong over the years and how he had introduced "close to 1,000 initiatives" in the former Subordinate Courts, now known as the State Courts.
"His efforts contributed greatly to Singapore now being regarded as a trusted international legal centre, with a strong judiciary," he said.
"Our system is what it is today, because of his unparalleled vision and foresight."