Interview with Kevin Tan, law professor

Professor Kevin Tan was born and educated in Singapore. He graduated with LLB (Hons) from the Faculty of Law of the National University of Singapore in 1986 and joined the teaching staff of his alma mater that same year. Kevin subsequently obtained his LLM (Master of Laws) and JSD (Doctor in the Science of Law) at Yale Law School, being the first Singaporean to achieve the latter. From 1986 to 2000, he taught full-time at the Law Faculty, specialising in Constitutional and Administrative Law, Law and Government, Law and Society and International Human Rights. He resigned as Associate Professor in 2000 to start his own consultancy but continued to teach actively. Since 2006 he has been Adjunct Professor at the NUS Faculty of Law and Professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

Beyond his university duties, Kevin has been active in many organisations. He has served as National Programme Commissioner in the Singapore Scout Association (1992-1995); President of the Singapore Heritage Society (2001-2011); and Treasurer and then President of the Roundtable, a non-partisan political discussion group (1999-2002). He is currently President of the Singapore chapter of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS).

Amelia and Charlotte from the Letters of the Law team sat down with Prof Tan for a chat about life in academia and why he feels compelled to be a public intellectual.


Letters of the Law (LOTL): Tell us about your journey after law school.

Professor Kevin Tan (KT): That’s easy. I never thought of myself as a lawyer in the first place. I came to law school not knowing what I wanted to do. My first love up till then was English Literature. I was offered an MOE scholarship to read literature at NUS after which I would have to become a teacher. I figured that I didn’t want to become a teacher – at least not in a secondary school – and decided that I should perhaps something else. I was very involved in debating while in school, so my teachers – seeing how I seemed to like to argue – encouraged me to study law. During my time, we were not so laser beam focused on courses and careers. We just thought, “Let’s just make it to university and see what we can do from there.”

I found that I really enjoyed law school. During my first and second year, I thought I would go out and practise, since that was pretty much what everyone talked about non-stop. By my third year, I was beginning to think seriously that it would be quite fun to be an academic, partly because I was very much involved in the Singapore Law Review (SLR). I was responsible for reviving the Review in 1983; it had started publication in 1970 but died after three issues. It started quite innocuously. In my first year, I was the Academic Secretary of the Law Club and one of my jobs was to put out the Law Times, which was a student magazine with a smattering of legal commentary. I wasn’t happy to do just that and wanted to work on something more substantial. One of my seniors suggested reviving the Singapore Law Review, which I thought was a great idea. If you look at one of the editions of the SLR, I wrote about how this whole thing started. We revived it in 1983, so you can find it in the 1993 issue as a ten-year reflection.

It was all very amateurish and ambitious but we had big dreams and lots of crazy ideas. When you are young, you don’t know what is impossible so we even asked Lord Denning to write an article for us.

LOTL: Did he write for you guys?

KT: Well he didn’t actually write for us, but we wrote to him and he wrote back. Lord Denning apologised for not being to respond as he was then just recovering from a hip operation. He was such a sweet man.

LOTL: Wow!

KT: There’s a famous photograph that’s still in the SLR room, of Lord Denning and adorned by his signature. That’s how garang we used to be – just try lah! We revived the Review. That got me interested in the academic side of things.

By my third and fourth year, I was quite clearly set to get a Second Upper, which in those days was as good as it gets. First Class Honours were rarer than hen’s teeth. We did produce a First Class Honours student in our year – the current Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon.

I was very much influenced by Prof Tan Yock Lin. I was among the first batch of students taught by Yock Lin when he joined us. Back in those days, there was the senior tutor scheme where you taught for a year before being offered a scholarship to do an LLM. The Sheridan Fellowship is a variation of that original scheme. That scheme was designed by the University and the government to get bright young locals to join the teaching staff. In those days, nobody wanted to join the university as private practice was financially much more attractive. To make it attractive, this scheme gave you a scholarship to do your Masters abroad. It was quite exciting. In those days, people didn’t travel the way we do now. Return tickets from Singapore to London cost $4000!

I was quite keen on an academic scholarship and I had a lot of encouragement from a few people, including Yock Lin, Philip Pillai, Molly Cheang, Gerald Dworkin, Yash Ghai and Prof Jayakumar. They were all very encouraging. I applied and was taken in as a Senior Tutor.

LOTL: You applied in your final year?

KT: After I graduated. In those days, it was not a semester-based system. We only had exams at the end of the year, so we would only know how we did for our final year exams after we graduated. It was pretty scary. Nothing electronic. The Dean would stand at the foyer and read out your class of honours.

LOTL: Oh my.

KT: Everyone would be there.

LOTL: This is the first time you find out? In public?

KT: Yes.

LOTL: Wow. What kind of temperament is suited for teaching?

KT: It’s kind of a paradoxical requirement. You have to be happy to be alone, and you have to be happy to be among people at the same time. Because the research and writing part of the job is a very lonely experience. You just sit there and read these piles of books, cases and articles. It’s difficult to just get up and talk about what you are doing with anyone since they are unlikely to that interested or involved in your area of research, much less read the stuff you are reading. It’s quite solitary so you must enjoy quietude and solitude.

At the same time, you must enjoy interacting with young people, or you will not be a good teacher. When you are in class, you need to be an extrovert and a bit of a showman. That’s how you get students to engage. So, being a university academic requires you to be a little bit of both.

LOTL: What proportion of time does it take up?

KT: The official division of time is 40-40-20. So 40% of our time is expected to be devoted to research and writing; 40% to teaching; and the remaining 20% of time to administration or service. In this regard, you may end up serving on some government committee or our law faculty committees.

LOTL: That is part of your duty as a professor?

KT: Yeah.

LOTL: Oh, we didn’t know that, we thought you were just taking on additional roles.

KT: As an adjunct, I have none of these duties actually. But I voluntarily take on administrative duties and I continue to write quite a lot as well. Of course, I am always happy to supervise students with interesting theses as well.

LOTL: So you worked as a senior tutor teaching in school first for a year?

KT: So the norm would be they assign you subjects to teach. I’ve always gravitated towards public law type of subjects, such as criminal law and legal systems. Public law was the subject that I was assigned when I joined the Faculty and it has remained a constant in my teaching duties. Back in those days they needed somebody to do the course. I was assigned and that was it. Nobody wanted to teach this because it was considered dangerous and there were not much prospects for making money. In those days, everyone wanted to teach commercial subjects, so that you could still become a lawyer if you lost your place. If you were a specialist in corporate or banking law, the chances of you being asked to write an opinion would be much better and hence there would be some remunerative benefits. In contrast, public law was a subject nobody wanted to touch.

In my first year, I taught Singapore Legal Systems and I worked with Walter [Woon] who was the course coordinator, Legal Method (which Bob Beckman coordinated) and Constitutional Law and Constitutional Theory (coordinated by a South African chap called Andrew Ladley).

LOTL: Did you ever find yourself on the fringe of danger?

KT: All the time. You run this risk all the time.

LOTL: Were you asked to give lectures straight out of law school?

KT: Yeah. You’re thrown into the deep end. They tell you that you have to give a lecture in the fourth week. It was stressful if you’ve never done it before, but I didn’t find it too bad because I had always been involved in public speaking and debates. In your mind, you have models – lecturers you admire – and you try to emulate them. In the end, it is still best to be yourself. The way I give lectures is very different from the way other people give lectures. I’m just carrying on conversation. That’s my lecture style that suits me well. In the past, I used to try to sound like Yock Lin. I can still do a pretty mean imitation of him. I love telling stories so it’s not that difficult.

LOTL: Why did you choose to go Yale for your graduate studies?

KT: In those days, everyone went to the UK. It was the tradition given that so much of our law was based on that of the UK. If people went to the US, they often went to Harvard. Very few people went to Yale. Jayakumar was the first. Molly Cheang was the second. And then there were a couple after that – Shue Tily, Soon Choo Hock – and then me. Yale is very small. Its LL.M programme only has 26 places. Ten are reserved for North Americans so you are fighting for 16 places. Even though I didn’t get a first class honours, I was accepted because they were impressed by the fact that I was the chief editor of the Singapore Law Review. I also had sterling recommendations from my referees – Yash Ghai, Gerald Dworkin and Molly Cheang. Molly even wrote directly to Michael Reisman, who was then heading the Graduate Selection Committee to say, “You must take this guy”, so I was very lucky.

I had offers from other places, but I thought that I should go to Yale because the LL.M programme advertises itself as preparing people for academia. I didn’t want to go to England because it would be like having a fifth year of LL.B.  

LOTL: How is studying in the US different from studying in the UK?

KT: Oh, it’s very different. There’s a lot more class participation demanded. They have a seating chart and all that, which we now use for Singapore Law in Context.

I would say that many of the top American schools didn’t look at law as a series of rules and doctrines. You would need to know the rules, they assume that, but they want you to think beyond. How the rules came about. What social conditions led to the enactment of this particular law and that sort of thing. It was eye-opening in that way. Being amongst the big group of very intelligent graduate students was quite a treat. I had people in my class who had done a PhD in philosophy already. My classmate was the former Attorney-General of Micronesia. Another guy in my class had been a navy JAG (Judge Advocate General). I was one of the youngest in our class. Many other people had done many other things in their lives. It was really exciting and dynamic.

I wanted to stay because I had gotten into the doctorate programme, but the NUS Faculty of Law wouldn’t let me stay. They said they needed me back. So I had to get permission to write my dissertation from here.

LOTL: So you wrote it here and consulted with your professors back there?

KT: Yeah. My supervisor was the famous Bruce Ackerman, who is amazing. He said “Don’t worry, go back and do it and send me the drafts”. By that time, there was something called Telnet, which was a precursor of email and Internet. So in those days I used that and the fax machine. The cheapest way for short communications was through fax.

LOTL: Did you type out your dissertation or did you write everything?

KT: I’ve always typed. Even in law school. I was a clerk in the army. I can type very fast. I’ve always typed my notes. In lectures, I write. There is something about writing – when you’re writing, the brain is processing the information in a very different kind of way so writing keeps that part of the brain alive. I still write a lot of stuff. But if I want to write notes, I type. These days you can cut and paste. Not in those days.

LOTL: How long did you take to finish the dissertation?

KT: I took too long. I was distracted. When I returned to Singapore in 1988, I got married and had kids. The faculty here didn’t give me time off to do work on my dissertation. The Dean told me that doctorates counted for nothing in terms of promotion and that I was “wasting my time”. They wanted me to do more teaching and committee work, so it was very tough. The first two years I barely did anything, then I finally started writing. The actual writing itself didn’t take very long; it’s just that I kept getting distracted. I finished it in 1995 when I got my first sabbatical. Almost seven years.

LOTL: What were the other things you did, given that 20 percent of your time is dedicated to committees?

KT: At one point, I sat on twelve different committees. You know how much time that takes? You have to do committee reports, chase people for things.

LOTL: What were these committees?

KT: Curriculum review, social committee (which organises tea parties and movie nights), sports committee (we had a very good soccer team), faculty library committee. In those days, we did everything. If I had a tea party, I had to go and buy the food. Today, I can organise the tea party, tell you where the place is, and I have administrators buy the food and arrange everything. But we still have to make the policy decisions. That takes up a lot of time.

Being an editor of a journal also takes up a lot of time. I was chief editor of the Singapore Journal of International and Comparative Law, which now has split into Asian Journal of International Law and Asian Journal of Comparative Law.

LOTL: During the seven years that you were writing your dissertation, you were juggling all of these?

KT: At different times. There was a lot. I literally have to look at my CV to remember what I did. I was on the teaching methodology committee, the legal database committee… we were the ones who set up the first legal database which is now LawNet.

LOTL: That’s amazing.

KT: I was on the faculty renovation committee, the office automation committee, the multidisciplinary research committee, faculty strategic planning committee, publicity committee. Strategic planning is of course interesting. We chart the direction of law school. Curriculum review is always interesting. A lot, right?

LOTL: Out of all these, which did you find the most meaningful?

KT: All of it was quite fun. The legal database community created this thing called CAESAR (Case Electronic Search and Retrieval). Walter, being a big fan of Roman history, called it CAESAR. We got some student assistants and got them to photocopy all the historical law reports, then we physically trimmed them and used optical character recognition (OCR) to convert these pages into digital Word documents which we could edit.

LOTL: Page by page?

KT: Yes, but we had a scanner with a document feeder. We used a Kurtzweil scanner which cost something like $40,000. We got it scanned, then OCRed and checked. This was the fastest way to get it done. So we used technology.

LOTL: How about the stuff you did outside of law school?

KT: After I came back, I continued to be very involved in the Scout movement. That’s part of the reason I got distracted and wasn’t writing my thesis. When I wasn’t in the classroom, I was in Scout camp most of the time. I became the first National Programme Commissioner of Singapore. I was responsible for looking into the entire Scout training programme. There was a lot of work.

LOTL: You also did work with the Singapore Heritage Society?

KT: That was much later. I was active in the Roundtable, which is the very first political discussion group registered under the Societies Act. That organisation lasted around ten years. I was President between 1999 and 2001. After I stepped down as President of the Roundtable, I got dragged into the Heritage Society by my old friend Kwok Kian Woon and and became President for ten years. Oftentimes, friends would approach me to help with all sorts of different things, and I suppose I was curious enough to see how I could help. My wife complains that I am too “soft hearted” and obliging.

LOTL: What prompted you to become so active as a public intellectual?

KT: I suppose you can say that it stemmed from my own values and beliefs as a scholar. I had long felt it a pity that many scholars were content to remain in their ivory towers. I believe that you need to engage. You can’t just be sitting in an ivory tower. You are a scholar and you are privileged. Because you are privileged, you need to share and speak up when the opportunity presents itself or the occasion requires you to. This is the ethos we live by. There may be a price. But who else will speak up? You have that responsibility.

LOTL: What were some of these episodes that you felt that you had to speak up?

KT: All the time! I taught constitutional law. We were debating GRCs and the Elected Presidency on TV. Those days there was no Internet. What else can you do? You can write in the newspapers, but you can’t debate someone in the newspaper. In those days, the current affairs programmes were very interesting. There were a lot of debates on TV. If you don’t speak, you may lose the right to speak. That was our general operating ethos.

LOTL: How did academia compare to the work in the private sector?

KT: I never went into legal practice. In the two years I was in the private sector, I did political risk analysis for an investment company.

LOTL: What did you have to pick up?

KT: I had to pick up a lot about the business world to understand how things work. How people buy and sell. Political risk analysis mainly involves reading the news. I spent all my days reading about twenty newspapers. My brief was very simple. How does it affect the portfolio in the next three days, the next three weeks, the next three months? It’s a one-page summary. It wasn’t very hard and but it wasn’t very fun. Helping rich people make more money is not very intellectually exciting, at least to me. Eventually I decided it was time to return to academia.

LOTL: What did you decide to dabble in after that?

KT: I didn’t really dabble; I sort of stumbled into things. My teaching, writing and scholarship had always been there. The ten years that I spent at Heritage Society did shift my scholarly direction a little bit. I used to write a lot more on law and politics but now I write a lot more about law and history. And then people thought I would have some idea about history as president of the Heritage Society and started asking me to take on commissions for books. It was all very serendipitous … the beauty of happenstance.

LOTL: Given that you have done so many things in your career and some of these were outside of law school, who do you count among your mentors?

KT: Good question. In law school, I have already mentioned my mentors, Molly Cheang, and Tan Yock Lin. Another one I should mention is Yash Ghai. He taught me jurisprudence and we became very good friends. He’s an Indian of Kenyan origin. Big name. He became the first YK Pao Professor of Constitutional Law in Hong Kong. Then there was Gerald Dworkin, who taught me intellectual property and much besides. And of course, there was my own thesis supervisor, Bruce Ackerman.  

They were great influences on me in various ways, whether in terms of teaching, thinking and engagement. People like Yash were very engaged. He didn’t just sit down and write books. He drafted more constitutions than any person alive.

In the other sectors, I wouldn’t say I had too many mentors. I found myself very often charting a new path most of the time. Call it arrogance or confidence, but I believe that if you give me enough time I can master the subject. With charting new paths, you just have to make your mistakes. I always had friends. I don’t think anybody in those areas was there way before. We were all doing something new. It was more important that I had good friends I could count on and we do something together, rather than there being some guru somewhere. Of course, there are many older scholars who gave me a lot of encouragement. When I do my historical work, I always benefited from the encouragement of people. A lot of things are new. You have to find your own voice. People might like it or hate it but at least it’s yours.

LOTL: What is one thing that you could not learn in law school but learnt elsewhere outside of law school?

KT: I can’t think of anything. But there is one thing I ought to learn that I haven’t learnt. That is to keep my mouth shut. Which is what my wife complains about. “Do you have to say all that? Just keep quiet.” Sometimes she’s right.

LOTL: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received and what advice would you give to law students thinking about a path in academia?

KT: I’m not good at following advice. I think the best piece of advice – admonition, perhaps, rather than advice – came from my father: “You must never be afraid. Never waver. Always do the right thing.” That’s the guiding principle, lodestar, whatever you want to call it. I do all these things and get into trouble, but it doesn’t matter. The point is, you try to do the right thing. Whether you’ll be rewarded or not is another story. At least you can stand straight and look yourself the mirror and know you can’t ask for more.

The other thing I try to live by – which is the scouting adage – is: you must always try to leave the world a little better than when you found it.

With a combination of these, you have some direction. You can’t get it right all the time. Sometimes the timing is no good. But you try again. You learn to be resilient. You hit me, and I’ll get up again tomorrow.

As for advice to students, I’m not sure what I can advise. I try not to impose my views on individuals too much. I’ll give you a view and you decide. The best advice is always dependent on who I’m talking to. The best advice I give you at this point in time may be really good, but ten years from now may be a really lousy piece of advice because it doesn’t suit the situation. The best advice I can give is always situational. My advice is always very practical. It’s idealistic but practical. I always take care of the practicalities first. In a way, I’m very old-fashioned. Whatever you do, make sure you get your degree first. One of my former students said I am very paternalistic.

LOTL: I think maybe they mean fatherly.

KT: Haha! Yes, I actually told him: “I am old enough to be your father so I am entitled to be paternalistic.”

I always want the best for young people, to make sure they can do what they want to do and achieve what they want to achieve. Whenever you get a piece of advice or scolding, it’s always for your own good. I wouldn’t say there’s “one piece of advice”. There’s no such thing.

For myself, I would say, I must do the right thing and make sure at the end of the day it’s better than when I wasn’t around.

Jonathan Muk, lawyer

Satwant Singh, lawyer