How I became Chief Justice: Yong Pung How Chief Justice of Singapore, 1990-2006

Source: Straits Times
Date: 20 Mar 2016

After graduating, I went back to Kuala Lumpur where my father had a small law firm and was working for Tan Cheng Lock.

I travelled to Singapore a few times, hoping to get some lead work. I would meet up with Kuan Yew and he would take me out for lunch at a chicken rice stall in Middle Road. On my first visit, he asked where I was staying. I told him I was at the hotel next to the railway station. He said, “Oh, it’s a terrible place! I have a spare room in the house.” So I stayed with him a few times at Oxley Road. I think I slept in what would eventually become his daughter Wei Ling’s room because she wasn’t born then. He was very kind to me.

The first time I went to his home, his mother, who I had already heard was a very famous cook, insisted I stay for dinner. She cooked everything. I think I nearly burst myself that night.

When Kuan Yew won the elections in 1959 and became Prime Minister, I would meet him at his office at City Hall and we would go for lunch. Those were good times.

One of his favourite fruits was pomelo. Once, while enjoying some pomelo at his office, he told me it was from lpoh, specially brought in by Malayan Airways pilots. At the end of that visit, he called his secretary to ask how many of the fruit were left and asked her to put two in my car.

The last time I saw Kuan Yew was in late December 2014, at a dinner, together with a group of his friends. They always included me in these dinners, which were held every two months; they considered me to be his oldest friend, I guess, at least in age. Someone would organise a dinner for him. They would give the excuse that the poor chap was lonely, but actually all they wanted were his views. He knew everything!

MR LEE AS A CO-WORKER AND BOSS

There were a couple of occasions after graduation when Kuan Yew and I worked together on some legal cases. In one case, the richest man in Penang had insulted Dr Lim Chong Yew, a prominent politician and medical doctor. We worked on the case together for a short while until it was settled. We also did a few other small cases together. At that time, he was famous as a lawyer.

Clearly, he was brilliant. He was the most brilliant man I have ever met. If he was on a legal case, he would work through every detail and angle. When he set up the People’s Action Party, he was absolutely thorough, in the same way he responded to questions at university or analysed cases. When we studied our cases, he always made sure he covered everything.

The very first time he came to Kuala Lumpur was in the early 1950s. We went for dinner at a restaurant in an amusement park in Bukit Bintang. We walked into a room that was empty but this newspaper chap, who was part of a wedding reception in the next room, noticed him and recognised him as Lee Kuan Yew from Singapore. He came up to Kuan Yew and asked him some questions, and soon, half of the wedding guests trooped over. I think Kuan Yew never ever liked any of this attention.

In 1982, when I was vice-chairman of OCBC Bank, I was seconded to the government to help restructure the Monetary Authority of Singapore. Eventually, I was appointed to head the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation. But I had to leave after a while.

What happened was that there had been a question asked in Parliament which was filed but not published. The issue was about Singapore money being transferred to a Malaysian. Dr Goh Keng Swee asked me, “Are you a Malaysian?” Indeed I was. So I was sent to see Lim Siong Guan, who was then principal private secretary to Kuan Yew, who then said I should become a Singapore citizen.

He would put up a paper with three names – Lee Kuan Yew, Hon Sui Sen and Goh Keng Swee – and also get them to sign it. I remember going to Empress Place to get this done. There was a nice lady there who gave me a book. I held it, took an oath, and so I became a citizen.

I then worked for Lim Kim San. I was in a room next to Dr Goh, who was at the Ministry of Education at the time; Kim San’s office was across from Dr Goh’s. I was actually on loan to Kim San because he was short of staff. He wanted someone to write letters for him – he said lawyers always wrote good letters – but he looked at me and said to Dr Goh: “I just don’t like this bloody chap.” Dr Goh dismissed it and told me Kim San was just in a bad mood that day.

The next time I saw Kim San, he was in a good mood and had forgotten we had ever met. I wrote simple letters for him; they were for his constituents or people requesting help from him, promising them that things would be done but that it would take time and we would do our best in the meantime. Kim San was very nice to me after that.

I had learnt to write very short letters, and the minutes I wrote while at the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation were also short. When I first gave the minutes to Kuan Yew, its new chairman, he said: “I don’t like this. It’s rubbish. I want to know exactly what each person said.” He wanted more details.

In 1989, Kuan Yew was looking for a new Chief Justice and he said my name had been put up by several judges. He said, “Think about it,” and told me to make a decision quickly.

I replied: “Can I think about it?”

He said: “That was what I said. But I hope your answer will be yes because you have done nothing for Singapore!”

He practically scolded me, bringing up the fact that I had declined his offer to be a Supreme Court judge in 1972.

He said there was no time to waste. I asked him what I was supposed to do. He said: “Become Chief Justice! Just clean up the whole thing, you know what to do.”

I said: “Fair enough. But if the job is too much for me, will you release me?”

There was no answer.

The next thing I knew, he was telling people he had found a person and my name was published in the papers. So that was how I became Singapore’s second Chief Justice.

Coldplay – Everglow

oh they say people come, say people go
this particular diamond was extra special
and though you might be gone
and the world may not know
still I see you
celestial

like a lion you ran
a goddess you rolled
like an eagle you circled
in perfect purple
so how come things move on?
how come cars don’t slow?
when it feels like the end of my world
when I should but I can’t let you go?

but when I’m cold, COLD
oh when I’m cold, COLD
there’s a light that you give me when I’m in shadow
there’s a feeling you give me
an everglow

like brothers in blood
sisters who ride
and we swore on that night we’d be friends til we die
but the changing of winds
and the way waters flow
life as short as the falling of snow
and now I’m gonna miss you I know

but when I’m cold, COLD
in water rolled, salt
I know you’re always with me and the way you will show
and you’re with me wherever I go
cos you give me this feeling this everglow

oh – I I I I
what I wouldn’t give for just a moment to hold
yeah I live for this feeling this everglow

so if you love someone, you should let them know
“oh the light that you give me will everglow”

Coldplay – In My Place

In my place, in my place
Were lines that I couldn’t change
I was lost, oh yeah

And I was lost, I was lost
Crossed lines I shouldn’t have crossed
I was lost, oh yeah

Yeah, how long must you wait for it?
Yeah, how long must you pay for it?
Yeah, how long must you wait for it?
For it

I was scared, I was scared
Tired and under-prepared
But I wait for it

And if you go, if you go
And leave me down here on my own
Then I’ll wait for you, yeah

Yeah, how long must you wait for it?
Yeah, how long must you pay for it?
Yeah, how long must you wait for it?
For it

Sing it please, please, please
Come back and sing to me
To me, me

Come on and sing it out, now, now
Come on and sing it out
To me, me
Come back and sing

In my place, in my place
Were lines that I couldn’t change
I was lost, oh yeah
Oh yeah

Quote of the Week

“You must purge yourself before finding faults in others.
When you see a mistake in somebody else, try to find if you are making the same mistake.
This is the way to take judgment and to turn it into improvement.
Do not look at others’ bodies with envy or with superiority.
All people are born with different constitutions.
Never compare with others.
Each one’s capacities are a function of his or her internal strength.
Know your capacities and continually improve upon them.”

~ B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life

The Big Read: Four top lawyers share their experiences in the legal world

The Big Read: Four top lawyers share their experiences in the legal world

Clockwise from top left: Professor Walter Woon, Dr Michael Hwang, Mr Edmond Pereira and Mr Amolat Singh.

A DIFFERENT BREED OF LAW STUDENTS

Within the legal fraternity, Professor Walter Woon walks as a giant.

His roots are based in academia, although he had a dalliance with lawmaking, serving as a Nominated Member of Parliament from 1992 to 1996. The first Private Member’s Bill to be passed — the Maintenance of Parents Act — was drafted by him.

Prof Woon, 59, also served as an ambassador overseas, before taking up the Attorney-General (AG) appointment in Singapore in 2008, going on to argue several cases personally. One of his last court appearances was for the high-profile case of Malaysian drug trafficker Yong Vui Kong, in the latter’s appeal against the death sentence.

After stepping down as AG in 2010, he returned to his first love — academia — and is now dean of the Singapore Institute of Legal Education. Most recently, he joined RHTLaw Taylor Wessing as chairman and senior consultant.

Things have come full circle, he acknowledged. “I dislike litigation. If I liked litigation, I would go out and triple my salary. People did offer but I said, ‘No thanks. I’ll come back to my natural habitat which is academia, pass on what I’ve learnt over the last 30 years to the next generation, so they’ll be better prepared than we were’.”

The career choices that Prof Woon has made allowed him to spend more time with his twin sons during their growing-up years.

While his sons, Adrian and Alexander, have followed in his footsteps and pursued law, Prof Woon notes that the profession is no longer the same as when he was a rookie.

“Law has become more of a business, rather than a profession. It is a pity but it’s inevitable. The old clubby feeling disappeared when the profession expanded. Firms are 200, 300 (in size). They have to be run as a business,” Prof Woon says.

These days, young lawyers are a different breed. “They’re less hungry than they used to be. Nowadays, unlike my generation, they have the expectation of inheritance. The majority of the students who come into law school nowadays come from families that are well-off,” he points out.

Lacking drive, the newcomers no longer find it necessary to stay in the profession through “thick and thin”.

Prof Woon notes: “They have options. And I don’t say this to blame them; because why should you kill yourself doing something you do not like in order just to accumulate money, when you’ll inherit? So do something worthwhile with your life, instead of just make money.”

AN INTERESTING, WORTHWHILE LIFETIME JOB

One of the earliest impressions Senior Counsel Michael Hwang had of the legal profession came from fiction.

“Students of my generation were all inspired by this fictional lawyer called Perry Mason who never lost a case. It was the most famous lawyer novel series then,” says Dr Hwang, 72. “When you’re young, you’re reading these books, you think, ‘My goodness, what magic a lawyer can do if he is able!’; vindicate his clients and save them from wrongful conviction.”

Mason’s brilliant cross-examination of witnesses, portrayed in the novel series by Erle Stanley Gardner, enthralled Dr Hwang and inspired him to become a lawyer.

Very soon into his decades-long legal career, he realised that the tales were “completely unrealistic”. The sobering realisation did not lead to disenchantment with his profession though, he quickly qualifies.

“The reality is that this doesn’t happen. No lawyer can ever say that he’s never lost a case,” he says. “Also, everything was based on the lawyer’s brilliant cross-examination of the witness, whereas in real life, a cross-examination is very often a slow and steady interrogation to exploit weak points made in evidence and destroy the credibility of witnesses.”

Indeed when Dr Hwang stepped into law, his family expressed scepticism.

“It wasn’t considered a glamorous profession in those days. Everybody wanted to do engineering and medicine … My mother said to me, ‘You know lawyers don’t make a lot of money.’ With respect to my late mother, I don’t think that’s true anymore. Parents would be quite happy for their children to become a lawyer,” he says.

He likens law to the field of medicine, with “many areas you can go into”. Back in the old days, lawyers were expected to be generalists and juggle various areas of the law — capital markets, mergers and acquisitions. But these days, large firms bank on their young hires to be experts in highly specific fields.

“They become very specialised quite quickly. That’s good but what my former senior partner used to say is that you don’t want to be too left-handed, meaning you become too specialised to the extent that you know virtually nothing about other branches of law,” he says.

Starting out as a lawyer with Allen & Gledhill, Dr Hwang has risen through the ranks, notching accomplishments along the way including heading his fraternity as president of the Law Society and being a member of the Supreme Court Bench.

He has carved a niche in the fields of international arbitration and mediation, currently sitting as Chief Justice of the Dubai International Financial Centre’s Courts, presiding over a panel of 10 justices from other countries.

His string of accolades includes being the honorary vice-president and governing board member of the International Council for Commercial Arbitration (ICCA).

Despite his success , Dr Hwang says he has not finished learning about the work of a lawyer.

“Even at this late stage, I’m always learning something new because you cannot know it all. Almost every day, there’ll be some new legal knowledge that I acquire. Of course, the juniors will be learning five to 10 new things a day, while I’m learning one or two. It’s a lifetime job, which makes it more interesting and worthwhile,” he says.

MENTORSHIP A TWO-WAY STREET

When he first started out as a lawyer, Mr Amolat Singh would wake up in the middle of the night in cold sweat, and run through the details of a particular case in his mind.

“You ask yourself, ‘Is there something else I can do that I’ve forgotten?’” he says. “Behind my work, there are real lives at stake. In commercial, civil and corporate cases, everything boils down to dollars and cents. But when you’re doing criminal and family law, you know it’s not just dollars and cents. These people have to pick up the pieces.”

For newer practitioners, this emotional burden is very real; with each negative verdict comes devastation. But the senior lawyer learnt from his mentor and long-time friend, the late criminal lawyer Subhas Anandan, to keep his emotions at bay, and maintain professionalism and objectivity.

Mr Singh was a mid-career lawyer, having left the military at the age of 35. Later, he started volunteering for Legal Assistance Scheme for Capital Offences, and worked on his first capital case with Mr Anandan.

“Subhas had by then so many cases under his belt. Even for the very first case we did, every time we had a coffee break or we went for lunch, I would share my doubts with him. I was very fortunate in the sense that at the start of my career, I had somebody like that to shadow,” says the 59-year-old.

Mentorship is important for younger lawyers, Mr Singh stresses. “It helps them find some bearing in life, then they will stay the course.”

Current mentorship programmes in law firms tend to be more technical, and less focused on dealing with emotions, he feels. For mentorship to reap rewards, young lawyers must learn to voice their concerns, he said, and senior lawyers have to make time to address these worries.

Today, Mr Singh runs his own practice with two other partners, one of whom is his wife. But some things remain unchanged for the veteran.

“Even when you drive the car, you stop at the traffic light, and your mind goes back to this case,” he says. “Sometimes you do get a spark. So I quickly drive to the side of the road and write down in my small pocketbook, so that it remains there while it’s still fresh.”

PUTTING IN YOUR BEST FOR EVERY CASE

Decades after defending former footballer Abbas Saad in a match-fixing scandal, defence lawyer Edmond Pereira continues to feel “deeply aggrieved” over the case.

In the 1990s, the Lebanese-born Australian was a star in local football, turning out for Singapore in the Malaysian League and Malaysia Cup. But his footballing dreams went up in smoke in 1995, after he was found guilty of fixing matches, fined S$50,000 and banned from football-related activities here. The lifetime ban was only lifted in 2009.

Recounting the day the verdict was handed down by the court, Mr Pereira said many supporters were elated with the sentence and erupted into cheers in the courtroom “as if the team won the game”.

Two decades on, the lawyer still wonders if the outcome could have been different.

“(This) is one case which I feel deeply aggrieved about. Abbas happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Unfortunately, he made some admissions in his statement,” he says.

During the trial, Mr Pereira challenged the admissibility of the statement as evidence — arguing that Abbas had been threatened and coerced into signing it — but to no avail.

“Looking back, could I have done it differently? Perhaps I could have. Would the outcome be the same? It’s hard to say. I could see at that time that (the authorities) wanted to make an example of somebody and Abbas was the right target,” he says.

The veteran lawyer, 66, started his career as a legal officer in the Defence Ministry, before becoming a Deputy Public Prosecutor and State Counsel in the Attorney-General’s Chambers, and serving as a District Judge in the then-Subordinate Courts. In 1988, he moved into private practice, and became one of the stalwarts in criminal law.

Even today, Mr Pereira remains passionate about the cases he takes on, despite the fact that it is less financially rewarding than other areas of legal practice.

“(Criminal law) involves the person’s rights and liberty. There’s an accusation, there’s a lot more cut and thrust, and there’s excitement,” he says.

Over the years, Mr Pereira has carved a niche in corruption cases. However, he shuns drug trafficking cases because drugs “ruin people’s lives”.

Asked about his portfolio of work, Mr Pereira is contemplative. “Sometimes when we look back on some of the trials we did, (we wonder) whether our challenge to the prosecution witness should have been in a particular way. Would it have been better? It’s very hard. You’ve got to make that judgment at that time.”

The Big Read: As a legal career loses its sheen, law firms take action 

BY: VALERIE KOH
SATURDAY, 05 MARCH 2016

SINGAPORE — Long considered a lucrative and respected career option here, the notion of becoming a lawyer — which, along with being a doctor or a banker, ranks highly among many parents’ wish lists for their children’s future occupations — is losing some of its shine.

Anecdotes abound of lawyers dropping out of the industry, citing stress and burn out — so much so that the hollowing out of the criminal and family law practice areas has become a growing concern. Amid a potential oversupply caused by a spurt in the number of Singaporeans studying to be lawyers overseas, starting salaries of fresh law graduates have also fallen, going by the latest graduate employment survey.

The unusual manpower predicament — a glut of fresh graduates seeking to join the industry couple with an exodus of experienced mid-tier lawyers — is threatening to hinder Singapore’s ambitions of becoming a legal hub at a time when its transitioning economy needs all the help it can get.

Veteran lawyer Gloria James-Civetta, who runs her own law firm, said her senior lawyers end up doing most of the heavy lifting themselves, due to the lack of mid-level talent.

“Senior lawyers end up having to go to court often to attend to heavy-duty matters, when they could have been dealt with by a lawyer with less experience,” she said.

“Sometimes, we can’t offer a client a mid-level lawyer, so it results in us having to compromise and reduce some of our rates as well.”

Lawyer Amolat Singh believes the thinning of mid-tier legal practitioners could have a negative impact on the competitiveness of the Republic’s legal industry on the global stage, though the impact might not be apparent at the moment.

“Parents see law as the land of milk and honey. People think that the courtroom drama is quite fun, but they forget that for one hour of drama, there are many hours of sweat not seen,” said Mr Singh, who noted that, anecdotally, many lawyers exit the industry after the three-year mark.

Statistics provided by the Law Society of Singapore (LawSoc) in 2014 showed that three in four Singaporean lawyers call it quits within their first decade of practice.

Responding to TODAY’s queries, LawSoc said that between 2011 and last year, the proportion of mid-tier lawyers (those with seven to 12 years of experience) has hovered between 7.6 per cent and 10.2 per cent. In comparison, lawyers with more than 12 years’ experience make up between 51.8 and 60.6 per cent, while the proportion of junior lawyers (defined by LawSoc as those who have spent less than seven years in practice) ranged between 29.6 and 39.5 per cent.

In response to the challenges faced by the industry, a third law school at SIM University — which will welcome its first batch of students in January next year — has been set up, primarily to attract mid-career professionals to criminal and family law. In contrast to the more lucrative corporate law practice, these two practice areas have borne the brunt of what Senior Minister of State (Law and Finance) Indranee Rajah described as a “hollowing out effect”.

STEMMING THE EXODUS

There are currently about 1,600 criminal and family lawyers here. About one in 10 is above 65 years old.

Lawyer Sunil Sudheesan, the acting head of the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore, noted the great emotional strains on lawyers in these two practice areas.

“Criminal law is a very depressing game to play … the first case that really left a deep impression (on me) was Took Leng How’s,” he said. “I was involved in the psychiatric aspect of that case. After we lost in the High Court, I got quite upset and wondered, ‘Was it because my submissions were not good enough?’”

In a case that gripped the nation, Took was sentenced to death in 2005 for the murder of eight-year-old Huang Na.

But criminal and family law are not the only areas where warning signs are going up. Senior lawyers noted that in all practice areas, the attrition rate is high compared with other industries. LawSoc president Thio Shen Yi felt the demands of the profession may not necessarily be in sync with what many millennials are prepared for. Gen Y lawyers crave new experiences and have an array of options available to them, said Mr Thio, who is the joint managing director of TSMP Law Corporation.

The Singapore Corporate Counsel Association, which represents in-house lawyers, does not track the number of lawyers who have left private practice to go in-house. Anecdotally, however, the SCCA has observed a “gradual increase” in the number of in-house counsel over the years.

Currently, there are some 2,000 in-house counsel here — almost half the number (about 4,800) of lawyers in private practice.

One of those who made the switch was Ms Jaime Lee, 29, who started her legal career in 2010 at a Big Four law firm before joining a global commodities company as an in-house counsel. In December last year, she left the industry to focus on growing her stationery and lifestyle products business. “I was very happy where I was, but the business was growing and I had to decide whether I wanted to take the leap of faith to go full-time to bring it to the next level,” she said.

Ms Joanne Poh, 31, also cut short her legal career. After less than three years in the industry, she left to pursue freelance writing. “Most of my friends thought I was insane to want to leave a high-paying job,” she said.

Veteran lawyer Foo Siew Fong, Head of Family and Matrimonial Law at Harry Elias Partnership, offered a reason young lawyers opt out: “The best time (to leave) is when (one) is still young and has no financial burden of maintaining a family.”

Last year, LawSoc set up a taskforce to conduct focus group discussions with junior lawyers and find out “what might keep them in the industry, pull them away, (or) push them away”. “Once we understand the causes, we can try to work out solutions,” said Mr Thio.

He said he was not unduly worried about the situation, which he felt could be corrected by market forces in due course. “If there are fewer people in the middle category, then these people become very much in demand. The rewards for them increase, and more people are incentivised to stay,” he reasoned.

Nonetheless, some law firms — both big and small — have begun taking action to retain their young guns.

At Drew & Napier, the management recognises that lawyers need to “pause, recharge, and take care of their families and other aspects of their lives”. Mr Kelvin Tan, a director at the firm, said: “We have flexible arrangements to help our lawyers do that, like sabbaticals, the flexibility to work from home fortnightly, and part-time working arrangements.”

At smaller firms, lead lawyers encourage their juniors to take ownership of cases that they are helping with. “Assisting doesn’t mean taking notes only, they have to interact with clients and prepare (for the case),” said veteran lawyer Edmond Pereira, who runs his own practice.

To give room for young lawyers to grow, Mr Peter Low, who also runs his own practice, believes in pushing every member on his team to develop their “own public persona”. He said: “I don’t want a lawyer to tell me after five years that people think he’s my sidekick. It cannot be like that. Five years later, people must say, ‘Forget about Peter Low, forget about the law firm. You’re a good lawyer’.”

LawSoc president Thio Shen Yi felt the demands of the profession may not necessarily be in sync with what many millennials are prepared for. Gen Y lawyers crave new experiences and have an array of options available to them, he said. Photo: Koh Mui Fong
TRAINING CONTRACT WOES

While the industry struggles to hang on to its young talent, a constant stream of fresh law graduates seeks to enter the legal profession.

In 2014, Law Minister K Shanmugam warned that Singapore could face an oversupply of lawyers in the coming years, due to the spike in the number of Singaporeans studying law overseas. As a result, aspiring lawyers have to manage their expectations in terms of pay and job opportunities, he said.

The findings of the latest Joint Graduate Employment Survey released earlier this week showed that the median gross monthly salary for fresh law graduates from Singapore Management University fell to S$4,731 last year, compared to S$5,025 in 2014. The starting pay for those who graduated from National University of Singapore’s Law Faculty also fell to S$4,700, from S$5,150.

To guard against the oversupply, the authorities have dropped almost half of the 19 United Kingdom law schools on the list of institutions whose graduates are recognised for admission to the Bar from this year. But it will take some time for the impact of the move to be felt.

For now, law firms are spoilt for choice, with many fresh graduates vying for training contracts. “It’s actually good for law firms. When there’s an oversupply of law students, it means that law students may not be as fussy as before in terms of the areas they go into,” said Mr Thio. “If we take the situation five or six years back, all the law students wanted to go into corporate transactions or commercial disputes. You might find a situation now where law students say, ‘well, I’m quite happy to go into criminal law or family law … It might be easier for me to secure a job that way, and that’s my way of entering practice’.”

Mr Pereira used to have one or two trainees in his firm. These days, he has four trainees under his wing. He has even encountered applicants who said they were willing to go without the training allowance.

Rajah & Tann Singapore managing partner Lee Eng Beng advised fresh law graduates to chalk up relevant experience before applying for a training contract, which is required for admission to the Bar. Mr Lee, a Senior Counsel, said: “A lot of Singapore law graduates see being called to the Bar as a final qualification that they need to acquire as soon as possible. I don’t think it’s necessary. There’s too much focus on the qualification to practice, and not enough on gathering real experience and learning, which will produce a good practitioner in the long run. It’s an outdated mindset.”

He added: “If you are already very clear that you want to enter a certain industry…and if you’re prepared to spend a couple of years to work in that industry and gain knowledge, and two years later, apply to us for a training contract, I would put that name first. Grades will be secondary by then.”

Law firms are now spoilt for choice, with many fresh graduates vying for training contracts. Veteran lawyer Edmond Pereira used to have one or two trainees in his firm. These days, he has four trainees under his wing. He has even encountered applicants who said they were willing to go without the training allowance. Photo: Robin Choo
HOPE ON THE HORIZON

It is not all bad news, however.

While those in the legal fraternity fret that a core of practitioners to succeed the likes of Mr Shanmugam, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, former Attorney-General Walter Woon, Senior Counsel Michael Hwang and the late Subhas Anandan on the pantheon of Singapore’s legal giants is not forthcoming — possibly a consequence of the industry’s struggles to hold on to its brightest talent — others are more sanguine.

Mr Amolat Singh felt that this is inevitable as the overall pool of lawyers gets bigger. In the past, it was easier to shine, he said. But these days, the gulf between top lawyers and “the rest of the crop” has narrowed considerably, he said.

Rajah & Tann’s Mr Lee also noted that large law firms have also shifted away from depending on star names. He added: “When you have your branding and profile revolving too much around individuals, that’s not healthy for large firms. All individuals will grow old and retire one day. So the institutional name is the one that remains.”

And while bright young legal minds here have been lured away by firms overseas — especially in Hong Kong, which serves the China market — Professor Woon feels this is not necessarily a bad thing. “I suspect that the brain-drain would be worse without the prospect of working for an international law firm in Singapore. The young and the restless will move abroad to get the international exposure; the presence of leading international firms in Singapore gives us the opportunity to lure them home,” he said.

Singapore is not standing still, either. It has been strengthening its position as a dispute resolution hub. The Singapore International Commercial Court (SICC) was launched in January last year, complementing the work of the Singapore International Arbitration Centre and the Singapore International Mediation Centre.

In the past, appearing in the courtroom was “the only avenue known” to lawyers, said Mr Amolat Singh. “For every dispute, we say, ‘See you in court.’ But now there are alternatives, and people are beginning to realise the benefits of alternative dispute resolution. The outcomes can be more custom-fit.”

Asked if such a shift could take away the thrill of arguing in court which some lawyers live for, Mr Singh said: “The disputes will still arise, but the manner of resolving them is a bit faster, and I can go on to the next file…It’s just a question of changing our mindsets and modus operandi to suit the new model.”