Condolence Letter on the passing of former Chief Justice Yong Pung How
PM Lee Hsien Loong wrote to Mrs Yong Pung How to express his condolences on the passing of her husband, former Chief Justice Yong Pung How.
Dear Mrs Yong,
Please accept my deepest condolences on the passing of your beloved husband, Mr Yong Pung How.
Mr Yong was one of Singapore’s finest sons. Like many in his generation, he grew up in Malaya, but came to Singapore, and made major contributions to our nation. He studied law at Cambridge University, where he became close friends with my parents. In his memoirs, Mr Lee Kuan Yew recounted how Mr Yong’s neat and comprehensive class notes had helped him to catch up on schoolwork.
After graduation, Mr Yong returned to Malaya and became a successful lawyer and banker. He also joined the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) and became active in Malayan politics. However, after he witnessed the May 1969 riots, Mr Yong became disillusioned with political affairs there. Thus, when an opportunity came up to head the Singapore branch of his law firm in the early 1970s, he migrated to Singapore permanently with his family. This was not a decision he took lightly, having already reached pinnacle positions in his career. But he rebuilt his law practice in Singapore, and was also successful as a banker, rising to be Vice Chairman at OCBC.
In 1981, Mr Lee asked Mr Yong to help set up the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC). Mr Lee said that he picked Mr Yong because of his “impeccable integrity”. Mr Yong worked with Dr Goh Keng Swee to recruit staff and establish GIC’s operations, serving as its first Managing Director. Generations of Singaporeans have since benefitted from GIC’s sound stewardship of the nation’s reserves, built on the foundations laid by Mr Yong. Having completed his mission at GIC, Mr Yong moved to be the Managing Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, before returning to OCBC as Chairman and CEO.
But it was in the Judiciary that Mr Yong left his deepest mark. Having earlier declined Mr Lee’s offer to appoint him to the Supreme Court bench in the 1970s, Mr Yong did not say no again when Mr Lee asked him to return to the law in 1989, and to become Chief Justice in 1990. Mr Lee wanted him to shake up and modernise the courts, which had become slow and out of date. The High Court had a backlog of some 2,000 cases, which would have taken five to six years to clear even without taking account of new filings. Mr Yong set up specialist courts, increased the size of the bench, and introduced major reforms to court processes to shorten the time taken to dispose of matters.
Mr Yong also tightened case management, dealt firmly with time wastage in trials, and championed the use of technology. To encourage judges and magistrates to start hearings on time, he would occasionally appear at the Subordinate Courts at 8.30am to greet latecomers personally. Punctuality miraculously improved.
In less than a decade, case disposal times in the High Court came down from 5 years to below 18 months. While the Bar may have protested because of the pressure they came under, there is no doubt at all that Mr Yong’s determination successfully brought our legal system into the 21st Century. Our legal profession and indeed our society as a whole owes him an immense debt of gratitude for this accomplishment.
Alongside the wide-ranging reforms to improve the administration of justice, Mr Yong made significant contributions to Singapore’s jurisprudence. He was unafraid to drop the more anachronistic rules of the common law, which had evolved to suit English traditions and social norms. In their place, he encouraged the development of rules better suited to our own circumstances and to prevailing commercial practices. He famously observed in one of his judgements that the “function of the court is to try as far as practical experience allows, to ensure that the reasonable expectations of honest men are not disappointed.”
Most importantly, Mr Yong understood how Singapore worked, the fundamental realities of our society, and how laws should be administered and applied in our context so as to ensure good governance for Singaporeans. His experiences in life and in the private sector gave him a deep conviction about what needed to be done, and as Chief Justice he made it happen.
Mr Yong also believed deeply in investing in people. He instituted the appointment of Senior Counsel to recognise our most skilled advocates, and raised salaries for Judges to strengthen the quality of the Bench. As President of the Legal Service Commission, he continually pushed to attract and retain talent in the Legal Service. He initiated the Justices’ Law Clerk system, which today continues to draw talent into the Legal Service.
Mr Yong took a personal interest in recruiting and mentoring promising young lawyers. He regularly visited university campuses to identify the ablest law students and encourage them to apply to become Justices’ Law Clerks. Quite a few did. Some have since become Judges of the Supreme Court and senior officers in the Legal Service. They speak of him with great affection and fondness, recalling his verve and vigour for life, and the wit and erudition in the stories he loved to tell around the lunch or dinner table. Those lucky enough to have worked directly with him remember with gratitude the deep interest he took in their lives, and his quiet efforts to look after the welfare of long-serving staff when they retired. In these last few weeks, as he lay ill in hospital, his former Law Clerks were among his most regular visitors.
Mr Yong’s reforms immensely strengthened our Judiciary, and the rule of law in Singapore. When he retired as Chief Justice in 2006 after 17 years, Mr Lee wrote that appointing him had been “one of [his] best decisions”. He had transformed the Supreme Court and Subordinate Courts (now the State Courts) from horse-hair wigs and old world salutations like “My Lord” and “Your Lordship”, to modern institutions staffed by the best legal talent and equipped with the most advanced technology.
Over a long lifetime, Mr Yong served Singapore in several other capacities, all with distinction. After retiring as Chief Justice, Mr Yong was appointed to the Council of Presidential Advisers. In recognition of his immense contributions to Singapore, Mr Yong was awarded the Darjah Utama Bakti Cemerlang (Distinguished Service Order) in 1989, and the Order of Temasek (First Class), Singapore’s highest civilian honour, in 1999.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention the close personal friendship between Mr Yong and Mr Lee, and between our families. Mr Yong and Mr Lee were close friends all their lives. It was a friendship based on mutual respect, forged in their fight against colonialism, and reinforced by their shared commitment to build this nation. Even in old age, they enjoyed each other’s companionship, and would often have meals together.
My thoughts are with you and your family during this time of sorrow and loss.
With my deepest sympathies,
LEE HSIEN LOONG
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