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Closing Address at Gala Dinner


Saturday, 23 November 2019

The Honourable the Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon

Supreme Court of Singapore

1. Good evening, Chief Justice Wattanapan and Mrs Wattanapan, members of the Judiciary of Thailand, Chief Justices, Heads of Delegations, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. I am deeply honoured to have been given this opportunity as the immediate past Chair of the Council of Chief Justices of ASEAN to say a few words on behalf of all of us gathered in this magical setting this evening, at the close of two short but immensely fruitful and enjoyable days.

2. As we come to the end of our meeting, on behalf of all the gathered delegations, I would like first to express our sincere gratitude to His Excellency the Honourable Slaikate Wattanapan, President of the Supreme Court of Thailand; his lovely wife, Mrs Wattanapan, who spearheaded the curation of the excellent spouse programme; the members of his outstanding organising committee under the able leadership of Vice President Justice Metinee Chalodhorn, who managed all the details of the programme including the amazing entertainment this evening; and all the Thai delegates here today. In all honesty, Chief Justice, you and your colleagues have been the warmest and most generous hosts that any of us could possibly have wished for. Without your kindness and hospitality, our meetings and the progress we have made on a number of fronts over the past two days would simply have been impossible. So thank you all so very much, and congratulations to the Thai Judiciary for having hosted this meeting so impeccably.

3. I also take this opportunity to extend my very best wishes to Chief Justice Wattanapan for his tenure as Chair of the Council of ASEAN Chief Justices. I know that he will lead us well, with his unique blend of wisdom, warmth and wit. These qualities are expressed in his ability to confront some of the most profound issues that a judge must deal with, while always being able to break into his wonderful smile to help us always to see the lighter side of things.

4. Let me also, on behalf of all the Chief Justices and delegations present today, express our deep gratitude to Chief Justice Wattanapan for the outstanding hospitality that has been extended to us in connection with our historic visit and tour of this magnificent new building that houses the Supreme Court of Thailand. It is said that a picture paints a thousand words, and this evening we are privileged to be in the picture, as we marvel at the simply amazing setting of our reception this evening. As I walked in behind Chief Justice Wattanapan on the red carpet, it truly felt as if we were entering an enchanted fairy tale kingdom. And what artistry we have seen in the grace and elegance of every single detail this evening. All of us were tremendously impressed by the beauty of the Supreme Court’s architecture, the scale of its construction, the sophistication of its technology, and above all its profound embodiment of Thai culture and the Thai national identity. It is obvious that great care has been taken to ensure that the building is a physical reminder to all its users and visitors of the dignity, history and tremendous importance of the Supreme Court of Thailand. Indeed, the Supreme Court has played a pivotal role in Thailand’s national history, and its continued presence at its original site on Rattanakosin Island – just adjacent to other major landmarks such as the Grand Palace and the City Pillar Shrine – is an affirmation of the Supreme Court’s unwavering commitment to upholding the Rule of Law in this key ASEAN jurisdiction.

5. Let me say a few words to round up our meeting. This has been an eventful year for the CACJ, and many of us here have been involved – either as participants in, or as hosts of – a number of meetings on matters of importance to all of us. In December last year, the CACJ and the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) met in Putrajaya, Malaysia, for a High Level ASEAN Human Rights Dialogue on the rights of accused persons in criminal cases. The presentations of each jurisdiction and the discussions that followed revealed a broad consensus amongst Member States on certain fundamental precepts and principles on the rights of accused persons that are shared across ASEAN, and yet at the same time we saw the diversity of approaches we have each taken to give expression to these principles within our own national legal systems. This is, in many ways, reflective of the ASEAN way – we may hail from different legal traditions and adopt methods that are designed to meet the needs and cultures of our own countries, but we are fundamentally united by a common purpose and a shared set of ASEAN values.

6. One such common objective is the enhancement of existing national systems of family justice, and to that end, the CACJ Working Group on Cross-Border Disputes Involving Children has made significant progress in the development of procedural and ethical codes for family practitioners and mediators. The 2nd ASEAN Family Judges Forum, which was organised by the Family Justice Courts of Singapore and the Singapore Mediation Centre under the auspices of the CACJ in March this year, was very well-received by the participants, many of whom have expressed much optimism and enthusiasm about incorporating mediation into national frameworks for the resolution of family disputes. This is most encouraging and provides considerable momentum to our efforts to promote the ever-closer coming together of our national systems of family justice which are, and ought to be, bound by our commitment to a set of shared values and aspirations on family justice. Indeed, I am delighted that the CACJ has agreed that this will mark the next phase of our work in this delicate and critically important area of work.

7. More recently, over the last few days, we made great progress and reached several points of agreement on how we will advance a number of significant CACJ initiatives, which are reflected in the Bangkok Declaration that we signed just this evening at the Plenary Meeting Room of this beautiful building. Among other things, we agreed to draw upon the resources and expertise of law firms and legal institutions to improve the currency and quality of the content on the ASEAN Judiciaries Portal. In addition, we approved the Work Plan of the Working Group on Judicial Education and Training from 2020 to 2025, which kickstarts a series of programmes to enhance the training and development of our Judges throughout ASEAN. Most notably, the CACJ Charter is now in force, and will serve as the institutional framework and point of reference for all our future work.

8. These achievements would have seemed wildly unrealistic just six years ago when the CACJ first convened, rather modestly as the ASEAN Chief Justices’ Meeting. At that time, we were little more than an informal gathering of like-minded individuals, who were somehow united in the belief that greater judicial cooperation and dialogue would likely help us strengthen our national legal systems and advance the rule of law in the region. Since then, our progress has exceeded our expectations and we have celebrated many milestones together, just the latest of which is the Bangkok Declaration. More significantly, the CACJ has moved beyond dialogue and discussion and into the development of concrete solutions that range from model rules to a comprehensive workplan on judicial training. And we have done so welcoming several new Chief Justices into our community. Let me at this stage take a moment to acknowledge the Chief Justices who have just joined us in the course of this year. They are, beginning with our host, Chief Justice Slaikate Wattanapan of Thailand, Chief Justice Tengku Maimun of Malaysia, Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta of the Philippines, Chief Justice Khampa Sengdara of Laos, and Chief Justice Steven Chong of Brunei who is ably represented by Justice Rostaina today.

9. I believe that the journey of the CACJ reflects that of ASEAN itself. Just as the ASEAN Charter provided a robust legal and institutional framework that conferred ASEAN with legal personality and codified ASEAN norms and rules, the CACJ Charter crystallises our identity and will form the bedrock for the continued growth of the CACJ and its work in the decades to come. Just as ASEAN has progressed over the past few decades from a loose association of nations operating on the basis of ad hoc understandings and informal procedures, to a rules-based organisation that embraces greater institutionalisation where this advances our common goals, so is the CACJ heading towards greater structure and institutionalisation.

10. Looking ahead, I suggest that we must not stray from this trajectory. We have laid a strong foundation for the CACJ, not only by emphasising our shared beliefs and our desire to collaborate, but also over the years by committing ourselves to an increasing number of substantive undertakings. This evening, I suggest that the time is approaching when we must have the courage to embark on yet more concrete steps to realise our aspirations. This is especially important at this time, when a number of nations around the world have demonstrated an inclination toward nationalism rather than multilateralism. Even as some countries choose to adopt increasingly protectionist policies, eschew multilateral dialogue and partnerships, and even disavow the international rule of law, we in ASEAN have the opportunity to be different. In these troubled times, ASEAN has the chance to show the world that we, as beneficiaries of multilateralism, believe that this continues to be the best strategy for growth, prosperity and peace, and that we will act on our beliefs by joining hands to build a shared future.

11. A striking example of this commitment is the fact that all 10 ASEAN member states were among the 15 countries that reached a text-based agreement on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which concluded more than 8 years of negotiations and could become the world’s largest trade deal. This is compelling evidence that ASEAN, as a united bloc of like-minded friends, is much stronger as a whole than as a sum of its parts.

12. What, then, is the role of the CACJ in this future? I believe that we can and should play a role in advancing the rule of law within ASEAN on at least three different levels. First, we will do this by strengthening our ASEAN Judges as stewards of the rule of law. While our judicial philosophies and cultures might differ, we all believe that the courts are a bastion against the intolerance, injustice and violence that is afflicting so many societies around the world. It is therefore in our collective interest to raise the calibre and standing of our judges. Given the position of leadership that the CACJ has, we are well placed to spearhead judicial training and education initiatives, and to appraise the efficacy of such efforts by reference to well-established benchmarks such as the International Framework for Court Excellence.

13. Second, the CACJ can strengthen the rule of law by facilitating access to justice across ASEAN, focusing in particular on cross-border issues that require judicial cooperation such as those concerning cross-border family disputes, the service of civil processes, and the enforcement of foreign judgments. But there are other areas that are ripe for consideration, including the taking of evidence in foreign proceedings, transnational commercial law and cross-border insolvency law, amongst others. In at least some of these areas, developing frameworks for court-to-court communications might prove to be critical. We have taken important first steps in this direction by opening communication channels and providing litigants with basic information on our legal systems through the ASEAN Judiciaries Portal, but we should also be thinking about ways to formalize and externalise some of our practices, for instance, through more model rules, instruments or memoranda of understanding and guidance. As ASEAN embraces greater institutionalisation, the CACJ should keep pace.

14. Third, the CACJ can be a first mover in the engagement of countries and organisations outside of ASEAN in order to increase judicial cooperation. As ASEAN seeks to expand its economic network outside of the region, our judiciaries must ensure that these efforts are underpinned by a legal and judicial network that supports the needs of international trade. I am delighted that the Working Group on ASEAN+ Meetings has identified some suitable countries and organisations that the CACJ may wish to engage in the first phase of this outreach, including the Supreme Courts of China, Japan, and South Korea. This is an admirable first step, and I look forward to seeing how we will continue to break new ground.

15. We have journeyed significantly from the 1st CACJ meeting and accomplished a great deal since then, but I believe that we have a long way yet for us to travel together. As we embark on new and bolder endeavours under the able leadership of Chief Justice Wattanapan, I am confident that the future of the CACJ is bright indeed. We all know Chief Justice Wattanapan for his boundless energy, his dedication to strengthening partnerships within and beyond ASEAN, and most of all his enduring commitment to bettering his country and ASEAN. I look forward to working with Chief Justice Wattanapan and I know that all of us here will give him the support that you have so graciously extended to me over the past year.

16. Let me close by once again expressing our deepest appreciation to the Chief Justice and his wonderful team for an ALA Governing Council Meeting and CACJ Conference that we will long remember. You have filled our hearts and you have also filled our bellies with your hospitality; and even though our time here together has been short, you have treated us not just as friends, but indeed as family, and for that we are truly grateful. As we begin our journeys home, I wish all of us safe travels. But I ask us all to reflect on the profound promise that the CACJ can offer to our nations and our people by strengthening our legal frameworks.

17. As we part company, I do not say “goodbye” but rather “Laew – Pob – Gun – Mai – Krub” – or “till we meet again”. Thank you all very much.

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