Opening of the Legal Year: Reflections on Three Jurisdictions
Last month in January, I attended three Openings of the Legal Year (“OLY”). The first OLY I attended was of course our very own in Singapore, followed by the OLY in Hong Kong, and the third in Kuala Lumpur.
It has now become a tradition for each territory to invite the Bar leader of a neighbouring country to attend its OLY. In particular, the close relations we have with Hong Kong and Malaysia, plus the short distance with these two jurisdictions, make it almost de riguerfor us to send a senior representative to their OLYs. Indeed, there are many areas of common interest for these three territories, and we have discussed the possibility of more frequent contact to exchange ideas.
This is the third time that I have attended Hong Kong’s OLY. The first was when I was Vice-President, and then-President Michael Hwang asked me to attend as he was otherwise engaged. The Hong Kong OLY is full of pomp and ceremony. There is a march-past by a police contingent to the rousing music of a police band, with bagpipes and drums. The barristers come fully attired in their wigs and black robes. But it is the judiciary that catches the eye with their red, purple and gold trimmings, depending on seniority. However, the Chief Justice does not come in his ceremonial dress – he is dressed in his working day black robe, similar to what the barristers wear. He also does not wear a wig.
I have always wondered about the significance of why the Hong Kong Chief Justice does not turn up in full ceremonial dress. Is it a gesture to the ordinary people, or perhaps a gesture to the “one country” of the “one country-two systems” principle? In any event, the return of Hong Kong to China has not in any way resulted in a lessening of this very British and imperial ceremony. If anything, one cannot but come away with the feeling that this pageantry is not only tolerated, but is in fact encouraged by all sides of the political spectrum. Somehow, all the different political interests have found convergence in this display of legal pomp.
Our Hong Kong hosts were of course very hospitable. As theirs is not a fused profession as in Singapore, we actually had two hosts, the Bar Association and the Law Society.
The Kuala Lumpur OLY is also full of pomp and ceremony. This was the first time I was attending the OLY in Kuala Lumpur. There is a procession by the practising lawyers, lawyers from the Attorney-General’s Chambers and finally the Judiciary. The Judges are as resplendent as the ones in Hong Kong; the difference being that they do not wear wigs, but songkoks. The ceremony is held in the Convention Hall at Putrajaya.
This is the third time that Malaysia is having a formal OLY, after a break. For several years, there was no OLY as the Malaysian Bar refused to attend the OLY. And of course an OLY would not be meaningful if lawyers do not attend. But relations between the Bar and the Judiciary have improved tremendously in the last few years (thanks very much to the leadership of their Chief Justice Tun Zaki, who retired late last year), and so the OLY was revived. Indeed this year, some lawyers had to be turned away because of the better than expected response.
As a close neighbour of Malaysia, I am personally delighted that relations between the Malaysian Bar and the Judiciary have improved so tremendously. Indeed it has improved so much that my counterpart in Malaysia in his speech, was calling for an increase in the salaries of the Judges!
If I thought that my job as President of the Law Society of Singapore is tough, and whenever I feel discouraged, I need only think of the tougher job that my friend the President of the Malaysian Bar has. His is a much tougher job with many pressure points, and better relations with the Judiciary do not necessarily make his job easier. I can only salute the strength, resilience and patience of the Malaysian President and his Council.
When I compare our own OLY with those in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, there is no doubt that ours is the simplest of the three OLYs. But it is no less poignant and significant. Unlike those in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, ours is a formal Court proceeding, with no clapping. In Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, every speech receives a round of applause. So there are always differences, and it is for each jurisdiction to decide what best suits it. In case we forget, the OLY is the occasion at which we lawyers pledge our continuing support for the Judiciary in the cause of justice. It is like a re-affirmation of vows. And for young and new lawyers, I would say that this occasion should be witnessed by them, so that they can better appreciate the special bond between lawyers and Judiciary, and between the legal profession and the community we serve.
And I think the special bond between the legal profession and our communities is very much alive in all three jurisdictions as all the three Presidents – myself, the Hong Kong Law Society President and the Malaysia Bar President – spoke of the need to improve our respective pro bonoprogrammes for our citizens.
► Wong Meng Meng, Senior Counsel
The Law Society of Singapore