Singapore’s new Attorney General Sundaresh Menon took office today as the city state steps up its pursuit of financial misconduct and prepares to further liberalize the legal industry to boost its economy.
The 48-year-old lawyer’s experience ranges from investigating the 1995 collapse of Britain’s oldest merchant bank Barings Plc, after rogue trader Nick Leeson in Singapore made losing bets on derivatives, to hearing a lawsuit involving the country’s largest charity fraud while serving as a judicial commissioner for a year.
Menon, the former managing partner at Rajah & Tann LLP, Singapore’s second-largest law firm by lawyers, succeeds Walter Woon, who pledged in January that the city will match “brain for brain” the best lawyers that corporate criminals can afford. Singapore’s central bank won its first civil lawsuits for stock rigging and insider trading this year. The attorney general’s office also oversees the 100 foreign law firms and 960 foreign attorneys in Singapore.
“He would have a very good insight to the best way of tackling corporate crime” with his experience of commercial disputes, said Singapore International Arbitration Centre Chairman Michael Pryles.
Singapore’s attorney general, appointed by the president for two years, must ensure that prosecutions aren’t brought for political or other extraneous reasons said Woon, now Dean of the Singapore Institute of Legal Education.
“The office of the attorney general carries with it a heavy responsibility,” Menon said in a statement today. As attorney general, he said he would have to depend on “strong advocates and advisers with a fearless sense of justice and a commitment to the rule of law.”
As deputy chairman of the Singapore International Arbitration Centre, Menon played a key role in transforming it from something “regarded by some as parochial into a truly international organization,” Pryles said.
“He’s established extensive contacts within the Indian judiciary, in the sub-continent,” Pryles said.
Menon graduated with first class honors from the National University of Singapore and received a Masters degree from Harvard Law School in 1991, the same year U.S. President Barack Obama graduated from the Cambridge, Massachusetts,-based college.
Menon also headed the Asian disputes practice of Cleveland- based law firm Jones Day and attends Church of St. Ignatius in Singapore, where he conducted an eight-week course on the Bible beginning in August.
His international network may help Singapore as it seeks to expand the legal and financial services industries. The government is considering allowing more foreign law firms to practice local corporate law after granting licenses to six at the end of 2008.
Singapore, the third-most competitive nation for doing business, was ranked 21st out of 139 countries for its judicial independence, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2010-2011 Global Competitiveness Report.
As a judicial commissioner in 2007, Menon said that he had no interest in indulging critics of the integrity of Singapore’s judiciary when he declined to allow a foreign lawyer to appear for The Far Eastern Economic Review in a defamation case.
“This court has one primary interest, and that is to do justice to all without fear or favor,” he said. “The judgments of this court speak for themselves.”
As head of the attorney-general’s chambers with 150 legal officers, Menon has responsibility for cases including the prosecution of British author Alan Shadrake who has been charged with contempt of court for challenging the independence of the city’s legal system.
“It’s a hard and thankless job,” said Woon, 54, who stepped down as attorney-general in April. “The person who occupies the hot seat has to have a thick skin and a strong sense of duty and justice to cope.”
As a government-appointed inspector, Menon at 33 co-authored Singapore’s report on the collapse of Barings after Leeson’s $1.4 billion of trading losses brought down the bank.
As a judicial commissioner, he told the lawyer for Singapore’s National Kidney Foundation, suing its former chief executive to recover misappropriated funds, not to call the co-defendants “cronies”.
“We can avoid the use of these terms at this stage,” he told K. Shanmugam, now Singapore’s Law Minister. “The gentlemen in question are entitled to be treated with respect and dignity,” Menon said, adding that he wasn’t suggesting that anything else was intended.
“He will raise the game when he becomes AG,” said Davinder Singh, chief executive officer of Singapore law firm Drew & Napier LLC. “His time in office will be marked by fairness, sound judgment and humility.”