August 03, 2018
Speech by Ms Indranee Rajah, Second Minister for Education, at The Singapore Management University, School of Law Commencement Ceremony
Assoc Professor, Goh Yihan, Dean, SMU School of Law,
Faculty and Staff
Graduands of the Class of 2018,
Parents and Guests
Changing Legal Services Landscape
1. First, let me congratulate the graduands here today and your lecturers and tutors for bringing you safely through several years of law school. It is an exciting time because you will be entering a world which is very different. Over the last decade, the legal services industry has been changing in fundamental ways.
2. Through globalisation, legal work has become increasingly cross-border in nature. Clients are much more sophisticated, and they demand more from their lawyers. Technology is changing the way legal services are delivered. The legal profession will need to constantly evolve to meet these changing needs.
Rule of Law
3. One thing that has remained constant, and must continue to do so, is the rule of law as a foundational principle on which our nation was built. In a 1962 speech, then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew told members of the Bench and the Bar, “Your work done well can ensure that the legal and judicial system works fairly and expeditiously for the benefit of all in society.” I repeat the words – “for the benefit of all in society” because that is the role of the lawyer.
4. His exhortation is just as relevant today, as it was 56 years ago. A 2015 Ministry of Law survey found that that more than 90% of Singaporeans agreed that Singapore was governed by the rule of law, and had trust and confidence in Singapore’s legal system.
5. The Rule of Law is fundamental to Singapore’s success. The rule of law ensures that no one is above the law, including the Government, and that there is no tolerance for corruption. It builds a trusted and safe environment that not only benefits individual citizens, but also businesses and foreign investors, who have come to trust Singapore as a society characterised by fairness and accountability.
6. As future legal practitioners, you must do your utmost to defend and preserve the rule of law. You must see the legal profession as a calling – to ensure that all in Singapore, especially the weak and vulnerable, enjoy the protection of the law. Now, let me say something about the future economy.
The Future Economy
7. Strong rule of law entails having laws and government regulations which are clear, transparent and enforced. The stability and certainty of our legal framework is a foundation for economic growth. It gives businesses confidence to invest in Singapore, secure in the knowledge that their investments, both tangible and intangible (like IP) are protected, and that they have recourse to the law against any unreasonable actions that affect them.
8. And Singapore is today known not just for its rule of law, but also high quality legal services. This adds to Singapore’s overall attractiveness as an international financial and commercial centre. We are in a strong position, but we need to build on our strengths as a hub for legal services.
9. First, we are today already one of the world’s top five dispute resolution centres. But we aim to do better. Our institutions – Singapore International Arbitration Centre, Singapore International Commercial Court and Singapore International Mediation Centre – together, provide a full menu of dispute resolution options. They are well regarded, and have great growth potential.
10. We are attracting other international institutions, arbitration chambers and law firms to set up shop in Singapore. They add to our standing and offering as an international centre. To meet growing regional demand for dispute resolution services, we are expanding Maxwell Chambers.
11. Second, besides being an international dispute resolution centre, Singapore seeks to also establish itself as the restructuring hub in Asia. The Companies (Amendment) Act 2017 updated Singapore’s corporate insolvency framework, and positions Singapore as a regional forum of choice for corporate debt work-outs and restructuring.
12. Third, we will go beyond dispute resolution and restructuring, to develop and grow new legal practice areas. These means growth areas for you to expand into, when you eventually become practising lawyers. We will also better link legal services with accounting and financial services, so that Singapore becomes a full service provider for businesses in new growth areas.
13. Our vision is to be a global exchange for financing, brokering, structuring and dispute resolution for international commercial transactions. So, this is a very exciting time for you.
Developing Future-Ready Legal Professionals
14. SMU graduates are well-poised to capture opportunities in the practice areas I have mentioned. The SMU School of Law, being situated within a management university, has natural strengths in commercial and corporate areas of law. The business-focused orientation that has been inculcated in all of you will stand you in good stead.
15. Equally important is your mind-set and your attitude. How can you prepare yourselves to thrive in the future economy?
Look Beyond Singapore
16. Growth prospects in Singapore’s domestic legal services market are limited. Future growth opportunities are out there, particularly in the region. The value of legal services exported from Singapore more than doubled, from $363 million in 2008 to $867 million in 2017.
17. I am heartened to know that the SMU School of Law has led Law Study Missions to destinations such as Hong Kong, Beijing and Sydney, to learn about a foreign legal system and business environment, through visits to law firms, legal institutions and businesses.
18. Miss Pearlynn Wang, one of today’s graduands, participated in a Law Study Mission to Hong Kong, and wrote this in the SMU Blog: “This study mission provided me with the rare opportunity to truly consider the legal, political and socio-economic aspects of a city so similar and yet so different from my home country. I was engaged intellectually, and quite apart from the decadent dim sum, I learnt to better appreciate how the complexities and peculiarities of a city can shape its political climate, culture and perspective.”
Develop Multi-Disciplinary Skills
19. It is no longer sufficient to have strong legal skills and knowledge. Clients are looking for legal professionals who can be trusted business advisors. This means understanding your clients’ industries, the jurisdictions in which your clients operate, and being able to guide your clients in their decision making. So, you not only need to know the law, you need to be able to see around the corner and anticipate what the environment will be and to think ahead and be prepared.
20. SMU already has in place a broad-based law curriculum to develop such well-rounded lawyers, with up to 25% of the courses being non-law related. So, I trust that you have taken full advantage of the opportunities for multi-disciplinary learning during your time at SMU.
21. Wilson Foo, one of your seniors, graduated in 2013 with a double degree in Law and Information Systems. In 2016, he combined his expertise in law and IT to write a mobile app to generate draft deed polls. The app is called Didpol Singapore, and is available for free on the Google Play Store, if any of you are considering a change in name. Which brings me to my next point.
22. Technology is set to transform legal practice. Technology can now be used to draft simple contracts and review documents quickly and often more accurately than human lawyers. Before too long, technology will have predictive, and even prescriptive capabilities.
23. But legal professionals should not see legal technology as a threat. Instead, you should embrace it and harness the power of technology to help you move up the value chain. Like Wilson, some of you could also get involved in the development of legal technology. Because that is the way of the future. Next, pursue lifelong learning.
Pursue Lifelong Learning
24. The world and legal services market are constantly evolving. Lawyers need to continue sharpening their skills, and deepening their expertise to stay relevant. As you progress in your careers and take on management roles, skills in leadership and management skills will also be critical. It is not enough to just know the law, you also need to know how to manage and be a leader.
25. As client needs evolve, lawyers may need to change specialisms, or branch out into other areas of law to stay relevant. The SMU Law Academy will continue to meet your Continuing Professional Development needs, even as you graduate.
Giving Back to Society
26. To study and practice law is a privilege, as well as a responsibility. Whether you eventually enter private practice, the Legal Service, or the judiciary, you will play an important role in ensuring that our society is governed by the rule of law; and in promoting access to justice.
27. I am pleased to note that all of you have been actively involved in pro bono work. The SMU Pro Bono Centre, established in 2013, was Singapore’s first on-campus legal clinic. Since it has been established, the Centre’s work has helped over 670 members of the public.
28. Melina Chew, a student leader at the Pro Bono Centre, says, “Doing community service, especially pro bono work, helps us law students put things into perspective. Often we are too caught up studying and achieving the best grades possible, yet many of us lose sight of the very motivations which brought us to law school.”
29. Participating in pro bono work gave you a sense of the real issues faced on the ground, and I hope that your experience of it has sparked in you a passion to continue to apply your legal training to help the less privileged after you graduate. We have many inspiring examples of how lawyers have served our country well and given back to society in different ways.
30. The first cohort of the then-University of Malaya’s law faculty graduated in 1961. Among them was Mr Chan Sek Keong. Mr Chan started his career as a lawyer, and later served as Attorney-General from 1992 to 2006; and as Chief Justice from 2006 to 2012. In 2009, Mr Chan became the first Asian jurist to be given the International Jurists Award in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the administration of justice.
31. One of Mr Chan’s classmates was Professor Tommy Koh, who of course needs no introduction. They are just two examples of pioneering Singapore lawyers whose contributions to society are worthy of emulation.
32. When I graduated from law school in 1986, I did not know at that time, that my classmate will become the future Chief Justice of Singapore – Sundaresh Menon. So, amongst the group here, we do not know which of you may well be the future Chief Justice, future Attorney General or, in some other way, shape or make a contribution to the legal industry as well as to society. But today is the day that you set off on that path. With such pioneers showing the way, live up to your School’s mission by becoming lawyers who will lead and serve the community with distinction.
33. Once again, congratulations and thank you very much.