LLB Graduation Ceremony 2009 - University of Hong Kong
Speech of the Hon. Margaret Ng
Chairman, Dean, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:
This is a happy occasion for all of us gathered here: parents who are proud of the achievement of their children, and graduates who are relieved that they have got through a major stage of their lives. You have worked very hard, and you have the right to celebrate today.
I am honoured to be permitted to share your pride and joy, and to say a few words to you on this important occasion.
I imagine that one thing very much in your mind is, what lies in the future for a law graduate? Of course, most of you will be going on to your PCLL course, or perhaps a Master’s degree in law, and eventually qualify as a solicitor or barrister. Some of you, undeterred by your taste of university life, will become law teachers and legal scholars. If this is your chosen path, I wish you every success and satisfaction. Life in the law is, from my own experience, a worthwhile and deeply satisfying one.
But, on top of all that, I would like you to consider another calling – that of the lawyer in politics and public administration.
In Hong Kong, there is a kind of stigma about politics, as if it is just another name for “trouble-making” or “rabble rousing”, or, at any rate, not a respectable career or calling, quite contrary to the image of the lawyer, which is conservative, cautious, and supportive of the establishment. Law and Politics are kept in separate compartments, almost as if they are incompatible with each other. However, if you look around the world, you will be astonished to find that this attitude is unique to present-day Hong Kong. Historically, and in other parts of the world, the opposite is the case.
In other parts of the world and in history, law and politics have a natural affinity with each other. Lawyers find the political arena almost a natural habitat. Law, together with history, seems to be a logical training ground for future political leaders.
The current President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, is a lawyer: he is a graduate of Harvard Law School. Mrs. Michelle Obama was also trained as a lawyer. In fact they met in law school. The immediate past president, George W. Bush was, unfortunately, not a lawyer. His predecessor, Bill Clinton, was a lawyer and a graduate of Yale Law School, and so was his wife, Hilary Clinton, now President Obama’s Secretary of State.
In the United Kingdom, the beleaguered Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, is, I believe, a graduate in economics. His predecessor, Tony Blair, was a barrister, and of course, he was the leader who led the Labour Party into a landslide victory in 1997, ending the Tory’s long grip on power. You may recall that the Tory Prime Minister at the time was John Major, not a lawyer. He succeeded the famous “Iron Lady”, Margaret Thatcher, who was a lawyer!
Mrs. Tony Blair, Ms. Cherie Booth Q.C. is, as her title indicates, a very successful lawyer. You might have heard the story that they were pupils in the same set of Chambers. As the more promising of the two, Cherie got tenancy and proceeded, in the fullness of time, to take silk. Tony had to make do with No.10 Downing Street. I do not want you to think that only bad lawyers make successful politicians, but good advocacy does help to get you out of a tighter corner, and politicians often find themselves in tight corners. We know that the present Chief Executive is not a lawyer from the fact that he is frequently stuck in a tight corner!
Undoubtedly, there were good lawyers who were great statesmen. One shining example is Sir Thomas More, who suffered martyrdom for the rule of law, thereby becoming the Patron Saint of the legal profession.
Turning to lawyers in Parliament, let us look at the House of Commons, the “Mother of all Parliaments”. From records going as far back as 1346, lawyers had constituted a significant membership. During the Medieval era, lawyers made up 10% to 19% of the Members of Parliament. At the end of the 17th Century, the proportion stood at about 14%. Lawyers reached a peak in the late 19th Century, at 20% to 23%. Thereafter, there was a decline. Between 1945 to 1992, the level was at about 14%. The sharp fall came when the Labour took over in 1997 and, as I have just said, it was a lawyer who led them to victory!
Even in present day Hong Kong, the legal profession is far from insignificant in the political arena. Currently, there are 6 lawyers in the Executive Council, and 12 in LegCo, with I believe, at least another 3 members who have studied law.
But beyond mere numbers, members of the legal profession in LegCo are also distinguished in the role they play. Three serving party leaders are lawyers. Among the most internationally respected and notable former LegCo members was Martin Lee S.C. In Hong Kong’s transition from a British Colony to a Special Administrative Region of China, he ensured that the cause of our autonomy and rights and freedoms under Chinese sovereignty, and our fight for democracy, were kept on the international agenda. He has been, indeed, the symbol of Hong Kong democracy. While the torch is now entrusted to younger hands, what Martin Lee has done is indelibly a part of history.
We must not forget that the first unofficial member of LegCo to become LegCo’s President in place of the Governor of Hong Kong was Sir John Swaine, an eminent Queen’s Counsel.
Pausing here: why this eminence of the legal profession in politics?
The learned editors of “The Law and Parliament” believe that one factor is that legal practice can most easily accommodate political commitments such as attending meetings. Lawyers, particularly barristers, they say, have more time (that does not sound too good), but it also has to do with constitutional reform and democratization. In the U.K., the highest percentage of participation of the legal profession coincided with the dominance of the Liberal Party, and declined with the coming into power of the Labour Party which used to have fewer lawyers and more trade union representatives.
Two other factors are relevant: first, the legal profession and a career in politics going hand-in-hand offered a good channel of upward mobility, and secondly, law is a good foundation and training for understanding Government and policy in communities which uphold the rule of law.
I should hope that there is a deeper reason, that of our core values, our passion for justice, especially to eradicate unjust laws, our desire to bring about a fairer system which protects the rights and freedoms of all who live under the law, and not just work for the rich and powerful. Our deeply ingrained principle of “equality before the law” makes us oppose unequal treatments. At the same time, we are marked by our love of the law which is founded on the respect for order and reason. This means we always look first to reform, and are seldom driven to the despair of rebellion.
I can now come to the real motive of my address. It is that, in an age where people turn away from values and principles, and have made profit as the sole measure of success, I hope more people from among the legal profession will take up political lives for the right reasons, to achieve lofty goals which will both make a lasting contribution to our community and create a satisfying vocation for ourselves.
As I have said a moment ago, history has provided us with many shining examples, and now I would like to tell you just one such example, and that is Wu Tingfang 伍廷芳, or “Ng Choy”, as he was known in Hong Kong.
You probably already know that he was the first ethnic Chinese to be appointed a member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong. He was also the first Chinese barrister in Hong Kong, and the first Chinese ever to have qualified in England as a barrister. These facts are common knowledge. What is not so well known, even to lawyers, is his role in the development and reform of law and legal system in China.
Interestingly, Wu Tingfang was an immigrant who was born in Malacca. His father took him to live in Canton when he was 3. When he was 14, he came to study in St. Paul’s College in Hong Kong. Later, he studied law in University College in London, and was called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1876. He returned to Hong Kong to practise. In 1880, he was appointed to the Legislative Council by Governor Hennessy. It is said that while he was in LegCo, he supported the Governor’s policy in eliminating discrimination against the Chinese. He also supported reforms against torture and slavery. Although he departed Hong Kong in 1882, he had left his mark in our history.
I looked up the Hansard of LegCo for the years 1880 to 1882. In those days, they only had Minutes and not verbatim reports of the debate. The name “Ng Choy” was recorded regularly as present and participating in the debates and voting, but the only Bills which bore his name was the Tramways Bill and The Banishment and Conditional Pardons Ordinance where he opposed the motion that the word “Chinese” in one of the clauses stand part of the Bill.
He then embarked upon an illustrious career as an ambassador of the Ch’ing Court. He was a man of great learning and culture. In 1902, together with another great jurist, he was appointed by imperial edict as, what we may call nowadays, Law Reform Commissioner, to undertake extensive reform of the Ch’ing legal code Ta Tsin Lu Li 大清律例.
The first decade of the 20th Century was a period of fertile and you might say, feverish, reform of the law and legal system in China. It was widely recognized that for China to regain her sovereignty on her own soil and shake free of foreign domination, fundamental and extensive internal reforms were necessary. Wu Tingfang firmly believed that a modern legal system and the rule of law, founded on the independence of the Judiciary were of central importance, and he devoted himself to the task.
Legal reform was by no means non-controversial. But even more sensitive was political reform. So it is not new that law and politics go hand-in-hand. Social and political change, progress towards a more modern and democratic society and fairer system must begin with reforming the law.
Law was also the least controversial of the great controversy of political reform. You will be amused to hear the pretext of modernizing the law. On 13 May 1902, the imperial edict contained this statement: “In recent days, disputes arising from commercial transactions have increased in volume and complexity. We hereby direct that Shen Jiaben 沈家本and Wu Tingfang 伍庭芳apply themselves to the task of examining and reviewing the existing law concerned, categorized according to the nature of dispute. They should take into consideration the legal practices of other nations, and draft proposals which will have general application at home and abroad, for the benefit of orderly resolution.” I hope I have translated that correctly. As you can see, facilitating international trade relations had been, from the beginning, the pretext for modernizing the law, and commercial and economic laws had always led the way in law reform.
The draft amendments went into the hundreds by the time curtain came down on the Ch’ing Dynasty in 1911. None of them had a chance of being enacted into law.
Modernisation of China’s law and legal system went into abeyance because of the Revolution. It was picked up again briefly, put aside by the advance of the Communist system, and in the fifties, talented lawyers learned in Western law and Chinese law and culture who were keen to continue the legal reform were cut down by anti-rightist movement. Legal development then went to sleep in China for 40 years.
Since the early 1990s, as China opened up, law reform has started again in earnest. New legislations were drafted and promulgated. The statute books grew and are still growing, but China is still a long way from the rule of law.
I cannot but be stirred by this bit of history. One hundred years ago, Wu Tingfang played a major role in China’s law reform. Here, we are again at a point where Hong Kong’s legal profession is best placed to make a major contribution. Not only because we have learned the law but because we have lived and are living in an environment where it is practised, where it constitutes a bedrock of our public and commercial life, where it is now underpinned by principles and concerns of constitutionalism.
Not many people have been placed in a more privileged – and challenging – position in history. Politics is about building a future on the foundations of the past. It is about changing society for the better. Better law can do that for the millions. From my seat in LegCo, I have watched the opportunity pass by. Everyone is busy with something else. Are you prepared to rise to the occasion and answer the call?
At last year’s Law Graduation Ceremony, the Guest of Honour, Miss Gladys Li S.C., spoke wonderfully of Albert Sanguinetti, a distinguished member of the Hong Kong Bar. I was privileged to hear her speak. Albert Sanguinetti passed away last month, at the age of 86, after a rich and colourful life. A reception was held to celebrate his life. Many people came. They exchanged stories about him. A presentation was made from his photo album. We were astonished how many people’s lives he had touched with his magic – Judges, fellow members of the profession, and countless humble citizens of Hong Kong. By his passionate belief in fighting for justice, he had restored their faith in justice and the law.
Remembering Albert Sanguinetti, Mr. Justice Bokhary, Permanent Judge of the Court of Final Appeal said: “His feet followed the law, but his eyes were lifted up to justice.” I can think of no fitter motto to give you than this, as you embark on your legal journey today.