Yong Pung How has shaped a distinct judiciary philosophy
in Singapore that liberals complain is too complaint to
political leadership. By Seah Chiang Nee
May 19, 2002
in his car in the middle of the night with several weapons,
the defendant explained to the court that the two knives
were for his wife to cut fruits and the parang was for his
"Why didn't you go home instead of waiting for someone
to come and attack you at 4.15am?" asked Chief Justice
Yong Pung How sardonically.
"Oh, I was visiting a friend," Tan Yew Liang replied
in his appeal hearing. "You visit friends at 4am?"
asked Malaysia-born Yong, aged 75.
He flipped through the papers and remarked that reading
Tan's long conviction record of violence and secret society
activities would ruin his eyesight.
Tan pleaded for a chance, saying he was remorseful. "It's
very touching but you have been asking for the last chance
for the last 16 years. You've lent a new meaning to the
Yong called for a preventive detention report and turned
his attack on the district judge, who had sentenced Tan
to 10 months' jail and eight strokes of the cane.
"I think he must have had a toothache, giving him only
10 months. There's a weakness on the part of some of our
Yong was similarly displeased with the sentence - 12 months
in jail and three strokes - passed by the lower court on
Ralapratap Singh for molesting a nine-year-old girl.
The man's chronic alcoholism and eight convictions did not
endear him to Yong. "I'll help you. I'll make sure
you don't commit any more offences." He also got 10
years' preventive detention.
Four out of five cases either fail, or worse, result in
Born in Kuala Lumpur in 1946, Yong entered the bar here
in 1964 and was appointed chief justice in 1990.
In 12 years, Yong has remoulded Singapore's legal system
beyond recognition, clearing its huge backlog of cases.
Both Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew (who first appointed him)
and Yong shared a desire for swift, firm justice.
In five years, Yong has written 384 judgments, or 17.5 percent
of the Supreme Court's total rulings, making him Singapore's
most productive judge in history.
Some of them have become law. For example, he ruled that
some molest or rape offenders will have their sentences
doubled if their lawyers persist in asking questions that
harass or embarrass the victim.
In another benchmark case, he said that offices, clubs or
restaurants may be open to the public, but a visitor can
still be hauled up for trespassing if the management had
banned him from entering the premises.
It happened in the case of a disgruntled clerk who kept
returning to his former office at Housing Board although
he had been dismissed four years earlier.
Others include the following:
.JUDGES will be less tolerant of long-winded cross-examinations
in future to ensure that trials did not drag on too long.
A person who offers bribes to corrupt those who maintain
law and order here deserves equal or even heavier punishment
than the people they buy off.
In 1990 when Yong assumed office, cases took six or seven
years to reach the courts in Singapore.
He instituted a number of reforms, including the use of
mediation in civil cases.
Another is the use of computer technology and night sittings
which drastically reduced the backlog and earned the legal
system here top accolades among businessmen in Asia.
But human rights groups denigrate it as being "compliant"
- or oppressive, but putting the main blame on the political
leadership rather than on the judges.
They say that defamation laws are frequently used to stifle
dissenting views. This is abuse of the court process by
In the past few years, human rights groups and foreign media
commentators have hurled these and other accusations at
the Singapore legal system.
The criticisms stem from the growing number of defamation
suits brought by People's Action Party leaders against political
opponents and Western publications.
Law academic Thio Li-Ann, in an article in the Hong Kong
Law Journal, argues that the courts here have tended to
award "communitarian" judgments, and have been
"deferential towards collective interests and executive
assessments of what the public good requires."
She cites several examples, including a 1995 (Colin Chan
vs PP) decision upholding an order to deregister the Jehovah's
Witnesses group on the grounds of protecting public order,
despite the constitutional protection of religious freedom.
In like vein, she notes, the courts here have tended to
protect the public interest of upholding the integrity of
government leaders, rather than make judgments that protect
the right of individuals to make public criticisms of conduct
by public figures.
The government's position on this is unequivocal.
It believes that protecting the reputation and integrity
of the political leadership is of the utmost importance,
and that the consequences of not doing so extend far beyond
This was how Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong put it when he
was cross-examined in August:
"We are a different society. In Singapore, we believe
that leaders must be honourable men, gentlemen or junzi
(a Confucian gentleman), and if our integrity is attacked,
we defend it."
This was unlike Western societies, where politicians might
not do anything if their integrity was attacked, he added.
The judiciary here was the first in the world to launch
an online mediation facility, enabling commercial and Internet-related
disputes to be settled via cyberspace, without the need
for parties to go to court.
This mediation service is speedy, confidential and free
of charge. Yong said such a facility would maintain Singapore's
competitiveness as an international e-commerce hub.
The move towards negotiations in front of a court arbitrator
started some six years ago.
He is a neutral official listening to arguments from both
The idea stems from the belief that Asians, by and large,
dislike litigation. Besides it saves money all round and
no loss of face that a court battle generally produces.
Some 75 percent of the cases are resolved in this manner.
The court official has no power to impose his decision on
either party. He is a neutral adviser who is trained to
listen to (and guide) the representations made by each side
(normally made through the lawyers).
Chief Justice Yong will turn 76 this year. Last year he
was reappointed head of the judiciary for three more years.
Seah Chiang Nee