The Fall and Rise of Legal Education in Singapore

Students in the new lecture theatre at Kent Ridge. Photo by Kevin YL Tan.

Prior to independence, legal education was all but non-existent in Singapore and many other colonies. This essay briefly discusses that colonial context before going on to describe how the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law came to play an important part in Singapore’s rule of law story as Singapore’s national law school, a global law school, and an Asian law school. A third section considers challenges for the future, including the impact of technology on legal practice and the changing market for legal services. These transformations require us to rethink the purpose of law school, even as they are matched by changes in the students and faculty who enter our classrooms and our offices.

* * *

There is probably no country in the world more closely identified with the rule of law than Singapore. Throughout its history, Singapore’s commitment to a robust legal system with clear laws, an independent judiciary, and zero tolerance for corruption have served it well. Today, Singapore styles itself as the legal hub of Asia. That ambition is being realised through offering a suite of world-class dispute resolution mechanisms, encouraging MNCs to use Singapore as their Asian base and opening its doors to leading global law firms, while also strengthening Singapore firms with regional and global ambitions. The impact on the economy has been considerable. The legal sector’s nominal value-added grew from S$1.5 billion in 2008 to S$2.2 billion in 2016. During the same period, the value of legal services exported from Singapore more than doubled. Legal services exports increased by about 110 per cent from S$363 million in 2008 to S$760 million in 2016.

Given this context, it is surprising to note that legal education was essentially prohibited in most British colonies, including pre-independence Singapore. This essay will briefly review that early suppression of legal education before turning to consider the important role that the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law has come to play as a national, regional, and global law school. A third section considers challenges for the future, including the impact of technology on legal practice and the changing market for legal services. These transformations require us to rethink the purpose of law school — even as they are matched by changes in the students and faculty who enter our classrooms and our offices.

This is a draft of an article forthcoming in the Singapore Journal of Legal Studies. Continue reading the draft on SSRN here.