Speech by Ms Indranee Rajah, Minister in The Prime Minister's Office, Second Minister for Finance and National Development at The SMU Pro Bono Centre Volunteer Appreciation Dinner on 3 November 202203 Nov 2022
Dean of the SMU Yong Pung How School of Law, Professor Lee Pey Woan,
Director of the SMU Pro Bono Centre, Professor Chan Wing Cheong,
Members of the legal fraternity,
Faculty members and students of SMU Yong Pung How School of Law
It is a pleasure to be here with you this evening and to see so many old friends and new faces as well from the profession. Today is a special occasion, as we come together to –
a. celebrate the outstanding contributions of volunteer lawyers and SMU students in pro bono; and
b. show appreciation to the organisations that offer pro bono placement opportunities.
The last appreciation dinner was held in November 2019, before the pandemic. I am glad that we are finally able to come together today, to celebrate the spirit of doing good.
Facilitating access to the law and justice
We are living in a time of great uncertainty.
a. When COVID-19 struck, the economy and livelihoods of many were severely affected.
b. Just as we thought that the pandemic situation was improving, the Russia-Ukraine war –
i. impacted energy and food supplies worldwide;
ii. exacerbated inflationary pressures; and
iii. imposed hardships on our households and businesses.
c. We cannot predict when we will be out of the woods.
i. There may be new COVID-19 variants, or new forms of disease outbreaks.
ii. The global economy faces headwinds amidst worldwide monetary tightening.
iii. Tensions between major countries may take a turn for the worse, which will adversely impact our people.
Now, why do I mention this, and you may wonder what it has to do with pro bono. Because it means that more people are going to be affected, especially lower- to middle-income households, and smaller businesses may also be affected as well. You are likely to encounter some of these, because those who have legal issues might previously have been able to afford lawyers but now cannot afford their own lawyers, or may not be able to afford full fees.
Sometimes, as I have encountered before, when we are doing pro bono work, clients come not just for the legal advice but sometimes they also do not know where to go for the financial assistance. One of the things that will be good for you to do is just to reassure them that help is available if needed.
The Government has rolled out a series of measures. For households, we had announced in Budget 2022 a $560 million Household Support Package, and we recently introduced two additional support packages – $1.5 billion in June, and another $1.5 billion in October. That was just to help with household and daily expenses, even before the GST increase kicks in.
There will be an Assurance Package, which is aimed at the middle- and lower-income, permanent GST Voucher Scheme, and an enhanced package. The Government will also absorb the GST on publicly funded medical and education fees.
Also, if any of your clients are in need, tell them to go to the Social Service Offices (SSOs). The Ministry of Family and Social Development has offices all over the island which are known as SSOs. The main job of the SSOs is to see if people need financial assistance and to connect them with financial assistance. If the ones who come to you for pro bono are in need, refer them to the SSOs and let the SSOs do the connecting and the navigating for them.
Coming back to the pro bono scheme, I would like to express my deepfelt appreciation to the SMU Pro Bono Centre (or “PBC”). The SMU PBC has been instrumental in facilitating access to law and justice, especially in these difficult times.
a. At the height of the pandemic, the SMU PBC launched an online portal to provide the wider community with much-needed legal information related to the virus outbreak. This information was meant to facilitate the amicable settlement of employment and business disputes arising from the outbreak.
b. The COVID-19 restrictions did not prevent the SMU PBC from contributing to the community.
i. The SMU PBC’s Legal Clinic continued to offer free legal advice to eligible applicants via email, when in-person sessions were not possible.
ii. The SMU PBC also gave many legal awareness talks to various groups via video conferencing, on topics ranging from divorce to the lasting power of attorney.
c. In 2021, the SMU PBC established the Mediation Clinic to provide pro bono mediation services to financially disadvantaged members of the public. The first mediation session under this scheme took place in April 2021.
The SMU PBC’s achievements would not have been possible without the passion, dedication and initiative displayed by the volunteer lawyers and students amongst us today.
a. Each of you has sacrificed many hours of your precious time to make a difference in the lives of others.
b. And you do this not out of desire for recognition or awards; you do this from the heart, out of:
i. compassion for society; and
ii. your belief in the importance of equal access to the law and justice.
c. I would like to say a big thank you to all of you for your contributions. Please give yourselves a big round of applause.
Pro Bono Awards
This evening, we will be giving out eight top awards to several lawyers and students who have excelled in pro bono. Each of them is deserving of recognition, but I would just like to share about two of the award recipients.
First, Miss Meher Malhotra.
a. Meher graduated from SMU’s Class of 2022 with a Bachelor of Laws.
b. During her time in law school, Meher completed more than 300 pro bono hours, far exceeding the mandatory minimum of 20 pro bono hours.
c. Meher dedicated a lot of her time and effort to Justice Without Borders, a non-profit organisation supporting migrant workers who are victims of labour exploitation.
d. Since young, Meher experienced how her parents – who were migrants from India – struggled to assimilate into our society. This gave her a better understanding of the difficulties faced by the migrant workers whom she had interacted with; and enabled her to assist them more meaningfully.
e. For having completed the most pro bono hours in her graduating cohort, Meher will be receiving the Spirit of Pro Bono Hero Award. This is a remarkable achievement, and I hope that her passion and drive to help the community will continue well into her professional life.
Then we have Mr Richard Tan.
a. Richard is a veteran in pro bono.
i. He started volunteering at the Law Society’s Pro Bono Services’ Community Legal Clinics more than a decade ago.
ii. When the SMU PBC established its Legal Clinic in 2013, he volunteered as well.
b. Richard’s steadfast commitment to pro bono stems from his belief that, as a lawyer, it is his privilege and responsibility to serve anyone from all walks of life who may require access to law and justice. Richard serves as a reminder to all of us on the reason why we chose to pursue the law.
c. Richard will be receiving the Spirit of Pro Bono Pinnacle Award, for having volunteered the most times at the SMU PBC’s Legal Clinic each year for the past four years.
d. I would like to commend Richard for his dedication, and hope that the younger ones amongst us will be inspired by his example.
In closing, I would like to thank:
a. the SMU PBC;
b. its community partners; and
c. all the volunteer lawyers and students,
for your invaluable support in enhancing access to the law and justice.
To the aspiring lawyers amongst us, you will face challenges and pressures in your long career ahead. At times, these may distract you from continuing on with your pro bono journey. But I urge you to stay the course and to remind yourself why you chose to pursue the law. Doing pro bono work will help you find and define the meaning and purpose in being a lawyer.
To the more experienced lawyers amongst us, I ask that you serve as role models to the younger ones. It is your mentorship and your guidance that will help the young lawyers recognise the value and importance of pro bono work.
Should you meet people in the course of your pro bono work who may require additional assistance, as I had said earlier, please do not hesitate to ask them to approach the social service agencies, or even the community centres or their MPs.
That leaves me to extend my heartiest congratulations to all the award recipients, and I wish everyone an enjoyable evening ahead.
Thank you very much.