Face to Face with Professor Tan Cheng Han SC

Earlier this year, Professor Tan Cheng Han SC moved from the National University of Singapore to Hong Kong to head up City University’s law school. Armed with both curiosity and passion, which have always enabled him to innovate in academia, Tan says he has a number of ideas for his new role.

After a long and illustrious stint as the dean of the faculty of law at the National University of Singapore (NUS), one of the world’s top educational institutions, Tan is ready to bring his skills to Hong Kong and support the next generation of lawyers in this city. As he maps out his priorities for the new position, he considers his own pathway into academia.

After obtaining his law degree from NUS in 1987 and an LLM from Cambridge in 1990, Tan, who originally practiced with Singapore’s largest firm Allen & Gledhill “for a short time,” found himself drawn to academia. It wasn’t long before he decided to accept a position with his former university’s law school.

However, after spending five years with the university, Tan felt ready for a change, and decided to re-enter practice as a salaried partner, this time at another of Singapore’s largest law firms: Drew & Napier. He made the choice to practice again, he explains, “as I felt my previous stint in practice was too short to appreciate it properly.” Tan’s time at the firm allowed him to consider his long-term career path. After three years, “it was clear to me that I much preferred the pursuit of law as an academic. I rejoined NUS in mid-1996 and have remained there since,” he says.

While he may have left the law firm environment behind him, Tan says he did take away valuable lessons from his time working in a legal practice. “One nice outcome of my time at Drew & Napier is that the experience there provided me with the opportunity to selectively accept briefs that interest me and to take up arbitral appointments,” he says. But the pull of academia was something Tan always felt.

“I’ve always been interested in the fascinating academic issues that arise in every area of the law that I’ve been exposed to,” he says, noting that he found that practice couldn’t compete with the sense of fulfillment he felt as an academic. “While practice can have interesting moments, I must confess that I didn’t enjoy much of it. This is a matter of personal taste,” he says candidly.

“After spending some time at Drew & Napier, and given that I had thoroughly enjoyed my first stint in academia, it was an easy decision to move back to NUS when the university asked if I was prepared to return.”

In his role as dean of the faculty of law of the NUS, and later director of the EW Barker Centre for Law & Business, Tan’s academic output has been celebrated, with his articles and writing to be found in journals and books on company law, contract law and the law of agency. In addition to Tan’s academic work, he served on the Securities Industry Council and as deputy chairman for the SGX Listing Advisory Committee. He currently chairs Singapore Exchange Regulation and the Public Accountants Oversight Committee, and is also Deputy Chairperson of Sport Singapore. He is also active in the social sector and chairs Caritas Singapore as well as NTUC First Campus which aims to provide high quality early childhood education that is affordable.

Completely Unexpected

When the news was announced that Tan would be leaving, Professor Simon Chesterman, dean of NUS Law told the Straits Times that Professor Tan had “done an extraordinary job in leading the centre since its founding.”

If Tan’s departure to Hong Kong came as something of a surprise for his colleagues, it perhaps came as even more of a surprise to him. Tan calls the move to Hong Kong “completely unexpected!”

“Sometime in September 2018, a headhunter contacted me to ask if I might be interested in the Deanship at CityU. I was intrigued by the possibility though not especially keen,” he says. “Moving to a different city to work is usually something that younger people do and generally not a fifty-something like me. I also have many commitments in Singapore and these are responsibilities that I take seriously.”

Despite feeling settled in Singapore, Tan entertained the thought, and began to consider what he could achieve in the role. “I increasingly feel that law schools must begin to transform themselves and if CityU was open to this it would be an interesting proposition. As it turns out the leadership of CityU (as well as faculty at the law school that I have interacted with) has been very welcoming of my ideas, and also understands that because of my responsibilities in Singapore I will have to travel there fairly often,” Tan says.

With these measures in place, Tan also felt this role would also offer him the chance to achieve personal goals: “At this stage of my career this may be a final opportunity to do something meaningful and so I decided to make the move,” he says.

Focus on Research

The City University of Hong Kong, often called CityU, has an internationally regarded law school, and while Tan is already buzzing with ideas for how he will tackle his role, he is appreciative of those who have gone before him. “I would like to be clear that the law school owes a debt of gratitude to the previous deans for where it is today. I want to pay tribute in particular to Dean Geraint Howells, who has further raised the reputation of the school over the last five years,” Tan says.

“He leaves the school with a strong research culture and a sincere commitment to teaching. This is rarer than it sounds. Many good law schools today prioritise research and teaching tends to suffer by the wayside.”

Research is a must for every tertiary institution to prove the mettle of its academics, and this is an area Tan wants to focus on while at CityU. “The school has two research centres in Commercial and Maritime Law, and Chinese and Comparative Law. Both have the potential to be recognised as leading centres in their fields and I intend to support their continued development,” he says.

Also on the agenda is an “upgrade” of the Human Rights Law and Policy Forum to a centre that focuses on Public Law and Human Rights. He also hopes to work alongside other academic departments at CityU to establish “a centre that will engage in cross-disciplinary work on some of the challenging issues that confront us today.”

While designing educational spaces is important, Tan hasn’t overlooked teaching. He hopes that “aspects of practice can be integrated into our courses. If done well, it can enhance and deepen our students’ understanding of the law,” he explains.

Preparing for the Real World

While Tan is full of ideas about how he will transform CityU’s programme, he is aware of how competitive legal tertiary education is in Hong Kong. He notes the relationship between the various legal education institutions as apparently “cordial if not particularly warm”.

While he hasn’t yet found a conclusive answer as to why this may be, Tan suspects that part of the reason may be “the Research Assessment Exercise that causes the schools to be ranked against each other”.

“Having said this, I don’t think it particularly affects the flow of information and best practices as such things are very transparent. Indeed, one also has to keep abreast of what good schools beyond Hong Kong are doing so that we don’t fall behind the curve internationally,” Tan says.

At CityU, the PCLL programme qualifies law graduates to enter the legal profession as a trainee solicitor or as a pupil barrister -- an arrangement not currently available in Singapore. While Tan concedes he will spend some time learning more about this, he already has a good impression of the offering.

“My sense though is that the school has an excellent PCLL programme that is highly regarded within Hong Kong. One advantage of having such a programme reside within a law school is that the lecturers can be a valuable resource to the academic faculty on what aspects of practice can be integrated into the LLB and JD programmes to enhance the curriculum,” he says.

A key criticism of many university programmes today is that they don’t truly prepare students for the ‘real world’, but Tan says Hong Kong law schools perform well by international standards. His priorities as a teacher going forward is to foster understanding that will hold students in good stead throughout their careers. Because curriculum time is limited, Tan says departments will need to carefully prioritise learning topics.

“The two priorities for the law school are first, to ensure that students have a deep understanding of legal principles which increasingly requires some understanding of other disciplines that particularly affect the area in question, eg competition economics in competition law and public policy in banking and finance; and second, that students develop transferable intellectual skills. The combination of this done properly should lead to law graduates who have sufficient breadth and depth to adapt to the different circumstances that they find themselves in,” he says.

Lessons from Singapore

While the academic will be bringing his own approach, Tan says the question ‘what lessons can CityU take from law schools in Singapore?’ is a difficult one as law schools in both markets are thriving.

“Perhaps I can put it this way. In the mid-2000s the NUS law school adopted three innovative practices that very much define it today. While the teaching of law is often comparative, NUS made the teaching of comparative perspectives fundamental throughout its curriculum and in particular introduced perspectives from civilian jurisdictions,” Tan explains, noting that the university also prioritised the goal of becoming the centre for thought leadership in law in Asia, which led to the establishment of the Asian Law Institute, the Centre for Asian Legal Studies, the Asian Journal of Comparative Law and the Asian Journal of International Law.

Third, the school “began to develop a wide network of collaborators with and from other leading law schools. All these developments are well encapsulated by its self-understanding today as ‘Asia’s Global Law School’,” says Tan, noting for Hong Kong’s universities, there are parallels in the first two aspects “but with the concentration being on China”.

“This is understandable and something to be built upon. I also intend to enhance the CityU law school’s connectivity with other leading law schools,” he adds.

Ready for Change

Mulling over his career and considering the future, Tan says there are challenges for everyone working in legal academia. “Law schools have to transform themselves in the face of the changes and challenges that the legal profession is likely to encounter. These include developments in technology, changing business models, and ever more demanding clients,” he says.

While discussion around these topics may be common in the industry, Tan says when it comes to implementing something that fulfills such requirements, these good intentions can fizzle out.

“One aspect of the change needed for law schools is to become more inter-disciplinary in our teaching and research. In my view, no law school does this well whatever its rhetoric because to do it properly requires a great deal of effort such as changing the mindset and cultural norms of academic faculty,” Tan says.

“Law schools also tend to be somewhat divorced from what takes place in practice. I believe there are ways to expose students to practical aspects of the law that will enhance and stretch their understanding of legal principles. We just need to be more creative and find the time and energy to make the initial investments required.”

Despite these industry challenges, for students weighing up their subject options and considering their future career trajectory, Tan assures the study of law is “one of the most versatile courses a student can take in university”.

“Law interacts with, is influenced by, and at the same time affects society so the study of law is in many ways the understanding of society and all its complexities. Students should not just see the law as a body of rules but as a living thing that evolves with society,” he says, adding, “It is a great education even if students don’t practice law. To prepare for it and to fully appreciate the study of law students should read widely and have a healthy understanding of what goes on around them in their societies and the wider world.”

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North Asia Journalist, Thomson Reuters