Jiamin, Kelly and I had the privilege of sitting down with Professor Tan Cheng Han in his new office. As he reached out to shake my hand, all I could think about was…nothing. I was slightly star-struck and very excited about interviewing the (former) Dean.

Today is his first working day not as Dean, he announced, as we all sat down around his desk. He pointed to the thick files of documents strewn across his table and said that he was drafting an arbitration award. Nearby was a bundle of examination scripts which he said he has yet to mark.

Professor Tan Cheng Han stepped down on 30th December 2011 as the Dean of NUS Law School, after four terms. When asked about how he felt leaving behind the legacy as the longest serving dean of the school, he was caught off-guard. “Oh gosh,” he started,” let me just say that I am certainly happy to be the dean at this law school. I had not intended to serve for more than a decade… Sometime around the end of 2006, the university asked me if I would consent to a third term. I was reluctant so the alternative suggestion was that I serve half of an additional term, i.e. 18 months. I procrastinated in giving my consent as I was still somewhat reluctant but the university must have taken silence for consent because they announced the 18 month extension without forewarning me. One thing led to another and before I knew it I was re-appointed to a fourth term but with the explicit understanding that the university would search for a new Dean and I would step down at the earliest practicable time. Thus it was that I needed only to serve slightly more than half of my fourth term.

Although I found the position to be a fulfilling one as I have a passion for the school, I never wanted to stay more than 6 years because I feel that 6 years is an optimal period for the Deanship, and new ideas and energy are always to be welcomed. I’m glad the law school now has a good new Dean in place.

Many of my colleagues, as well as students and alumni, have been very kind in their assessment of the last decade or so of the law school’s development. I hope they are correct in their assessment; I suppose only time will tell. All I could do was work hard and endeavour to keep the best interests of the school and her students foremost in mind. To this extent I am satisfied. In particular, I’m pleased that the school has a stronger global orientation; that it has also become more inter-disciplinary; that students have so many options available to them; and that the school enjoys an excellent reputation internationally. I am confident the new decanal team will build on this and take the school to greater heights.”

We asked him what made him accept the tenure for deanship in the first place.

Prof Tan explained: “I think at that time I was probably one of the more senior academics around, although this sounds strange because I was only 36 when appointed as Dean. This was the time in the law school’s history, where quite a number of people joined the faculty very early on in their careers, but after a few years, most of them decided to leave for private practice…so although there were colleagues who were older than me, there was a gap in terms of people in their 30s and 40s. Amongst those people, I was one of those who had been around in law school a bit longer, so when the university asked me if I would take up the deanship, having already served as vice-dean for 5 years, I felt it was part of my duty to do it, so I decided to accept the responsibility.”

Although he has stepped down as Dean, he does not have any plans for the future at the moment. Currently, he is considering going back to private practice. “Even so,” he said, “I have always enjoyed being an academic, so my default position is to say on in the university as an academic. Hopefully, I can have enough time for proper research and teaching, which I had not had much time for in the last few years.”

Would you be teaching company law next year? We had to ask. For the current freshmen, sorry to say you probably would not have the pleasure of listening to Professor Tan lecture about incorporation, because he will be on sabbatical next year.

Prof Tan also shared his intentions to be involved in projects that would be beneficial to people beyond the law school. “One thing I have agreed to do is to take on the Chairmanship of the Catholic Commission of Schools (officially known as the Archdiocesan Commission for Catholic Schools) which oversees the 34 or 35 catholic schools in Singapore. I’ve been asked to chair this commission and I think it would involve quite a bit of time. I’m glad stepping down from deanship will give me quite some time to look into these issues.”


I could still remember the first time I saw him. There I was, sitting at the back of the auditorium, charmed by the man who was addressing prospective students at the Welcome Tea. He was giving a very light-hearted, humorous speech on why we should choose NUS Law School.

I was surprised to learn that he was the Dean. Somehow, I had a vision of a stern, distant and poker-faced man in a perfectly crease-free suit. Up there at the front of the auditorium was a man wearing a light blue short-sleeved button-up shirt, which was un-tucked. The rostrum was standing very awkwardly on the stage, eschewed by this man who very much preferred standing at the foot of the stage instead of on it. He was unassuming, warm and sincere. I was sold.

In my first few months at NUS Law School, I learnt that people affectionately call him “Dean”. Seniors were unanimously fond of him. I love his speeches, because they were mostly short, heartfelt and memorable even though I cannot recall exactly what he has said. I remember the speech he gave at the Law-Med finale. “I didn’t prepare a speech,” he started, and went on to say some terrific, witty things that brought the entire auditorium down. He posed with the peace sign alongside captains of the victorious teams. Law students in the crowd laughed and cheered along. The Medicine students among the audience were positively envious. They might have won the Law-Med title that night, but we have an awesome Dean.

He reminded me of Professor Dumbledore. Both had an aura of impishness, slightly off-beat, goofy vibe. They were cool, but not in the conventional, hipster way. When I sat in the auditorium looking up at him lecture Company Law and noticed that he had on gold half-moon glasses, I thought that it was too much of a coincidence.

When we told him that students have likened him to the Headmaster of Hogwarts, he gave a mock-defeated look. “It was a very sad day,” he said, of the first time he heard the comparison. “I remember it was a very sad, sad evening. There was this female student at a gathering who said, ‘You know, you remind me of a hero in a movie franchise’. I thought happily, oh great! She had in mind perhaps Jason Bourne played by Matt Damon, or even Christian Bale in Batman. I thought of various other names, so I waited with great eagerness and anticipation for her to tell me who I reminded her of.”

“Then she said, ‘Professor Dumbledore in Harry Potter’. My world collapsed at that point in time.”

The whole office roared with laughter. He continued:

“I find the comparison quite amusing of course, but I like to think that perhaps I might reflect the essence and the demeanour but not quite the way he looks, at this point in time. Perhaps in another thirty years I might look this way.”


The first time I received an email from ‘Tan Cheng Han (Law)’, I thought I had gotten into some sort of trouble. I was mildly surprised to read an encouraging message to hang on while studying for the examinations. Every semester since then, I’ve come to look forward to his messages. Correspondingly, Facebook would be rife with status updates proclaiming adoration for the Dean, with plenty of “likes” pushing them to the top of the newsfeed.

“Students look forward very much to getting your emails”, said Jiamin. “Frankly, I have a whole file of your emails in my inbox.”

Without missing a beat, Prof Tan quipped: “Can I say you must be a sad, sad person.”

Jiamin, ever the smooth speaker, retorted: “I value the things that matter to me.”

We asked him what spurred him on to start sending very personal emails to students:

“Well, as I may have indicated in my emails, when I first became Dean and exams were forthcoming, I kind of remember what it was like when I was a student myself. I don’t know about the three of you,” he said, looking at us, “but I certainly did not enjoy examinations.”

“It seems very strange that I do not enjoy examinations, but I certainly did not enjoy one. So I thought, at that point in time that maybe I should send an email to the students just to say: ‘hang in there, don’t worry I have been through this as well’. After the first exams, I thought to myself: ‘okay having sent the first, it might not be so nice if I don’t send any more. So I continued to send these emails”.

“But as I have mentioned before, for one year I had actually forgotten to send an email and the exams had already started. One of the students wrote to say that well, if you did not know, the exams have already started and we have not received your message.”

“So after that, I thought that I should really continue. For at least some people enjoy receiving the email and it lifts a bit of internal weight when people are preparing for the stressful period. It is a little gesture on my part and so I had gladly continued with it. Along the way, my messages got a bit longer. In the first two to three years, it was actually very, very short. Later on, I wrote longer emails because I thought maybe I should cheer students on a little bit more. I guess, I do know that life is full of ups and downs. Sometimes when you go through an examination period, you feel a bit down because you realize that there is so much you do not know; there is so much you still do not understand, and so many things that still do not make sense. In my own way, I thought I wanted to convey the message that “hey, don’t worry; I’ve been there before and I know exactly what people are going through. And even if you don’t do so well–because I knew I didn’t do well at all my second year, I completely bombed out in second year–you know don’t worry, sometimes for some people it takes a little longer for things to click. I also do know of people who really click only after they leave law school, so don’t be discouraged! As long as you continue to try and try, someday things will work out. It might take a longer time for you than others.”

“I liken this to the metallic properties of iron and steel. This is one of the few things about science I remember. I remember one magnetizes very easily but it also loses its magnetic properties very easily, whereas the other takes a much longer time to magnetize but when it does magnetize it retains its magnetic properties for considerably longer.”

“So some of us might be steel, and some of us might be iron. Of course I hope that we all we retain our magnetic properties for as long as possible but I think for some of us it just takes a little longer to become magnetized.”


Despite his achievements in the legal profession, Professor Tan has always sounded human in his emails. He often alluded to his experience in Law School in a rather self-depreciating manner. Have fun in Law School. Relax. Chill. We asked him what his law school experience was like:

“The first year is always difficult, because you come into a completely different discipline with a completely different way of thinking. I’m sure it is not only the science-based students who find it difficult. I was largely a humanities-based student, and I also found it quite difficult early on, to adjust to the whole new way of thinking, the whole new way of doing things. It is a challenge, and coupled with the fact that there is just so much to read–and you know in your first few months of law school you don’t know how much or how little to read so we tend to feel the need to cover everything–and it becomes virtually impossible because if you are covering everything I suspect very little is actually entering into your consciousness, so I think that’s a real challenge about being in law school.”

“I found it quite challenging because when I entered into law school, I entered two years ahead of the males in my cohort, because at that time I was Malaysian and therefore I did not have to do national service. When I entered law school, all the rest of the guys were two years older than me. There was some difficulty connecting with them initially, as I did not have their shared experience.”

“You all know how guys are like in their first year, or at least, the first six months in law school: all they talk about is the army.” The three of us nodded in agreement. We understand.

“So if you are not part of that, it is very difficult sometimes to be part of the conversation, to be part of the bonding process, to be part of the community. Of course, the men forgive the women for this because none of the women have to do national service. But now, there is this guy who didn’t do national service. So, there is that barrier which I felt made my first year of law school a little difficult.”

“Of course, there were girls in my cohort. But having come from an all-boys school–even having spent two years in junior college, I would say that while I became more used to being with the opposite gender–I wasn’t so used to them yet that I felt that I could ask them out for lunch or anything.”

“Because of my experiences, I have always been conscious of how some people can find it difficult to fit into a different sort of community or place, which is partly why I try to stress the importance of the social aspect within law school. I try to encourage the Law Club to try to make sure that there are just enough activities to get people together, so that there are opportunities for people to mingle and know each other. That is part of the reason why I have encouraged a lot of students who have ideas, to implement them in school. This would create more opportunities for people to find company in law school, to find other like-minded people, to better develop bonds of friendship in law school.”

“Another thing that I did realise in my law school days was, as I have said earlier, that it does take some time for things to click. For me, I think it only clicked sometime in the third year, close to the examination when suddenly something in Evidence Law just clicked for me. I suppose Evidence Law fell into place; more than that, everything else fell into place. This is why, I do also want to let law students know: really, don’t be too hung up. It takes time.”

Professor Tan shared that he eventually did have quite a good social life in school. He was in the class committee in his final year, in the Student Union for a period of time, and he also captained the Law School squash team in his third year, for which it won silver. “At the end of the day, I do want to encourage people to get involved, because that really is the fun side of university.”

He quipped: “I’m sure, ten years after graduation we don’t remember all the times we spent in the library. But we remember going out with friends, catching a movie, doing crazy stuff together.”

We asked him about his secret to juggling work with a hectic school life. He offered practical advice: “It is important to need to play hard, but also to buckle down to make sure you set aside a bit of time everyday just for consistent work, so you would not leave everything to the end.”

Having said this, he admitted: “I got things dreadfully wrong in my second year. I was so busy in my capacity as the Student Union’s Publications Secretary that I completely lost track of time. Before I knew it, there were two more weeks to exams and I had not been working consistently in that year. It was a real struggle. “

“I remember having to take a non-law option at that time (in those days it was compulsory to take a non-law option). I did a history module, and I had not attended a single lecture at all in the course of that year. I had no idea what the course was about, and I had no notes whatsoever, and I had a history exam to go in to. So I had to beg a friend from the Arts Faculty to lend me her notes and that was all I relied on. Fortunately, I scraped through. So, I do know what it is like to not be prepared!”

As Prof Tan is our senior generations ahead, we begged him for study tips. “Study smart, than study hard,” he said.

“One of the things I used to do,” he started, then paused. “I’m not sure if I should share this with you, but I will anyway since I have been so candid today.” We waited expectantly.

“Very often, when I was a student, I would, erm,” he said slightly hesitantly, “I would only read the head notes of cases and almost never ever read the judgment itself, partly because it will just take too long to read the judgment and I just did not have that amount of time. The only time I would read the judgment is only when the head notes did not make much sense to me. When I read the head notes, and I think I know the results but the reasons stated in the head notes do not seem compelling why the result would be as such, I would delve into the judgment to see in more detail what the reasoning is like and hopefully that would make sense. Otherwise, if the head notes are a good enough summary, I wouldn’t bother with the judgement.”

“I know it’s horrible!”

He continued: “Many of my colleagues would not recommend this, so I have to say, as a qualifier, I find that method one way to help me manage my time.” We sensed a conflict of interest as a student, and as an academic.
“In reading cases, sometimes you see only individual trees and not the woods or the forest as a whole. For me, I would always read the relevant chapters in one of the recommended textbooks, because that would provide me with an overview. Then I would read the individual cases to understand the consistency with what I’ve read in the textbook. If you just read the case alone, it will never be able to give you the overview that is necessary.”

Prof Tan also shared another study tip he found useful, although it requires a lot of effort. “You know how sometimes when we read, we pretty much go line by line, and at the end of the day when we get to the end that is pretty much it. But very often, when you’re reading a chapter, you come across something that is a little puzzling, or inconsistent with something you read either in another chapter or in another article earlier. There is the temptation to just move on, but that is the most unwise thing to do because usually, these troublesome and thorny areas are those that would actually come out in examinations.”

“When these appear in examinations, you will have to think about it and there is not enough time. That is why people run out of time. So whenever I came across these sorts of issues, I would force myself to try and think it through. Sometimes it means going back to other chapters, to figure how to reconcile the two. Whether I like it or not, I know I have to go into it much deeper, to resolve those issues in my mind there and then, and if necessary, to take it up with my tutor later, rather than just to move on.”

“I think when you move on, you are not thinking and reflecting about the law. You can do this when you are reading a novel, but when it comes to the law it is important for the thinking process to work it through so that you solve the issue in your own mind, given that at the end of the day we lawyers are, as I like to put it, glorified problem solvers. So you need to work through those things in your mind.”

‘Muggers’, for the uninitiated (shame on you), are notes compiled by seniors and passed down for generations. Like case law, these precedent study notes are refined, improved upon and applied in examinations for years to come. In a way, muggers are the heirlooms of the Law School Family. We asked if the professor used muggers himself.

“No. Never have. But that is partly because I’m always so lazy to either get muggers or to borrow notes and photocopy them, so I just use whatever is in front of me generally.”

When probed about whether he got into any trouble while he was in school, Prof Tan laughed nervously.

“Erm..well..okay…yes..erm,” he stammered. “I used to park in the staff parking lot, and once my car got clamped and I had to see the Dean of the Law School at that time to get her permission to unclamp my car. And boy, she really gave me a hard time. She was Professor Tan Sook Yee.”

“That,” he clarified, “was one time I needed to see the Dean, and go to the Dean’s Office for not a good reason.”

“I don’t know whether I should be saying this,” he continued, “but I also tended to skip classes quite a bit when I was in law school. I remember my shipping tutor asking my classmates whether Tan Cheng Han was still in the course, or he had somehow dropped out and he (the tutor) had not been told about it. So that was a bit embarrassing! But yes, I did have a bad habit of skipping lessons because sometimes classes clashed with CCAs and all that. I had to prioritize, and I guess if I had made commitments to my CCAs that took priority over tutorials or lectures.”

Us: So, if a student were to skip your class for school activities, would you be understanding–

Prof: [interrupts] Oh yes, I am very understanding!

Everyone laughed. He explained: “I treat you guys as adults. If you think that you do not need to be in the class, or it is more important for you to be elsewhere, I have absolutely no problem with you skipping my class at all. I am quite forgiving about these sorts of things. The only thing I would do if I have not seen a person in class for maybe two, three weeks, is to ask about that person, but only to make sure that that person is okay. If the person was not attending class because of a major personal difficulty or some emotional problem, I would like to see if the school can provide any assistance. But if you tell me well, it’s just that frankly my class is a waste of time and you are far better using that one or two hours studying on your own, that would be a good enough reason for me. No further questions asked.”

Professor Tan had never imagined in his four years of law school, that decades later he would be serving as Dean of his alma mater. “I’m constantly reminded about the fact that I wasn’t a particularly good student in secondary school, or even in primary school for that matter. I remember going back to Catholic Junior College, which was my JC, and giving a talk on Founder’s Day or something, and the principal said to the students there if they knew what my results were like they would be very surprised that I ended up in law school, much less be a professor of law school.”

“The idea that one day I would become a law professor was something I’ve never thought of at all. What happened was that in my final year, the then Dean who had taken over from Professor Tan Sook Yee, Professor Tan Lee Meng, found me along the corridor and asked me to come and see him. I went to see him, and he asked if I had ever considered being an academic. That was the first time the idea of being an academic was planted in my mind. Prior to that, I thought I would just go into practice, spend my time in a law firm, become a partner, so on and so forth–the usual track for most lawyers. I guess over time, it made sense to me and I decided to be an academic after all. Lo and behold, a few years after that, the university asked me to become Dean.”

“It was all quite surprising to me, and I would never had anticipated this when I was a law student.”

Professor Tan explained his motivation for reading law:

The knowledge of the law is very important for any person who wants to try to do some good in life, because the law is a very important tool that, if used wisely, can make a difference. I’m not saying it can make a big difference, but it can make a bit of a difference. All we need is enough people making a bit of a difference for the world to be a better place. And indeed, the world is a better place because of the numerous people who are doing a bit of good here and there. I felt that being knowledgable in the law would be my own little way of doing good, using my expertise in a positive way.”

“Because,” Prof Tan started explaining: “I am a fairly idealistic person and I must confess that I have wished many times over the years that I was less idealistic and much more hard-nosed about it because sometimes, I think it is easier to go through life just being hard-nosed and not be idealistic, but I never had been able to shake off this idealistic streak in me.”

“In many respects, I suppose this is why being an academic probably makes more sense for my personality than private practice. In academia, you have many more opportunities to use the law as a tool for positive ends. I’m not saying that lawyers don’t use the law for positive means, but to a large extent, when you join a law firm, you are driven by what your client wants you to do. Of course, you shouldn’t be doing things that are unethical however much your client wants you to do or however much they are prepared to pay you to do it. Most lawyers would subscribe to that, but in a sense, you are driven by the kind of cases that come to you.

“On the other hand, in academia, there is more flexibility to do a lot of things. I have full discretion in writing on issues that I think are important to me, and in teaching in the way I think courses should be best taught. I get involved in causes that I think are useful. One of the things I’ve been thinking now that I have stepped down as Dean is the idea of establishing a centre for law reform. We have a number of wonderful student clubs, but not one that looks at law reform issues. Maybe we do, tangentially: the Criminal Justice Club looks at law reform issues related to criminal law and criminal procedures. But, we don’t have a broader group that looks at all sorts of issues which students may be interested in. I envisage a joint-venture between the student community, and those of my colleagues who are interested. This is something I am considering, but I probably need some months to recharge my battery before I do anything about it.”


Professor Tan teaches Company Law, and is a member of the Steering Committee to Review the Companies Act. Noting his interest in corporate law, we asked how he actually decided on his field of specialization.

Excitedly, he announced: “For all the wrong reasons, I assure you!”

“Company law was probably my second worst subject in law school, my worst being land law. And yet, so much of life in Singapore is driven by commercial and corporate law. So, the pragmatic side of me —because I also do have a slightly pragmatic side–told me that after I graduated, despite the fact that I was so pathetic at Company Law I should try to improve my Company Law, so when I returned to the university, I thought the best way to improve my Company Law was to teach it.”

So that was the only reason why he went into corporate law. “It wasn’t that I love the subject. In fact, I absolutely hated it when I was in law school. To me, it was a dry and boring subject that is largely statute-driven. I much preferred the common-law type of subjects, such as torts, or contract law, or equity and trust, for that matter. Pragmatic reasons forced me into Company Law.”

“So all my law students in Company Law in the past henceforth can take comfort in the fact that they were taught by somebody who had no clue what company law was when he was a law student–I’m sure that will give them a lot of confidence!”


Professor Tan is an academic as well as a Senior Counsel. He spends about a quarter of his time each year on practice-related work, practicing as a barrister to argue the case in court.

He talked about his work as a practitioner: “Although I act largely as a barrister with solicitors instructing me, the fused solicitor-barrister profession in Singapore means that I have to meet with the client as well to get a feel of them and their cases, as well as to get the facts from them. There are some people you meet and you realize, if he were to take the stand, he would be a hopeless witness. For certain personalities, even if they were telling the truth, they just sound terrible on the stand. Partly because they might be overly detailed, so when you ask the question, they can’t help but give a long-winded answer, which the judge might come to the conclusion that they were trying to be difficult, evasive or not answering the question. So sometimes, in meeting the clients, I would take account those dynamics so when I go for trials, you prepare with a certain view as well. Sometimes, the view is that if we can settle we probably should, because the person is not a great witness I would like to put on stand.”


The office is stark, void of any personalization, except for a lone framed photo of three adorable children. During the interview, we learnt that these two boys and a girl in the photograph are his children. “The unusual thing about my circumstances is that they were born on the same date, within minutes of each other.”

Triplets. At almost the same time, all three of us exclaimed an assortment of monosyllabic expressions for amazement.

The children are now in Secondary One, with the sons in Professor Tan’s alma mater, St Joseph Institution (Independent), and the daughter in Mrs Tan’s old school, Methodist Girls School. “Fortunately,” replied Prof Tan when asked about whom the children resemble, “my daughter looks nothing like me. People say that one of my sons look like me, although I daresay, a much improved version. Fortunately.”

Prof Tan’s father is now a retired lawyer. Naturally, we had to ask whether Prof Tan wants his children to enter the legal profession as well. As the man says it himself, he is “agnostic” about charting his children’s future career paths, although it may be “inevitable that at least one would follow in the footsteps of me and my wife [who is also a lawyer]”.

All he wants is that “they discover what it is they are passionate about and then just do that. When people do what they are passionate about, they will do well in it.” He explained his philosophy: make sure it is what you really want to do because if you don’t really want to do it, you will never be good at it. Therefore, your life would not be a success and more importantly, your life would not be fulfilling. At the end of the day, so long as we are happy and fulfilled, everything is good. You can have a lot of money, but if you are not happy or fulfilled, then what is the point? I am sure money can bring you a lot of enjoyment, but I am not sure if money can really bring you happiness or fulfilment. Real happiness or fulfilment comes from being with people you enjoy being with, and doing what you feel a connection with, and if you don’t have that I think almost everything else doesn’t matter.”

And kids, How Prof Tan Met Their Mother.

Professor Tan and his wife are testament to the fact that law students do not need blindfolds and nosey faries speaking in helium voices to make a Happily Ever After. Before the era of Secret Pals and Facebook, the school administration played cupid. Both Prof Tan and his wife had the same surname, and were sorted into the same first-year tutorial class. Class allocation at that time was according to surnames, and so “it was virtually a whole tutorial group with Tans, because you know how many Tans there are around in Singapore.” Over time, they got to be good friends and only in their final year that they started going out together as a couple.

“It took me many years to persuade her that I might be the right person after all. So we got married in 1991, and it has been more than twenty years now.”

For all those single in Law School, stay hopeful. Be nice to classmates in your tutorial group.

Since lawyers are often depicted as adversarial sharks who thrives on arguments, having two lawyers to be married to each other seems to be a combustible household hazard. To that concern, Prof Tan shared his own personal experience: “My wife and I probably have enough of law in the workplace so when we get back home we try not to talk about the law”.

He offered reassurance: “As to whether people argue a lot, it really depends on how strong one’s personality is and how much one feels the need to win an argument. I think you can be a lawyer and have to argue, or win an argument, but when you get home it really does not matter. There is room to disagree; there is room for compromise. At the end of the day, the key to a good relationship is to really be able to compromise and find accommodation for the other party as well.”

To couples, potential or otherwise, and people still bent on finding their soul mates in Law School, Prof Tan has this to say:
“I know of many ‘law school couples’ who do get married eventually. Some of them are still married, but some of them are not. So unfortunately, that is the reality of life–many marriages today do not last the full distance, people divorce for whatever reasons. As for advice, I would say to try to get to know the person as well as possible when you are in school. If you feel that the person is, for one reason or another, not the right person, I think it is better to end the relationship now rather than to drag it out, because it could lead to even more unhappiness in the future.

“There is no particular magic formula to it, although I often wish there was one.” Professor Tan reminds us that he is no Dumbledore. “I think really, the only important thing you can do is to try to get to know each other as best as possible, and not to be afraid to admit to yourself that you might have made the wrong decision. As painful as it is at this point in time, it could be even worse in the future.”


As law students, many of us practically treat our homes as hotels. We have all heard horror stories of lawyers living in their offices. The government is harping on the dwindling birth rates in Singapore, pointing fingers at the “DINKS”(Dual-Income-No-Kids)couples, whom are both working professionals with no time for sleep, much less, kids.

Prof Tan acknowledged that in pursuing a career in the fast-paced working world, family life will be compromised. “It is pretty difficult in a law firm because your clients will want to meet you, and in the course of the day you are in court, the only time to meet them is in the evening. Many corporate lawyers have meetings at night because they might have a teleconference with lawyers in New York so it is 9pm here and 9 am there. There is nothing we can do about it, and that just is the sad reality about it.”

Even so, Prof Tan has successfully managed to strike a work-life balance.

“I think that all of us have to have firmly in our minds the importance of family. We have to ask ourselves what is important to us in the long term. I have always thought to myself: what is the point of being a great success at work, having lots of money, living in a nice house and having all sorts of material possessions, if at the end of the day, you realize that you do not have a close relationship with your kids? If you do not have a close relationship with your kids, I think it can be quite painful and I suspect that all the money in the world probably is not going to be able to make up for that.

“The question one has to ask oneself: ‘are you prepared, thirty years on, to be very successful, but realize that you actually do not have a strong relationship with your children?’ If you say that you do not want that, and you are also clear in your mind that at the end of the day when you go, you just go. You cannot take any of your material possessions with you. If you have clearly in your mind the importance of family, you will do what is necessary to achieve a necessary work-life balance.”

“I believe everyone can attain a work-life balance.” Prof Tan declared. He believes that it is just a question of whether one is prepared to make sacrifices. “Too many people want everything, and the reality is that it is hard to have everything. I asked myself that question a long time ago, and I knew what I wanted. So I make it a point to stop at a certain time everyday and go home to spend time with my kids. After they go to bed, I’ll start work again. This is why sometimes I send emails at night, or after midnight, because that is the way to get things done.”

As for sacrifices, Prof Tan admitted that he had to put aside some of his own personal interests. “Something has got to cave. So the thing that has got to cave is perhaps some of your own leisure activities. In other words, instead of spending an entire day on a golf course you spend that time with your children. This is one of the reasons why I have not taken up golf all these years, even though I think it is a game I would enjoy.”

We asked him what he does in his free time. “Ah, I am actually terribly boring!”

Prof Tan is an avid reader. However, forget about placing bets on whether he has read Lon L. Fuller’s The Morality of Law over the Christmas holidays; he does not read law-related literature at home. In his own words, he reads very “un-intellectual stuff”: fantasy novels (“the kind on swords and sorcery or banshees”, mysteries and thrillers. Yes, he is proud to declare that he likes to “read stuff that is a bit more fluffy that does not force me to think quite as much”. The Economist is probably the “only serious thing I read without fail”.

He also does quite a lot of sports. He does taekwondo, swims and run. He also plays tennis, squash and soccer. His motivation? “I am greatly over forty, and starting to see fifty on the horizon. Many men will find that when they turn forty, their bodies start to breakdown, because a lot of men just really focus on their careers, their girlfriends or wives, and kids, for the most of their twenties and thirties, and do not exercise much. They do not go out for a game of tennis or squash, or running or swimming; life becomes much more sedentary. When they hit forty, they suddenly realize the accumulation of all these excesses over time has caught up with them, and they develop health problems. Likewise, after I turned forty, I decided that I really should become a bit more disciplined, exercise and do more sports. Partly also, because I want the pleasure of seeing my grandchildren!”

The professor is truly an all-rounder, dabbling in music as well. “The only music I play is on Guitar Hero. I truly suck at it you know, even on the second lowest difficulty settings I have problems and often do not survive, requiring the other Tans to help me.” He would love to sing, he says, “but unfortunately I am not blessed with a good singing voice. Even my wife, whom I think is quite fond of me, tells me that I should not be caught singing in public, as that will be a cruel and unusual punishment for my audience.”

Nobody is perfect.

However, never give up. “I figured out a couple of songs that I can maybe sing, because these songs follow a certain beat and one only needs to know how to sing a few words at certain points in time.” Professor Tan paused to think. “Like, that song from Duck Sauce?”

At this point, Kelly spoke excitedly.

“I hate that song!” she announced, to laughter. “It just says two words: Barbra Streisand.”

“Yes exactly!” Prof Tan replied earnestly. “As long as I know when to come on with those two words…”

So as you can see, Prof Tan is quite up to date with mainstream music. For the Year 2s who can remember, he quoted Ke$ha’s ‘Blah Blah Blah’ during his Company Lecture and left the entire audience rather surprised. Billboard Top 40 hits roll off his tongue like how Eminem raps. He cites singers with a precision of a learned law academic citing sources. “I like ‘Moves Like Jagger’–it is a pretty great song! Lady Gaga is great too. I particularly like some of Katy Perry’s latest songs, like ‘Firework’, and the most recent one ‘The One That Got Away’. That is really nice! I quite like Kelly Clarkson’s recent song, ‘Mr Know It All’ too!” He generally likes music of our generation.

However, he declared: “I have not come across a Chris Brown song that I like.”


Most professors come to lectures clad in ties and tucked-in shirts. One professor may have on his trademark bow-tie; another professor has a preference for unique and unconventional prints. Professor Tan is known for his characteristic short-sleeved, button-up collared shirt, left un-tucked. We asked if he finds himself fashionable.

He laughed loudly.

“I think my wife wishes that I would be fashionable because she is always trying to get me to buy new clothes, which she says is one of the most difficult things to do because I just do not like shopping and trying on new clothes. I do not really consider myself very fashionable!”

He offered his fashion philosophy: dress comfortably. “This is why I am always in a pair of jeans and a shirt that does not need to be tucked in. That is really the easiest way to dress–no fuss!”

Today, Prof Tan was however in a white long-sleeved shirt that is tucked in neatly into black trousers. We noted of that, to which he replied: “I thought since today you all are coming in to interview me, I should dress more nicely and that is why I am in a shirt that is tucked in!”


On whether is a techie, he replied: “I am a poor one.”

Elaborating, he said: “I like reading up about technology, the design aspect of technology. I like reading about how technology is so usable and portable and yet at the same time looks nice. For a long time I have wondered why desktop PCs are so ugly. The technology to make all in one desktop PCs has existed for a long time but no one really tried to do it seriously until Apple did. All these ultra-portable laptops could have come out a long time ago, and at much better prices. But somehow, all the manufacturers refused to do so. I suspect this is because the profit margins were locked into the way they were doing it so why bother right? It took somebody who needed to disrupt the market so that it could gain market share to do it and I thank Apple for doing it because now everyone has gotten on to the idea that good design and portability and usability need not be inconsistent with one another. I am very interested in tech stuff from that perspective. “

“Ask me to configure my own computer and things like that, and boy, it is an hour long process with many phone calls to my many good friends for help. I am hopeless when I do such stuff.”

The professor is also quite a gamer. For the record, he has heard of Skyrim. “In fact, I have Skyrim installed on my computer at home, and I have been kind of debating whether to play it or not because when I start playing, it would mean dozens of hours spent. I have this arbitration award to write and some marking to do, so I figure I will not start yet. I am waiting for a good opportunity to start, where I would have a week or two of uninterrupted time to play through the game and get it out of my system. But yes, it is a game I have been wanting to play!”

Prof Tan professed that he is not a particularly good gamer. “For example, I am just no good at first-person shooter games. For some reason, I just cannot do it. Also, I cannot do it on the console where there is just too many things to manipulate–I am terrible when I try to play a first-person shooter game on my PS3. So I tend to play a lot of RPG [editor: for the uninitiated, RPG means role-playing games] and I am waiting eagerly for Diablo 3, having played 1 and 2. I also like turn-based games, where there is no pressure and I can take my time. The last game I played was Civilization 5, which I enjoyed greatly.”

“Right now, I do play a lot of iPhone games, because if you are feeling a bit sleepy at the moment you can pick it up and play for a while. I am currently playing this game called Puzzle Quest, which is actually a very old game. I first played it on the DS, but on the DS you cannot buy the expansion pack. So when the expansion pack came out in the iPhone version, I decided to download it and I have been playing different class characters on the iPhone now!”

At this point in time, we were admittedly rather lost at all the different game titles and game platforms that have just been uttered. We quickly moved on: “Do you game with your children?”

“Sometimes. For example, we used to play Dungeon Hunters 2, because that was one of the games you could play online. I have wanted to start World of Warcraft, but many people say that it is very, very addictive. I kind of do not want my kids to spend too much time playing games, so I have never allowed World of Warcraft to be downloaded and to be played at home.”


An hour had passed, and it was nearing the end of our interview. We asked typical, clichéd questions that great publications tend to ask great people.

Us: What do you think you would do if you were not a lawyer?

Prof: [pauses to think] Quite a number of my relatives used to be police officers, and I currently have a cousin who is a police officer, so I suspect that maybe being a police officer would be a possibility for me if I hadn’t become a lawyer? Strangely enough it is something related to the law, so maybe that might have made sense for me.

Us: Anything in your life you would have done differently if you could do it again?

Prof: Certainly, there are many things in life one would do differently. [laughs and pauses] Well, having said that, I am not certain that I am unhappy with all the decisions I have made in life. Not all of them have panned out well of course, but even for those things that did not turn out well, and those mistakes that have been made, it probably was useful for me. So I do not think I have things that I would particularly do differently.

Sometimes, when you do things differently, you are never quite sure how that might alter your path. For example, if I did not marry my wife and have my kids, I might be left in a slightly different direction. When I was deciding which junior college to go, it did cross my mind that I should apply to Hwa Chong, but I thought that having spent all my life in catholic schools, maybe I should just complete my education in a catholic school and so it made sense for me to go to Catholic Junior College. If I had gone to Hwa Chong, I might have met my wife in junior college, and we might never have become an item down the road. You know, sometimes when you meet people too early, or in a different time and a different place, things would not work out.

The only thing I might change is the times in the course of life when we inadvertently hurt somebody. You might not even be aware of it at that time but with the benefit of hindsight you realize that maybe you did not fully appreciate the incident at that time or you might be in a position to have done more but you didn’t realize the position that somebody else might be at in the time, you didn’t do what you could have done or say something you could have said. Or we might inadvertently say a harsh word to somebody. So if there is anything I could change, it would only have to be those moments. Fortunately… okay maybe there might be many such moments or there are only a few, but I’m sure in all our lives there are such incidents, I think if I could turn back the clock those would be the only things I would change.

Us: Any last words for the students?

Prof: [Laughs, but subdues to a pensive tone] Well…I would say what I have certainly learnt over my more than 40 years of existence in this world, and more than 20 years in professional life, is that life is really full of ups and downs. Life is full of disappointments, and of course, life is full of pleasures as well. One can only hope that there are more pleasures, than there are disappointments. So I would say to all law students, is that there are definitely going to be times when you are going to feel down. When you feel discouraged, you are going to wonder whether you made the right decisions, and whether you chose the right path.

But whatever it is and however you feel, the most important things is not to give up, and to understand that you are not running a 100m race; you are running an ultra-marathon. It is a long haul, and if you did not make any mistakes in the course of this long haul, you must be leading some sort of strange, unnatural life. If you haven’t come across any difficulties; ,if you haven’t felt that you made any mistakes, maybe then you are a strange person–you might have been making mistakes but not realizing it at the same time. It is natural to make mistakes. The important thing about making mistakes and being disappointed at the outcome is that you understand that you made a mistake, and therefore it is a learning point for you, or a springboard to the future. It is the people who do not realize that they are making mistakes who are the ones who never grow and will never ultimately, fulfil their potential. This is the first thing I want to pass on to all law students.

The second thing is that I hope that after we leave this law school, to spread the word what a great institution it is. [Laughs] I would definitely say that it is one of the best law schools in the world, because it really gives you a very, very holistic education–not only in law, but in terms of the thinking process as well. It is the only law school that tries to give you a globally-oriented legal education. I think, that is one of the most important things you can get in a law school.



In his final email sent out as Dean, Professor Tan ended it with: “May you also find your place in this world and fulfillment in what life lays out for you.”

We are at the stage of life where we’re searching. Discovering who we are, exploring what we want in life, and figuring out the paths we hope to walk for the rest of our future. Professor Tan Cheng Han is a reminder to all of us, be it those who are either disillusioned with the gruelling regime of law school life, or feeling uncertain about the future, that the future contains boundless opportunities for each and every one of us. He offers reassurance, that no matter how swamped with readings and lost within the labyrinth that is law, we can find our way out. Perhaps it is because of our shared experience– Professor Tan has also survived the gruelling regime of NUS Law School. Perhaps it is because he strikes a personal chord with students, being such an approachable, warm and affable person. He was not just the Dean of Law School; he is not just a professor. He is an inspiration, a role-model.


Article contributed by: Jolene Ng (Law 2)

*Law Annual would like to thank Prof Tan Cheng Han for agreeing to be featured.

Credits to Thiam Jia Min & Kelly Ho (Law 2) for helping out with the interview.

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