Former chief justice Yong Pung How dies aged 93

Former chief justice Yong Pung How dies aged 93

Former chief justice Yong Pung How died on Thursday (Jan 9) at the age of 93. Mr Yong, whose career included stints as a banker and a university chancellor, served as Singapore's second chief justice from 1990 to 2006.

SINGAPORE: Former chief justice Yong Pung How died on Thursday (Jan 9) at the age of 93.

Mr Yong, whose career included stints as a banker and a university chancellor, served as Singapore's second chief justice from 1990 to 2006.

At his retirement, the then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Law S Jayakumar paid tribute to Mr Yong in Parliament for building Singapore's "judiciary and legal system to vigilantly uphold the rule of law and administration of justice".

READ: Yong Pung How was 'one of Singapore’s finest sons': PM Lee

Noting Mr Yong's "lasting and outstanding contribution", the minister spoke of his "wide ranging reforms to build up the legal infrastructure and develop local jurisprudence relevant to Singapore’s context".

Among other contributions, Mr Yong "took a series of measures to clear the backlog of cases, streamlined the rules of court, and improved efficiency through extensive use of IT," said Mr Jayakumar, adding that "as a result of his leadership, we have today a judiciary that has a high standing internationally".

READ: 'Truly this nation's loss': Chief Justice Menon pays tribute to former CJ Yong Pung How


Minister for Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam on Thursday paid tribute to Mr Yong in a Facebook post, hailing 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."


Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon called Mr Yong a "foundational figure" in Singapore's legal and national history.

"Mr Yong was a prodigiously talented individual whose diverse gifts and interests brought him beyond the law into business, finance and public administration. In each field he entered, Mr Yong reached its pinnacle," he said.

In his written remarks, he referred to Mr Yong's tenure as chief justice as the "most consequential" in Singapore's history.

"His jurisprudential approach was marked by pragmatism, boldness and conviction," the Chief Justice 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."

He also outlined Mr Yong's contributions in the legal, and financial and investment industries. 

"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," he concluded.

"His passing is truly this nation’s loss."

Mr Yong was born on Apr 11, 1926 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the only son in a family of six children.

His late father, Yong Shook Lin, was a prominent lawyer and a founding member of the law firm Shook Lin & Bok in Kuala Lumpur. His mother was from Hong Kong.

He received his first years of formal education in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. At the age of 14, he completed his Cambridge School Certificate at Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur.

He was too young to begin his tertiary education and the outbreak of the Second World War further delayed his studies.

After the war, Mr Yong read law at Downing College, Cambridge University, where he was an exhibitioner and later an associate fellow.

In 1949, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree. In 1951, he qualified as a barrister-at-law of the Inner Temple.

Returning to Kuala Lumpur, Mr Yong was admitted as an advocate and solicitor of Malaya in 1952. After being called to the Malayan Bar, he began his legal career with Shook Lin & Bok, focusing his practice mainly on criminal work.

Later, he became senior partner and the firm expanded rapidly under his leadership, especially in its corporate and commercial practice.

In 1964, Mr Yong was admitted as an advocate and solicitor of Singapore. He continued his practice in Singapore having set up the Singapore branch of Messrs Shook Lin & Bok.

Mr Yong left legal practice in 1971 and began his career in finance; he later went on to become CEO and chairman of OCBC Bank.

After nearly two decades away from the law, he returned as a Supreme Court judge at the age of 63. He was appointed as chief justice on Sep 28, 1990.

At Mr Yong's conferment of an honourary doctorate in 2001, NUS Assoc Prof Tan Cheng Han said he had "inspired and guided efforts to reform and reorganise the judiciary with the aim of building a responsive and efficient judicial system, without compromising the function of dispensing justice".

In 2010, he was appointed chancellor of the Singapore Management University.


President Halimah Yacob said on Thursday she was "deeply saddened" by Mr Yong's passing.

"Mr Yong was often associated with the high standards he imposed in the courts, and the no-nonsense approach in reviewing the sentences of those who frivolously appealed their sentences handed out by the lower courts," wrote Madam Halimah in a letter addressed to Mr Yong's wife Cheang Wei-Woo.

She noted Mr Yong's continued contribution to Singapore following his retirement as chief justice in 2006, such as his stint in the Council of Presidential Advisers from 2007 to 2013.

"Mr Yong Pung How was a shining example of a gentleman who responded to the nation's call to serve," said Mdm Halimah.


President of the Law Society of Singapore Gregory Vijayendran SC described Mr Yong as "an architect of landmark judicial and legal reforms". 

"His tenure of service was characterised by, among other things, a speedy and systematic clearing of a huge backlog of cases," said Mr Vijayendran.

"The phrase 'justice delayed is justice denied' epitomised his judicial philosophy," he added.

Mr Vijayendran also noted that Mr Yong's emphasis "was on function not form". 

For example, Mr Yong abolished antiquated salutations, stiff wing collars, bibs for lawyers and horse-hair wigs for judges. 

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


Monetary Authority of Singapore said in a statement on Thursday that its management and staff were sadded to learn of Mr Yong's passing.

Mr Yong spent nine months as the third Managing Director of MAS, from October 1982 to June 1983. There, he worked closely with the late Dr Goh Keng Swee, who was Chairman of MAS at the time. 

MAS described the period as a "critical phase" in its history in which Mr Yong made "enduring contributions".

"Mr Yong steered MAS, the Singapore Dollar and the financial sector through a period of sharply slower growth and rising unemployment globally, following the second oil shock," said MAS.

Mr Yong also 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.

"The pioneer generation of MAS staff fondly remembers Mr Yong as a personable leader who took a strong interest in staff well-being and safety," said MAS.


Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee paid tribute to Mr Yong in a Facebook post on Thursday, remembering him as a "a tough, no-nonsense judge who spoke straight - both inside and outside the courtroom".

Mr Lee recalled how Mr Yong was his first "big boss" when he started work in the Legal Service in 2001, and recounted some of his experiences as a law clerk under Mr Yong.

Mr Yong was addressed as "Chief" during his time there, and even after his retirement as a mark of respect, said Mr Lee, adding that he was a "firm and gentle mentor".

Mr Yong continued to keep in touch even after his retirement, and would sign off on photos he sent to staff each year “with affection and respect”, said Mr Lee.

"For me, and I would dare say for all of us who have ever worked under him, we held Chief in the highest regard, and with deep respect and affection too," concluded Mr Lee.

"Rest well now, Chief."

Source: CNA/jt(rw)