PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Book Launch of “Pioneer, Polymath and Mentor – The Life and Legacy of Yong Pung How”

SM Lee Hsien Loong | 11 April 2024

Transcript of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s speech at the book launch of “Pioneer, Polymath and Mentor – The Life and Legacy of Yong Pung How” on 11 April 2024.


Chief Justice Mr Sundaresh Menon,
SMU President Professor Lily Kong,
Ms Yong Ying-I,
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

A very good morning to everybody.

I am very happy to be here today to launch Justice Andrew Phang’s biography of our former Chief Justice, Dr Yong Pung How.

Dr Yong was a pioneer leader who made decisive contributions to Singapore across both the public and private sectors. His illustrious career spanned many of Singapore’s key institutions, in whose creation and subsequent development he played an outsized role. His service to our nation has benefitted generations of Singaporeans, even to this day.

When Dr Yong passed away in 2020, I wrote in my letter to Mrs Yong that he had been one of Singapore’s finest sons. That was true, but actually his story began in Malaya, where he was born. I remember as a small child, perhaps five years old, maybe four, being brought by my parents to visit Dr and Mrs Yong in Kuala Lumpur, where they lived, and having dinner with them at an outdoor hawker centre. At the time, Dr Yong was working in his father’s law firm, Shook Lin & Bok. He was also involved in Malayan politics as a leading member of the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA). But after the 1969 race riots, he decided to move to Singapore. One important reason was so that his family could have a better future. He built a successful career here as a lawyer, then moved on to OCBC and distinguished himself as a banker too.

Living through the hard times of the Japanese Occupation and the political struggles of his country of birth forged in Dr Yong a strong set of core values. In fact, it was because of his “impeccable integrity” that Mr Lee handpicked him in 1980 to build the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) from scratch as its first Managing Director. He worked with Dr Goh Keng Swee to build his staff, structure the organisation, and establish GIC’s operations. Later, he moved on to become the Managing Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore as well. He laid the foundations for the prudent and effective management of our reserves, and Singapore’s development as a financial centre.

Dr Yong felt a strong sense of duty and service to Singapore. Having built a life for himself and his family here, he considered Singapore his home. So in 1989, when Mr Lee again asked him to serve, this time as Chief Justice, he answered the call, even though this meant stepping down as Chairman and CEO of OCBC Bank, and accepting a drastic pay cut. I remember being quite surprised when Mr Lee told me of his choice for the next CJ, for it had been a while since Dr Yong had practised law, and I knew him more as a respected banker. But Mr Lee, having known Dr Yong for a long time, was convinced he was the right choice. He was confident not only of Dr Yong’s capability in the law, but also confident that because of his life experiences, Dr Yong understood instinctively what Singapore needed to succeed, and how the courts had to play their role to make our legal system work.

And indeed Mr Lee proved absolutely right. It was as Chief Justice that Dr Yong made the greatest impact. When he took office in 1990, his first priority was to clear the backlog of over 2,000 cases in the Supreme Court. He tightened case management, modernised court processes, and championed the use of technology to improve efficiency. He built capacity by expanding the Bench, and setting up specialist courts. He introduced the Senior Counsel scheme to recognise our most skilled advocates, and to spur young lawyers to strive for excellence. Most importantly, he provided strong leadership, presiding over hearings late into the day, and writing a record number of judgments himself. He won the respect of the legal fraternity, and instilled in his colleagues his own drive to bring the courts into the modern age. Dr Yong worked hard to develop Singapore’s jurisprudence. He moved boldly to drop anachronistic rules of English common law that we had inherited. In their place, he encouraged the development of rules more suited to our context and to prevailing commercial practices. The hundreds of judgments that he wrote and the thousands of Magistrate’s Appeals he presided over are still studied and cited to this day. Dr Yong’s labours transformed our judicial system and brought it into the 21st Century. Within a decade of his becoming CJ, Singapore’s legal system was rated the best in Asia, and recognised as being among the top in the world, ahead of most OECD countries. He was indeed a transformative Chief Justice.

Dr Yong also believed strongly in developing people. He personally sought out, cultivated, and recruited promising young lawyers with keen intellect and a heart for public service. He inducted them into the Justices’ Law Clerks (JLC) programme, which was another of his innovations. The JLC programme aimed to build a strong pipeline of talent for the next generation in the Judiciary and the Legal Service. JLCs had the opportunity to learn and grow by working closely with the Chief Justice and other senior judges. Many JLCs have gone on to become leading lawyers – including some 10 Judges on today’s Supreme Court Bench and two out of three Deputy Attorney Generals. Dr Yong also supported setting up a second Law School in SMU, and contributed generously to its development. It is fitting that the law school has been named after him – a tribute to his living legacy and continuing influence on our young and aspiring lawyers. Dr Yong’s efforts to develop young talent extended beyond the legal sector. He was also a strong advocate for the arts. As a Trustee of the Yong Loo Lin Trust, he played a key role in guiding the Trust’s generous endowments. The Trust’s generous donations were crucial to founding the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, Singapore’s first conservatory of music. It was named after his cousin, a pianist, who was the daughter of Dr Yong Loo Lin. I remember attending one concert at the Conservatory with Dr Yong. The students put up a good performance. At the end of the concert, Pung How leaned over and commented to me that it had been money well spent. We were impressed by the concert and the students.

Dr Yong achieved much in his life, across many fields. But he will be remembered most for the sort of person he was. The compilation of the JLCs’ recollections of Dr Yong is perhaps the most heartwarming portion of this book. While he had a reputation of being a stern judge, the JLCs paint an intimate portrait of a Chief Justice who was kind, caring, and generous. “Chief”, as they fondly called him, left a deep imprint on all of them. In the courtroom, he was focussed and decisive, worked at a breakneck pace, and suffered no fools. But outside the courtroom, he was a personable and warm mentor – an engaging and avuncular conversationalist who gave generously of his time to share stories and life lessons, always with a touch of humour.

Those of us who had the good fortune to cross paths with Dr Yong remember well his personal touch. I recall that shortly before I became PM, as we were discussing the arrangements for my swearing-in, I received a message that Dr Yong had expressed the wish to personally administer the affirmation to me, and not just stand beside me and the President as I read out the affirmation myself. I was very honoured, and of course agreed immediately. That was how we did it. Mine is just one of the many stories of Dr Yong touching the lives of others, and leaving a lasting imprint.

Ladies and gentlemen, everyone remembers Mr Lee Kuan Yew as the founder of modern Singapore. But Mr Lee had close colleagues and collaborators in his team, who made many crucial contributions to Singapore, some of whom have not been adequately recognised. I am glad that books are now being written about them – Mr S Rajaratnam, Dr Goh Keng Swee, and now Dr Yong Pung How, because Dr Yong was one of these titans. I thank Justice Andrew Phang for putting together this biography. It honours his contributions to Singapore, and pays tribute to Dr Yong’s many years of service to the nation. I know that the family was very much looking forward to this book launch. In particular, his wife Wei Woo, who stood by his side all these years. Dr Yong was very proud of her, and of how they had enjoyed so many decades of happy married life. Sadly, she passed away just a few weeks ago. But I am happy that their daughter Ying-I is here, together with many of Dr Yong’s friends and mentees too. May this book be a lasting tribute to Dr Yong’s living legacy, and may it help Singaporeans to remember Dr Yong and the remarkable life that he led.

Thank you very much.