My Cultural Journey



By Chan Leng Sun, SC, Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Singapore International Arbitration Centre, Senior Barrister and Partner of Essex Court Chambers Duxton. Published in the first issue of the SCCL Law Review, “The Cultural Lawman.” This article was translated by Fu Yuanhua and proofread by Yang Wenxin.

It’s not time to put away my lawyer’s robe. One does not have to stop aside and look back at the road one has traveled only when one arrives at the destination. At the kind invitation of the Swiss-Chinese Law Association, I reflected on the education I have acquired over the past 30 years in life and law as Singapore closed its doors.

I have worked in different capacities in different careers. However, I am genuinely grateful for the different experiences I have had in many countries, in different environments, with people of all faiths.

After obtaining my first law degree from the University of Malaya, I started my career in Kuala Lumpur. I joined the law firm of Mah, Kok & Din, now known as Raja, Darryl & Loh. I joined its litigation department and was involved in various domestic civil litigation cases. We work mainly in English, but since the official language of Malaysia and the courts is Malay, we must also be fluent in Malay. Hearings in the lower courts are often conducted in Malay, but the senior judges in the High Court are comfortable with English. In addition to the required basic competencies in the law, Malaysian lawyers had to be hardworking and pragmatic bunch. Those were the days before the internet and electronic documents, where documents had to be moved from one place to another. Unfortunately, these documents were not always where they were supposed to be, which led to interruptions in hearings. Nevertheless, lawyers learned to cope with the unpredictability of the process. We traveled all over Malaysia, adapting to the judges’ demands in every town we arrived in.

The year I started my practice was a watershed year for the Malaysian judiciary. In 1988, a period of tension between then Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and the judiciary led to the suspension of the Chief Justice of Malaysia, Tun Salleh Abas, and the establishment of a trial committee to hear the charges against him. Five law firms, including Mah, Kok &Din, defended Tun Salleh Abas pro bono, without fear or favor. I was a trainee lawyer at the time and was pulled in to assist the stalwarts of the Malaysian Bar[ywf2]. The Malaysian Bar Council was very independent, courageous, and firmly on the side of the judiciary. The story is full of drama, and there are many twists and turns. To make a long story short, the Chief Justice and two other Supreme Court judges who dared to attend the emergency appeal hearing to stay the Commission’s proceedings were also removed from office. It took them two decades to prove them right. In 2008, Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi announced ex gratia payments to Tun Salleh Abas, Tan Sri Wan Suleiman, and Datuk George Seah for unjustly losing their positions. In that year, the Malaysian Bar Association, the Asia Pacific Law Association[ywf3], the International Bar Association, and Transparency International (Malaysia) Chapter adopted a joint report expressing disapproval of the Trial Committee’s decision against them.

(Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad with Tun Salleh Abas)

During the year of 1990, I had the privilege of studying for my LLM at the University of Cambridge as a Scholar of Kuok Foundation, Honorary SHELL Scholar, and Pegasus Cambridge Scholar. Before that, I had hardly traveled at all. My first flight was to represent Malaysia as a Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition participant at the Moot Court Finals in Washington, DC. When I started law school, I didn’t even think that I would one-day study in Cambridge. I took a bus from London to Cambridge in the evening. As I walked down one of the town’s cobbled alleys, I rounded a corner and was struck by the Gothic grandeur of King’s College Chapel. That first encounter with the intellectual fortress left a profound impact on me from the inside that lasts to this day. I reveled in my time as a student at Sidney Sussex College, wandering the halls of Cambridge’s history as a privileged insider.

(Cambridge University’s front room)

The Pegasus Cambridge Fellowship arranged for its scholars to spend a few months at the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple and Clifford Chance LLP in London after we graduated. I experienced for the first time the environment of a large international law firm and the unique tradition of British lawyers. It was fascinating to see how the two offices were so completely different yet worked so seamlessly as a whole. The international law firm was a vibrant hive of activity and vibrancy. A defense attorney’s office is quiet, with each defense attorney researching and drafting legal documents individually in his or her room, except for the occasional meeting outside or afternoon tea with other attorneys. Transactional attorneys are the solvers of their clients’ practical and business problems, and they turn to defense attorneys when they need in-depth legal analysis or defense. The solicitor and the defense attorney go hand in hand. My time with them is too short to be of much use to either of them. However, the people assigned to me were very civil. It is worth mentioning that Lord Robert Goff of Chieveley (deceased) invited us scholars into the House of Lords when he and other Lords were hearing a case. They took time out from the trial to host us for lunch.

After returning from the UK, I ended up as a lecturer in the Faculty of Law at the National University of Singapore on the recommendation of a fellow student from Cambridge. I enjoy researching, reading, and teaching. I specialized in shipping law, contract law, and international business transactions. At that time, the National University of Singapore was the only law school in Singapore. Many of the leading figures in the legal profession were alumni of the school, and the brightest minds were gathered there as teachers and students. The friendships forged on the Kent Ridge campus are fond memories for me.

Despite being in a comfortable academic environment, I felt that my knowledge was mostly theoretical as I did not foresee the application of the principles in business. So, after three years of academia, I decided to join a boutique law firm in Singapore with a strong reputation in maritime law, namely Ang & Partners. There were only a handful of lawyers at the firm, but that meant everyone was important, and the learning curve was steep. The junior associates worked very hard to keep up with the three founding partners. These three founding partners are three of the hardest-working attorneys I have met to date.

In 2007, the United Nations Compensation Commission (“UNCC”) offered me a job as a legal advisor in Geneva. I accepted the job and took a leave of absence from the law firm of Ang & Partners. The UNCC was established to process claims and compensate for loss and damage resulting from Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1990-1991, with the funds for compensation coming from the Government of Iraq. The UNCC legal team had to verify and evaluate the claims under the methodology approved by the UNCC. They explained their findings to the Commissioners, who made their assessment and recommendations in a report to the Governing Council, then reported to the Security Council.

Working at the UN and living in Geneva was a new experience. I needed to make some adjustments. We can’t rush to take shortcuts like pragmatic lawyers always do. We have to stay true to the UN processes and procedures, often under scrutiny. There is no doubt that this team is as international as you would expect. Diversity is an asset, not a barrier. We can see that the differences between people come from their personalities, not their nationalities. Switzerland is as beautiful as those who live there know it and as those who dream of it imagine it to be. If you want to live in Geneva, it will help you learn French. I struggle bravely with this language, but my lovely Swiss neighbors often suggest I talk in English to end the torture (for them).

I had a two-year contract with the Compensation Commission, and at a time when they were planning to extend my contract, Ang & Partners asked me to come back to Singapore. Because they were going through a change, they wanted me to come back to the law firm as an equity partner. So, I returned to practice in Singapore in the year of 2003.

In the new millennium, legal fees for shipping matters are under pressure to decline in line with the increasing volume of shipping litigation. This is particularly true in Singapore. This means that large law firms have to diversify their practices, while smaller firms cannot expand. In the talent competition, law firms with a predominantly shipping practice cannot offer competitive salaries and growth to attract smart new lawyers. I had enough interesting work, but I didn’t have enough team support. There was one dispute in the high hundreds of 2 million dollars where I went up against a litigation team led by senior partners from two large law firms, with only one trainee lawyer to support me.

When Baker & McKenzie LLP came to me for the second time in 2011, I said yes and moved to the largest law firm in the world at the time. The environment and work culture were completely different. As a full international partner, I had enviable legal and administrative resources at my disposal. This also meant additional business development, firm policies, and team building. Shortly after that, I was appointed Head of Asia Pacific Arbitration. After that, I was appointed Head of Global Arbitration. This was more of a coordinating role than a “CEO” position. Because there were many more experienced and distinguished colleagues in Baker & McKenzie LLP offices worldwide than me. I am constantly on the phone and in-person with many colleagues from different offices with a wide range of expertise. I have learned about business law in the American, European, Middle Eastern, African and Asian markets. It was a true privilege to work with such a multicultural team with such diverse capabilities, and even more memorable for the amazing talents that the attorneys displayed in their social activities.

The size and distribution of a global company can give it a competitive advantage, but it can also be a shackle. Conflicts of interest are a real problem. The decision-making process can also be complex.

In 2017, Mr. V K Rajah, a former Senior Attorney General and Judge of the Court of Appeal decided to set up Essex Court Chambers Duxton (Singapore Group Practice) (ECCD) to provide professional advocacy services. This move has turned the rules of the bar upside down. Until now, lawyers in Singapore had practiced in a fusion of professions. In other words, they are both “advocates and solicitors,” as the title of a qualified Singapore lawyer suggests. The work of what can be described as a transactional lawyer includes taking instructions from clients, taking statements, preparing paperwork, filing, correspondence, and some degree of legal research and consultation. The work of an advocate, as the name implies, is the preparation and conduct of a defense in court or arbitration. This distinction is particularly evident in the English system, where lawyers are divided into Solicitors, such as Baker McKenzie or Clifford Chance in London, and Barrister’s Chambers. Inner Temple, (Inner Temple) Middle Temple (Middle Temple) or Lincoln’s Inn (Lincoln’s Inn). Singapore law firms do not have this division of labor and deal with all aspects of the dispute, from taking instructions to defending at trial.

Mr. Rajah, a senior associate, felt that it was time for Singapore to have specialists who focus on advocacy work like in the UK. Therefore, he set up ECCD as a pure defense lawyer’s office. Mr. Toby Landau QC, who has a practice in Singapore, joined him as a member. Each member of ECCD works similarly to an advocate in London in that each member is an independent, self-employed lawyer who can work with any law firm on any dispute. ECCD is not a partnership, and members are not employers of other members. It is not a law firm but a “law practice group” of independent members. It is still the only advocacy office set up by qualified members in Singapore.

In 2018, I returned to a comfortable environment, this time focusing solely on real legal work. My work includes providing legal advice, acting as lead counsel in court proceedings or arbitrations, acting as an arbitrator, and occasionally as a mediator. Clients give me instructions directly or through the law firm. If the law firm that instructs me can handle the dispute, I will work with the team of supporting attorneys at that law firm. If not, or if the client comes to me directly, I will assemble a team of attorneys from one of the many excellent law firms. This allows me to tailor the team to the needs of a particular case. Clients usually assign a junior member of ECCD to assist, and the ECCD platform offers unlimited opportunities for collaboration with any law firm in Singapore and beyond. Within a year of starting, I have worked with clients and lawyers from the US, Europe, and Asia.

I am still on the journey, learning lessons and experiences along the way. As this terrible epidemic has shown us, no one can predict the vagaries of life or career. No matter what happens next, the legal profession is multi-dimensional. It has given me incredible travels and given me a lot of perspectives. It’s not just about the law; it’s about people and their lives. And for that, I’m incredibly grateful.

Chan Leng Sun, SC, Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Singapore International Arbitration Centre, Senior Barrister and Partner of Essex Court Chambers Duxton.