|Interior of the main dome of the former Supreme Court building Photo: Supreme Court of Singapore|
I was called to the bar in 1973, and in the same year, I had the opportunity to appear before the late Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin in the High Court on a contentious matter involving four members of a family. It was a rather unfortunate case because I was representing the mother and sister against two other siblings who were disputing over a settlement of the family estate upon the death of the patriarch of the family. The case was heard in the Old Supreme Court Building which is now the National Gallery. As a rookie lawyer, still wet behind my ears, I was awed by the very ornate court room and chamber of the Chief Justice.
Many famous cases were heard in this magnificent building, and perhaps the most historic of all is the war crime trials of members of the Japanese military in 1946.In my view the most professionally meaningful symbol in the building is the tympanum sculptures on the pediment visible below the cupola. They are the work by Florentine sculptor Augusto Martelli, a Milanese sculptor. The centre figure in the tympanum, holding a sword in the left hand and scales in the right, is Justice. The figure immediately to its left represents Lost Soul begging for protection from it. Next to this figure are two legislators with books in hand, representing the Law. To the left of Justice is Gratitude. A man holding a bull, representing Prosperity is on his left. And at the extreme left are two young children holding a sheaf of wheat representing Abundance resulting from law and justice. They constitute an eloquent allegory of justice which, as an officer of the court, I was exhorted to uphold.
The late Chief Justice had presided for 27 years as the first non-British Chief Justice, making him the longest-serving chief justice not only in Singapore, but also in the Commonwealth. I was also awed by his reputation and presence.
After our opening statements, he glared at us and promptly adjourned the trial and called us into his imposing chamber. “Learned counsels,” he softly queried, “do you know what you are doing?” He reminded us that these litigants were members of the same family who were being divided by quibbling over the way the estate was being distributed. He made it clear to us that the matter is one that ought to have been amicably settled out of court for the unity and wellbeing of the family as a whole. We got the message and within a matter of weeks, both parties arrived at an amicable settlement and the case was withdrawn.
It was my first high court hearing that did not quite happen because the late Chief Justice was a kind and compassionate judge who believed that justice sometimes is best done outside the court. In a matter of minutes in his chamber, he instilled in me the notion that justice in that matter was to be found in the spirit of the law not in the letter of the law. I learnt very early in my practice that family relations and unity is far more important than each member insisting on his own right under the law. By insisting on a settlement out of court, he got me to start my practice on the right footing with the right values. Justice is best served with the best outcome for all.
|Part of tympanum sculpture fronting the former Supreme Court building. Photo: Supreme Court of Singapore|
Needless to say, the family remained intact and was full of gratitude. And whenever I think of the Old Supreme Court Building, the allegory of justice symbolized by the tympanum sculptures below the cupola is projected in my mind. If I were to practice law again, I would like the outcome to be on the left of Justice represented by Gratitude, Prosperity and Abundance.
My memory of the Old Supreme Court Building is not the building in and of itself, magnificent as it is. My true memory is that first encounter with the late Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin who practiced what he preached. I cherish his words as I walk down this memory lane: “The qualities that one should look for in a judge are a burning desire to be fair and impartial; the courage to uphold the law and strike down injustice; compassion, coupled with an understanding of human frailties; and lastly, love for the law.”
[This article is adapted from Down Memory Lane: Memories of the Old Supreme Court published in the August 2015 issue of the Singapore Law Gazette, an official publication of the Law Society of Singapore, Adapted with permission]