SMU Office of Research – Those of us who watch television courtroom dramas know that they often come to a close with a neat, satisfying ending, usually at the one hour mark. This is never the outcome in real-life legal cases, which can be complex, drawn-out affairs, says Assistant Professor Yip Man of the Singapore Management University (SMU) School of Law.
Untangling these tricky legal cases, particularly where different domains of law collide, is where you will find Professor Yip at her element. “I look at past cases, develop a workable framework, examine the points they’ve missed out or look at it from new angles,” she says.
She has studied cases ranging from how to prosecute an illegal contract, to deciding ownership of a property paid by a shell company whose listed director is a shadow director. “Sometimes I test the theory on more current cases, or highlight considerations that have gone unnoticed. Sometimes my work is more to start a series of questions, rather than to be applied directly,” she says.
Academic legal research – the Singapore edition
A graduate of the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) law faculty, Professor Yip entered academia after being inspired by Professor Yeo Tiong Min’s lectures at NUS. He is now the dean of the School of Law at SMU and Singapore’s first Honorary Senior Counsel. “I liked how there was so much depth in his lectures, and I enjoyed the conceptual complexity that he presents in every topic that he teaches,” she says.
After graduation, she worked in major law firms here and earned her Bachelor of Civil Law, a graduate law certification, from Oxford University. Her first real taste of academic legal research there was a dissertation on whether compound interest from mistaken payments has to be repaid.
“Say there’s a mistaken payment and I pay you by mistake, you hold on to it for a few years, then I sue you for restitution – other than paying back the principal sum, should you have to pay back the compound interest as well?” she asks. “I really enjoyed writing that dissertation and decided that I wanted to spend my life doing that.”
Having joined SMU as faculty since 2010, Professor Yip finds the academic life to be “good if you’re suited for it, but you need to enjoy solitude and long hours of research”. Which she does – she sometimes even dreams about her work. “Sometimes I dream about the argument, and when I wake up I want to get it down. I once dreamt that there wasn’t something right about one part of a paper; when I woke up and checked there indeed wasn’t something right about it, and I fixed that. That’s how powerful the subconscious is.”
Professor Yip recently wrote a book chapter on resulting trust and the presumption of advancement, a concept from English common law that deals with whom a property passes on to if there are no other explicit instructions on how to dispose of it. She discusses it in the Singapore context by examining how social norms and political attitudes affect the way cases are tried here.
Ultimately, the purpose of legal research is to serve the needs of society and solve legal problems, provide redress and facilitate transactions, explains Professor Yip. She also studies how Singapore’s pro-parenthood policies might conflict with the economic imperative to get women taking part in the workforce, and how this might also affect, say, the law of maintenance under the Women’s Charter. “I like to provide solutions that work and are principled,” she adds.
Connecting with the legal community online
A typical day for Professor Yip might include reading articles about current legal decisions, reviewing drafts, writing papers and lecturing. Meanwhile, her professional activities extend beyond research and teaching. With SMU School of Law colleague Associate Professor Goh Yihan, she is working on a book project comparing commercial remedies in the Singapore legal system with those in other common-law jurisdictions such as Hong Kong.
In September 2014, the duo also started the Singapore Law Blog to publish updates on the latest legal decisions, issues and trends more quickly than in traditional print journals. The blog, which is sponsored by the Singapore Academy of Law via its Innovations and Ideas Scheme, is written without legal jargon and freely accessible by members of the public.
What makes something interesting and worthy of publication on the blog? Its editors write about new developments of social relevance, such as the recently-passed Protection from Harassment Act, which protects against harassment such as stalking, and applies to the physical and online worlds. The blog also covers issues such as arbitration that interest the wider business community, she says.
With her bird’s eye view of the legal system in Singapore, one legal trend Professor Yip sees is more focus on building a unique, indigenous Asian and Singaporean law. New institutions such as the Singapore International Mediation Centre, launched in 2014 as the world’s first specialised centre to mediate international commercial disputes, and the Singapore International Commercial Court, launched early in 2015 to hear disputes over global business deals, represent a step in that direction.
“Singapore is reaching out more by not being a follower but more of a leader,” she says. And if Professor Yip’s track record and intense focus are anything to go by, this early-career academic is the one to watch in Singapore’s legal community.
By Grace Chua