Justice Chan Seng Onn was the judge who acquitted the foreign domestic worker Ms Parti Liyani of stealing items allegedly belonging to a Karl Liew.
In this piece, I set out some interesting facts about, and insights from, Chan J extracted from an interview with him done by some students several years ago.
Did you know that he was a top A level student along with George Yeo and Teo Chee Hean; he was a President’s Scholar and studied and worked as an engineer before switching mid-career to law?
The interview was published as a journal article in In Conversation: An Interview With The Honourable Judicial Commissioner Chan Seng Onn  19 SingLRev 1.
Chan J studied at St Anthony’s Boys’ School (happens to be my alma mater too!), and after that at St Joseph’s Institution (SJI) where he did his O and A levels.
He did not come from a rich family. His mother was a housewife and his father was a sewage pump attendant.
As a child, he liked to take toys apart and was very inquisitive. He liked subjects like Mathematics and Science.
He did very well in his A levels. If this is him (Francis Chan Seng Onn) it seems that he topped the national exams in 1970 along with former foreign minister George Yeo and current senior minister Teo Chee Hean: photos from archives here and here.
He then received the President Scholarship and a scholarship under the Colombo Plan to study engineering. He went in 1973 to study at University College London.
He then served out his bond as a civilian engineer with the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) for about six years.
In 1984, he took up another scholarship to study law under the Approved Graduate Programme.
He decided to pursue law because of his experience handling some personal matters for his father, who was involved in a civil suit in Malaysia over a piece of land. It was a long and difficult journey through the lawsuit. And he then realised how important knowing the law was.
It was not a natural interest for him then. “But one gets more interested with time.”
Studying law was not a breeze for him. He was 30 years old at that time and was “floored by the number of cases [he] had to read and the number of things … to digest.” He said: “In law, there are no clear-cut views on any particular issue, whereas in science, things are more clear-cut. You always have a definite answer. I was not used to it, and the first year was difficult. But as I went along, I gradually got used to it, and it became easier along the way. I did not do exceptionally well; I only got second-upper honours:”
He was also offered sponsorship to pursue an LLM degree. So he then went to Cambridge to do his Masters and returned in 1987.
After his return, he was posted to the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC). He started off as a Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) handling criminal work. He then became a Senior Assistant Registrar with the Supreme Court. Then he returned to the AGC to become the Deputy Head and later, the Head of the Crime Division.
When asked about his mentors, he answered:
“One person who influenced me in my life was Brother Patrick, who was then the principal of St Joseph’s Institution. I admire his dedication and selfless devotion. If you take in the brightest students, they will still do well even if you do not bother very much. I come from a Christian Brothers’ school — they do not go out to specifically select the best students. They try to add value to the education of their students. The dedication of our principal and our teachers is something which I really admire.
And of course I admire my parents. Even though they were not very well educated and were financially constrained, they had a strong sense of right and wrong. They imparted the right values to us. They stressed the importance of hard work and discipline, without which I believe a person will not be able to do well, no matter how intelligent he is.”
And here are his insights on judging cases:
C. Considerations a judge should have on deciding a case
Never have preconceived ideas. You may read the case file and form a certain impression. But when you hear the witnesses, you discover things which are not included in the affidavits. When you probe deeper, your whole perspective can change. So It is absolutely important to keep an open mind.
The finding of fact is an essential first step in any decision, because It is upon the finding of fact that one applies the law before reaching a decision. The law may be correctly applied, but if the finding of fact is wrong, the decision will still be wrong. So, first and foremost, one must ensure that one makes correct findings of fact based on the evidence.
Sometimes, the evidence may point very clearly in one direction and there will be no problem in deciding on the evidence. But on other occasions, you may be presented with diametrically opposite evidence from two persons. How does one find out who is telling the truth? It is never easy. You have to consider the surrounding circumstances; what could the likely truth be? People may lie on the stand, and weave convincing stories. The question is, can one see through them? If you have enough experience in life and a good understanding of human nature, they will help you to determine the truth. After you have found the facts, there are usually decided cases available to guide you in applying the law. It is not so often that one gets such esoteric cases that one gets to break new legal ground.
And try to be patient; it is difficult, especially when you get long-winded cross-examinations and you do not see where the relevance is. So one may sometimes get impatient and may want to move the case along. While I try not to let cases drag on unnecessarily, this does not mean that the evidence is not scrutinized carefully for details which may point to the truth. So these are some of the considerations which I think a judge should have.