In 2005, a group of seven law students at the National University of Singapore (NUS) came together with a shared desire to do more for the local pro bono scene. Fast forward a little more than ten years later and the NUS Pro Bono Group (PBG) has grown to a membership of close to 200 with 9 projects under its wing. On Friday, 4 March 2016, PBG celebrated its tenth anniversary at the Moot Court at the NUS Bukit Timah campus. Attended by over 70 people comprising PBG members, alumni and partners, the celebrations were organised along the narrative of Beginning, Development and Future. The celebrations were graced by four prominent individuals – Professor Simon Chesterman, Dean of the NUS Faculty of Law; Professor Tan Cheng Han, from the NUS Faculty of Law; Mr Lim Tanguy, Director of the Pro Bono Services Office at the Law Society; and Mr Thio Shen Yi, President of the Law Society – who each spoke about a slice of their experience with PBG and pro bono. A series of videos, comprising interviews of PBG’s alumni and partners, tracked PBG’s growth since its founding days.
Professor Tan Cheng Han, who was Dean of the NUS Faculty of Law at the time when PBG was born, acknowledged that building a pro bono culture had not been at the top of his priorities when he first began his term, as the focus was on internationalising the outlook of the law school following the turn of the century. However, when Joseph Wong, then a fourth-year student, approached him with the idea of starting a group focusing on pro bono, the question was ‘Why not?’.
Over the course of the evening, two common threads emerged. First off, the growth of PBG over the years has been a collaborative effort, involving both PBG members and partners, comprising both legal practitioners and organisations, many of whom have formed a long-term working relationship with the group. Mr Lim Tanguy, Director of the Pro Bono Services Office, shared that his experience working with numerous batches of PBG leadership had never failed to disappoint, as the handover process between batches was smooth and the quality of leadership was consistently reliable.
This sentiment was echoed by Ms Rachel Hines, a HOME volunteer who works with the Students 4 Migrants team on the project Law & You.
“I have been truly impressed with the dedication, poise, and compassion of the students working on Law & You and have great expectations for an ever-expanding Law & You programme in the future. For next semester, I hope to see the students continue to think creatively about how to reach and empower more foreign domestic workers with the know-how and the skills to speak up for themselves.”
– Ms Rachel Hines, Home Law & You Programme volunteer
In his speech, Dean Chesterman also recognised Professor Helena Whalen-Bridge, who has been the Faculty Advisor of PBG since its founding, for her vision and dedication in advising successive batches of PBG members in their quest to do good in the community.
Secondly, PBG’s trajectory as an organisation working to grow the pro bono landscape in Singapore is a constant work in progress. As shared by Mr Kevin Ebert Tjoa, an alumnus who served in the AY12/13 Exco, the partnership with Project X, an advocacy group for sex workers’ rights in Singapore, had begun as a once-off collaboration during his term. Today, the Legal Research team in PBG continues to work with Project X to examine the legal issues that sex workers face, and the inaugural Pro Bono Awareness Week featured sex workers as one of the target group of beneficiaries whose challenges PBG members helped to raise awareness for. It is heartening that seeds that were planted in the earlier years have grown into full-fledged projects. Successive Excos have sought to expand the range of projects as well as improve the quality of existing projects.
“It was very heartening to see that PBG has grown from strength to strength ever since I left the Exco 3 years ago. Much has changed in the pro bono landscape, in school and in the industry, and it is very encouraging to see that our juniors have kept the pro bono spirit and culture alive and well. It is this same spirit that I hope will continue to grow and make your time in law school a more meaningful and memorable experience that you’ll carry with you long after you’ve left and gone into practice.”
– Mr Adriel Chioh, PBG Exco AY12/13
The final speaker of the evening, Mr Thio Shen Yi, President of the Law Society of Singapore, advised that one’s involvement in pro bono did not have to cease after graduating from law school. He recommended that students take the initiative to learn about the various law firms’ approach to pro bono and also consider taking up public interest litigation cases in order to earn the opportunity to shape the law for a vulnerable group they are keen to help.
Indeed, many former PBG members have continued engaging in pro bono long after they have left law school. Ms Foo Yuet Min, one of the founding members of PBG, is a practising lawyer who has volunteered with the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) and serves as a director of Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia Community Legal Education Initiative (BABSEA CLE).
“The key to continuing pro bono involvement lies in finding something manageable which you can commit to long term, and always understanding that balance and sustainability are crucial. When you are doing well at your paying work, you will have more ability and latitude to do pro bono work. Potentially, you will also have more standing to make impactful changes as you progress in your career. Further, it may be a good idea to look for pro bono activities where your skill set and inclinations can truly value add; do things others may not be able to easily do. That gives you more satisfaction and will motivate you to continue the good work!”
– Ms Foo Yuet Min, founding member of PBG
The event concluded on a celebratory mood, with the launch of a booklet titled Pro Bono in Singapore: The PBG Story chronicling developments within PBG over the years. PBG alumni also came on stage for the cake cutting ceremony, led by PBG founder Mr Joseph Wong and current PBG President Cheryl Lim.
Ten years since its founding, PBG’s narrative is an unfinished one. While the group has much to be proud of, there is much more to reach towards – community needs to be met, beneficiaries to be served, opportunities to be explored. Nonetheless, for an evening, the NUS Pro Bono Group was able to pause, take stock of its progress, and appreciate the efforts of the people who have grown the pro bono landscape in Singapore. To quote an oft-cited refrain over the years, ‘[never] doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has’ (Margaret Mead).
For the videos screened at the event, check out our YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCuMfR7GqIjlsQMqgHVc3ujA). The series of videos in celebration of PBG’s 10th anniversary was put together by PBG members Delphine Goh ’19, Siddeeq ’19, Glen Ting ’19 and Anmol Kaur Gill ’19