Roving Ambassador

It was my first meeting with Professor Walter Woon. As a lawyer, I had read his book, Company Law, a bible to many corporate lawyers. I had heard a lot about him from my former colleagues who had the privilege of being his students when Professor Woon was teaching Company Law at the National University of Singapore. Now Ambassador to Germany and Greece, Professor Woon looked dignified and spoke in a gentle, unassuming tone. Putting aside my initial apprehension,

I engaged in an interesting conversation with him in a quiet corner of Raffles Hotel.

‘I was assigned to teach Company Law at the University when I joined the Law Faculty.’ A lawyer, Professor Woon enjoyed the teaching of the subject tremendously and wrote extensively on it. According to Professor Woon, diligence, integrity and academic excellence are attributes of a successful lawyer.

During his term as Legal Advisor to the President and to the Council of Presidential Advisors, Professor Woon was junior counsel in Constitutional Reference No 1 of 1995, the only case heard to date by the Constitutional Tribunal. ‘It was a privilege to be led by Mr Joe Grimberg,’ he said.

A member of the Straits Chinese community or Baba clan, he does not see this ethnic group as different from the others in Singapore. With the transition of time and the ever popular western influence, many of the fascinating aspects of this culture have eroded.

During his term as Nominated Member of Parliament, Professor Woon played an instrumental role in the enactment of the Maintenance of Parents Act (‘MPA’) in Singapore in 1996. ‘I pointed out during the Budget Debate on the Goods and Services Tax that while a person had an obligation to support his children, there was no corresponding obligation to support one’s parents. As the GST would have had an impact on many retirees,

I suggested that it would be fair if such an obligation existed. Dr Richard Hu, the Minister of Finance, responded that since I had raised the issue, I should draft the bill. This I did.’ In the midst of public criticism, the MPA Bill was passed in Parliament. Professor Woon said that the MPA would be relevant as long as there are recalcitrant children who neglect to render financial assistance to their parents. ‘The choice is between placing the obligation on the individual or shifting it to the general public. I think it is inconsistent with what most of us would consider to be right to allow an individual who neglects his own parents to transfer the burden to the state. Is it just that the filial should have to pay to support the parents of the unfilial?’

A firm believer that the role of the government is not to pamper its citizens, Professor Woon opines that the well being of the country is in the hands of the citizens as well as the foreigners who have chosen Singapore as their home. ‘The foreigners in Singapore contribute to the economic well being of the country and its citizens. Both parties need each other’s support and co-operation to live together in Singapore.’

‘During these hard times it is tempting to call for social security safety nets. Unfortunately, such social security benefits tend to become bottomless pits.’ He sees this problem in Europe, where he is currently based. ‘It may be painful, but the only way to survive is to cut down on one’s lifestyle. Social security is not the answer. It only transfers the burden to the next generation of taxpayers.’

I recall my visit to Calcutta several years ago. An overflowing population with an increasing number of people living on the streets in a severely polluted, crammed city, the poor possessed a strong fighting and joyous spirit. For many, they did not know when they were going to eat their next meal. They engaged in their daily pursuits with their heads held high. The sight of the poor trying to push past me and various international volunteers to get to a free meal hosted by a local eatery, remains clearly etched in my mind till today. On that day, many did not get the free meal. They did not create a scene but left with a shrug of their shoulders, looking for alternative means to get food. The poor of Calcutta taught me a valuable lesson on that day — life is simple. It is up to me to live it happily or make it complex by building up a pyramid of wants. It is these growing wants that create unhappiness and dissatisfaction in people when they cannot fulfill their wants or have to forgo their wants during bad times.

Professor Woon is known for his model soldiers collection. These soldiers are a mix of plastic and metal models in various scales. Professor Woon has also published his first fiction work, a detective story set in 1930s Singapore, Advocate’s Devil. ‘The protagonist of Advocate’s Devil is an English educated Straits-born Chinese lawyer, Dennis Chiang, who is involved in various mysteries and adventures. It’s something I did on the side when I got tired of writing non-fiction,’ said Professor Woon without elaborating further. This style was seen throughout his answers during the interview — he gives concise answers and does not bring too much attention to himself. Behind the soft demeanour, I could sense a serious and intellectual mind.

Rajan Chettiar