Tan Cheng Han, SC, law professor

Cheng Han holds an LLB from the National University of Singapore and an LLM from the University of Cambridge. He is currently the Chairman of the NUS Centre for Law and Business, as well as a Senior Counsel and arbitrator. Cheng Han is also a Commissioner of the Competition Commission of Singapore and serves as Chairman of the Public Accountants Oversight Committee. If he had not entered law school, he would probably have been a historian or economist.

This Letter is addressed to him just after he saw his 2nd Year results.

Dear Cheng Han,

I know you’re feeling somewhat relieved, having rushed down in the night to NUS Law to join many of your equally anxious 2nd Year classmates as you all peered intently (with the aid of torchlights) at your results pinned up on the noticeboards. The Law Faculty must have put up the results fairly late in the day, which was why news of this just filtered out.

From what I remember, you’re extremely grateful that you did not fail any subject, especially Property I. Ever since you couldn’t quite grasp the first topic – the rule against perpetuities – Property I has been a bit of a blur. A ‘C’ grade was therefore more than what you expected – in fact it is the same grade that you received in all your subjects! In the years to come you will often joke that you were a straight ‘C’ student. Even today, you don’t feel bad about your results because you knew what a terrible year it was. You were so involved in NUSSU and Squash that before you knew it, there were only 2 weeks to go before the start of exams. As you’re not likely to cut back on these and other activities in future, moving forward you really need to manage your time better.

Rest assured that if you can strike a better balance between your studies and other interests, your grades should get better. Put in a bit more effort and at some point in time, things will ‘click’ for you and you’ll find a clarity that was previously missing. Also – and this is something that I really only appreciated much later – don’t just focus on legal doctrine or rules. Try to get under the skin of those rules to understand what they are trying to achieve. If you can do this, the law will take on a clarity that you cannot even begin to imagine. You will understand the social construct that the law is and appreciate the context within which it facilitates the workings of a civilised society.

You’ve known from lower secondary that you wanted to pursue Law, in part because it was patently clear you had no aptitude for Science or Math, but mainly because you intuitively felt then that knowledge of the law is a great tool for a person who wants to make a positive contribution to society. Over the years, you may occasionally wonder if you made the right choice. You might even contemplate leaving the legal profession altogether by applying for business related positions.

With the benefit of many more years of hindsight, I want to reassure you that your intuition was correct. Knowledge of the law is a powerful thing for the socially enterprising person. You will find that even if you are not a public servant, there will be many opportunities for a legally trained person to be engaged in public service and public policy. You will, however, have to take the time to learn about and understand the areas within which you have the opportunity to serve, whether that is in competition regulation, sports policy, the accounting profession, media and information technology, or financial regulation, which may be some areas that your future will intersect with. In other words, learning must continue beyond university and go beyond law.

This is something that I learnt which has been invaluable to me, and while I share this with you in the context of public service, it is relevant to private practice as well. Lawyers are in essence problem solvers and to understand the needs of clients and the best solutions for them, future lawyers like yourself will need to understand your clients’ businesses and therefore the industries that they operate within. Context is ever important!

I know this is all a little heavy but you will understand more of this in time. For now, remember also that you are only young once so don’t forget to have fun too (which you can with proper time management). When you’re my age, believe me when I say that you won’t look back and reminisce about your time in the library! So, from time to time, as a future song goes: “Shut Up and Dance”!

All best,

Cheng Han 

Ronald JJ Wong, lawyer

Grace Teo, law student