SINGAPORE: Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin was given a rare honour on Wednesday (Sep 27) to mark his retirement after more than 50 years of public service.
A valedictory reference was conducted to pay tribute to his contributions to Singapore. It’s a formal sitting of a full bench of Supreme Court judges to mark events of special significance.
Justice Chao, 75, is the only judge who served under all four Chief Justices in post-independent Singapore.
Opening the valedictory reference, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon hailed Justice Chao as a role model for lawyers, saying he “personified the very essence of what it means to be an excellent judge, and to do so with the right temperament”.
The Chief Justice recalled a conversation he had with Senior Counsel Chelva Rajah in which the latter said: “The entirety of my self-education as a judge was to ask myself every time I had a difficult situation, ‘What would Hick Tin do?’”
“Many of us on the bench would still say that this was our surest guide to resolving a judicial dilemma,” Chief Justice Menon added.
“WE OWE JUSTICE CHAO A DEEP DEBT OF GRATITUDE”: LAW MINISTER
Among those who gave speeches to pay tribute to Justice Chao were Law Minister K Shanmugam, Professor S Jayakumar and Attorney-General Lucien Wong.
Mr Shanmugam highlighted ways in which Justice Chao had advanced Singapore’s interests in the legal arena.
He was involved in the Pedra Branca case, and was also a key member of the team that negotiated the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
But Mr Shanmugam singled out an example of how Justice Chao played a role in securing Singapore’s long-term water security, following the country’s separation from Malaysia in 1965.
The minister recalled how in 1986, Justice Chao – as a 25-year-old lawyer in the AGC then – was sent to represent Singapore at a UN Conference on the Law of Treaties.
At the discussions, a Malaysian representative said: “Some treaties might be so fundamental to the very existence of states that they simply could not be dispensed with, whatever political differences might arise.
“For example, the new island state of Singapore was dependent on Malaysia for its water supply; The treaty under which Malaysia had to supply a certain quantity of water daily to Singapore could not be terminated or suspended between the two States for any political reason.”
Mr Shanmugam said Justice Chao had the “presence of mind and astuteness” to realise that the Malaysian representative’s comments must be put on record.
“He made sure that went on record – the importance of having that acknowledgement written into the record in the UN, in black and white,” said Mr Shanmugam.
“We owe Justice Chao a deep debt of gratitude. For this and many other ways in which he protected and advanced Singapore’s interest.”
Prof Jayakumar, meanwhile, shared personal memories of Justice Chao, with whom he worked on UNCLOS.
“After a tiring day at law of the sea sessions, our delegation looked forward to an evening meal in the hotel and the chef was Chao Hick Tin,” said Prof Jayakumar, recalling how Justice Chao was “an excellent cook”.
The legal fraternity also surprised the retired judge with a book which includes a compilation of essays and a biography of his legal career.
Said Justice Chao: “I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to be involved in the development of the law in Singapore. My time on the Bench has been memorable.
“The law and the administration of justice have undergone significant changes over the years, and I am confident that our legal system will continue to evolve to better serve the needs of society.”
Justice Chao began his career in the public service as a State Counsel in the Attorney-General’s Chambers in 1967. He became a High Court judge in 1990 and was appointed Judge of Appeal in 1999.
In 2006, he became the Attorney-General of Singapore before returning to the Supreme Court as a Judge of Appeal in 2008.