On Friday, what started out as an ordinary contract lecture on unconscionability concluded in the most heartwarming of ways. During his final lecture here at NUS, Assistant Professor Goh Yihan devoted the last 15 minutes to bid farewell to the year 1 batch. Get those tissue boxes out right now. This is gonna hurt real bad.
Prof Goh started off poetically, noting how contract lectures have mirrored the increasingly independent development of Singapore law: we started out with a lecturer of English law, but concluded with more and more Singaporean lecturers. Given his numerous personal contributions in this area, it is perhaps fitting that Prof Goh reminded us of the responsibility that we shoulder as legal professionals, and our potential to affect the path that Singapore’s law will take.
In concluding, Prof Goh quoted Justice Souter: “The first lesson, simple as it is, is that whatever court we are in, whatever we are doing, whether we are in a trial court or an appellate court, at the end of our task, some human being is going to be affected. Some human life is going to be changed in some way by what we do, whether we do it as trial judges or whether we do it as appellate judges, as far removed from the trial arena as it is possible to be. And so we had better use every power of our minds and our hearts and our beings to get those rulings right.”
Post-lecture, Justified sat down with Prof Goh as he reflects on his time in NUS, and his plans for the near future.
Justified: Prof Goh, when exactly will you be leaving?
PROF GOH: Technically I don’t leave NUS until the end of June. However, I am leaving next Saturday for London. I’ll be interning at a firm there for 3 months.
Justified: Looking back, what would you say were some of the challenges you faced?
PROF GOH: Well, academia is a strange thing. Nothing prepares you for it. School doesn’t, practice doesn’t, and neither does legal service. The first challenge was, of course, teaching, because it’s the first time I was teaching anything to anyone in a formal setting. So it was a challenge to get points across clearly, and to make sure that students could understand what I was saying. Another related challenge was the work itself, since academia is also about research. It’s challenging because you have to figure out your own agenda. And it’s not like practice, where it is driven by clients, or like legal service, where the work is assigned.
Justified: Has the experience turned out the way you expected it to?
PROF GOH: I’m grateful for how it has turned out; in fact I have nothing but gratitude. I got to experience the joy of teaching. It was not 100% what I expected, there were surprises along the way. For example, you have to learn how to write to get published, and also learn how to interact with students. By and large, it has been a great experience, and I have no regrets.
Justified: What were some of the highlights of your time here at NUS?
PROF GOH: The first highlight would be the students — not only are they very bright and intelligent, they are genuinely interested in and motivated about the law. It is a joy for me to go into class without having to worry that students have not prepared for the lesson (by and large lah….or at least they respond in a way that doesn’t show that). When you have students who ask good questions, it makes it much easier for teachers. Most of us have three classes a day on tutorial days, and I thought that by the end of two classes, I would be tired. But I still always look forward to the last class, because of the engaging discussion that I know will no doubt occur.
The other highlight would be the ability and opportunity to participate in student-organised activities. For example, LawIV–it was a great experience. I told the year 4s I had no acting experience and cannot sing, which they accepted, and thankfully, didn’t make me sing or dance. I was supposed to dance out of the scene during rehearsals but in the end, I just had to walk out. I thought that was a really good way for me to say goodbye to the first batch I had both lectured and tutored.
Another event was the Law-Med debate; apparently Law hadn’t won it in 9 years. (Editor’s note: According to the Year 4s, the last time Law won the debates was in 2010. But a 3 year winning streak for Med is still 3 years too many, and this streak was broken this year by Prof Goh, and Year Twos, Anand Tiwari and Zansher Husref) I was privileged to have participated this time round, and it was really something I wanted to do since I knew I was going to be leaving. I was supposed to go to Mersing to do some astrophotography, but I pushed it back so that I could take part. It was fun to engage in a bit of senseless banter, and seeing that I’m not a debater, and wasn’t a debater previously, I thought it would be something new I’d enjoy. I also got to judge Talent Time twice, and am very impressed by the wide range of talents possessed by the student population.
For Valentines’ Day 2012, I remember being asked to write a poem. Some said that I should retain my day job and not look into a career as a poet anytime soon, but it was memorable nonetheless.
Finally, the other faculty members have also been highlights during my time here. I’m very thankful for the guidance they have given. Academia was something completely new to me, and nothing can prepare you for it. The senior faculty were very kind and helped me whenever I needed it. The staff retreat was good way to say goodbye — I brought my telescope and let the faculty and their kids do a bit of stargazing.
Justified: What will you miss most?
PROF GOH: I’ll miss the students for sure. Every batch is different; some are noisier than others, some are more spontaneous. Having the opportunity to meet students from different backgrounds, who have a vast array of different talents but are similarly very motivated, that’s the biggest thing I’ll miss.
I’ll also miss the lecture system; there are no lectures in SMU. With lectures, you get the opportunity to see the whole cohort in one setting. I guess you won’t get to know all of them since it’s such a short period of time, but at least you can see them and know that these are the people in the batch, and by extension you can get an idea of what the batch is like.
Other things I think I’ll miss are the mundane stuff like walking through the Botanic Gardens to school, which is always a nice walk…if it is not raining. Also, BTC and the CJ Koh Law Library have quiet environments conducive for research. I’ll miss my fellow faculty members. Even though I cannot claim to know everyone very well, I’ve come to build close relationships and friendships with a few of them. But these, of course, can be kept alive even though I’ve moved–it’s still Singapore.
Justified: What’s your favourite spot in NUS Bukit Timah Campus?
PROF GOH: The red spot section where the best books are kept. And the photocopying room where I make copies of chapters of books (subject to copyright law requirements).
Justified: Is there a particular judge that you like and whose judgments you really admired?
PROF GOH: It would be Lord Denning! He had a great respect for the accessibility of law, and believed that the law should be inherently accessible and tailored to the layperson. He didn’t talk about abstract high theory and tried to make the law understandable. To him, that was key. Sometimes, law is obscured in difficult language, and that’s not necessary. Law ought to be commonsensical and intuitive. And if the law loses those elements, then something ought to change. Denning embodied that ideal. He had a huge regard for ultimate fairness and was unwilling to allow precedent alone dictate his judgments — if a case ought to turn out a certain way due to the principle of fairness, he ruled that way. If the law is buried under rules, then we’ve lost sight of its ultimate purpose.
Justified: Say you weren’t going to SMU, what do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t involved in law?
PROF GOH: I’d like to be an astronaut! I’ve always been interested in the stars, they are awesome creations. Not the fortune-telling astrology side of it, but the astronomy. I want to be an astronaut so that I can fly out to the moon, or the Earth’s orbit. Otherwise, I’d want to be an astrophotographer.
Justified: Before you leave, is there anything unexpected your students might be interested to know about you?
PROF GOH: I’m a hoarder, you can see from the 20 over boxes outside my office. They’re full of documents from my days as an academic, JLC and even a law student. I don’t like to throw things away. I believe memories are nice to have, although realistically, I won’t open the boxes ever again.
Justified: Is there anything you want to say to the students?
PROF GOH: Increasingly, Singapore law is gaining prominence and independence, and while we must always remember and respect the English and other jurisdictions, we must accord the appropriate amount of respect for our own system. All of you students will be architects in the development of Singapore law, you should always be proud of it and do your best to help that development. The second thing, and perhaps the more important, is that ultimately the law will affect people’s lives, no matter what you do. There is an awesome responsibility associated with doing and practicing law so always remember the awesome mission and responsibility that everyone has in the legal profession, even when you’re stuck in the office past midnight. My hope is that above all, everyone remembers there are always consequences to your actions, so do the best in whatever you do.
Justified: Since they are the last NUS batch you will teach, do you have anything to say to the Year Ones specifically?
PROF GOH: It’s been a great ride. I think this batch is very guai lah. They are very quick to keep silent in lectures, and from what I can tell from tutorials, they’re generally very motivated and ask excellent questions, and I always look forward to all the tutorials. I’ll miss everyone, but then again, there is no causative connection. Since I don’t teach the upper years, there is no but-for connection; even if I leave, I would not have taught you guys more. But yes, thank you for being the last batch that I taught in NUS.
Justified: If you had the time, what’s something you’d want to do on the side before you head to SMU, or even while you’re there?
PROF GOH: I want to see the northern lights. I should have done it when I was doing my Masters in the US, but didn’t get to. I also want to see a total solar eclipse. Back in November 2012, I booked a flight to see it in Brisbane but decided to cancel it because of some court thing–the timeline didn’t permit me to make the trip. Total solar eclipses don’t usually occur over inhabited areas, so I’m looking forward to the next eclipse in 2016 over Indonesia. I also want to learn how to play the piano. Currently, the only kind of musical background I have is the recorder. So I think I might want to take a piano course for adults.
Justified: Is there anything you’re looking forward to at SMU?
PROF GOH: I’ll be looking forward to a new environment. I think it’ll be a challenge, given that their system of teaching is different — no lecture-tutorials, only seminars. So I think I’ll have to make some adjustments. Also, the environment will be really different from BTC since SMU is so close to town.
Justified: What will we do without you?
PROF GOH: You’ll do very well. There’s no causative link for the current batch because I don’t teach Years Two, Three and Four. And as for the future batch of students–they won’t know what they’re missing. The law school has many fantastic teachers, and is hiring more people, so the teaching excellence will be continued.
Judging from the raucous applause and outpouring of tributes on Facebook following his last lecture, it is clear that Prof Goh has left an indelible mark as a teacher, and above all, is a true inspiration to each and everyone in the present and preceding batches of students.
What a man.
Thank you Prof Goh, for everything. We will all miss you.
Relive Prof Goh’s farewell lecture! (Video Credit: Jethro Leong, Year 1)