“Inertia and complacency are probably the biggest threats at this time. There is a tendency to delay change until “tomorrow”. As they say, those who snooze will lose.”
Tan Ken Hwee, currently the Chief Transformation and Innovation Officer for the Singapore Judiciary, first joined the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) in 1995 as State Counsel and Deputy Public Prosecutor. He eventually took on additional roles, as Director of the IT Department, and then Chief Information Officer. He was also a Senior Assistant Registrar of the Supreme Court from 2006-2010.
Ken Hwee was appointed Deputy Chief Prosecutor, and then Chief Prosecutor of the Financial and Technology Crime Division. FTCD handles white-collar and technology-related crimes in Singapore, ranging from financial and securities fraud to corruption, cybercrime and terrorism financing. He currently oversees the transformation, digitalisation, innovation and technology plans of the Supreme Court, the State Courts and the Family Justice Courts and has been involved in legal technology and Tech-law matters in Singapore for 25 years.
What made you choose to study law and what drives you today?
Strangely enough, I think folks around me knew that I would be pursuing a law degree before I even realised it myself. I thoroughly enjoyed deconstructing problems and debating things with my long suffering friends and my sister, from the time I was in my early teens, and it sort of just progressed from there. Before I signed on the dotted line, so to speak, I attended some evening classes on the Singapore Legal System, at the NUS Department of Extramural Studies, which was available in the 80s, to help folks pick up all sorts of different skills and knowledge. That further piqued my interest so when the time came, it was almost a given that Law would be my first choice. One other possibility – medicine – was mischievously put in as my last choice, when I applied to NUS.
Since I had a scholarship, I didn’t think too much about going into the public sector. But, it’s been so interesting that not once did I calculate how much of my bond I had left.
Of course, this is not to say that private practice is not important – we just serve different constituencies towards a greater good. I’ve had colleagues who leave public service to join the private sector before coming back again; there is a certain degree of porosity to these boundaries.
What kept me going? As with many of my colleagues, it’s the sense of doing something for the greater public good, performing a public service going beyond the interest of a client. For example, on the international law front, I helped negotiate international agreements and represent Singapore in international disputes. As a prosecutor, I considered cases and as important as the cases we did prosecute, we decided on cases that would not be prosecuted, and also decided on improvements that could be made to the criminal justice system. On a broader law reform level, I had the opportunity to participate in the Electronic Transactions Bill as well as various amendments to the Computer Misuse Act.
What drives me today is facing the challenges and opportunities in leveraging off 25 years of experience to help make structural changes to how things are done, for the greater good of the profession and Singapore.
Throughout your entire career, could you share with us an event/case that stood out to you?
I’ve had the benefit of having worked on a large number of cases – from Civil, Criminal to International Law cases and I wouldn’t want to single out any particular case for mention. Many are significant and important in their own right, and really not comparable across the different “genres”.
What do you feel is the most challenging aspect of your job?
In my current deployment, I would say that the most challenging aspect is change management. Successfully persuading people, whether in the profession or Government Service, or members of the public, to embrace change and disruption is extremely difficult, but also very fulfilling – when it succeeds.
What is a typical work day like for you?
I start the day dropping my kid at school, and then coming in to work and reviewing the day’s to-do list, and mapping out things I would like to have completed by the end of the day. The day proper is typically taken up by meetings, discussions, and a fair amount of writing. At night, I put in a few hours clearing and replying emails, having dinner with family and spending some time with the kids.
What do you think about the future of lawyering?
I think that there will always be a place for professional legal advisors, even as we see significant growth in the number of people willing to “DIY” certain legal processes. At the same time, I think that lawyers will likely have to embrace newer ways of charging for their work – the billable hour is not likely to be a good charging metric anymore (if it ever was).
There are also many unexplored frontier areas of law with problems that we may not recognise yet, but which are very interesting to discuss. For instance, AI has been around for a long time but there remain unexplored difficulties, such as where liability lies when it comes to machine learning. Some AI solutions rely on iterative learning, with training coming not from the original software developer but from users of the system. If the user trains a computer to (wrongly) recognise a cat as a dog, whose fault is it when it subsequently does so? On the intellectual property (IP) front, are training data sets protectable? Are the outcomes protectable? If I spend a significant number of hours going through photos identifying whether an animal is a giraffe, a cow or a dog, and that is used by an engine later on, is that effort valuable and protectable? These are all fascinating issues.
What new initiatives can the public look forward to (if any)?
Maybe I’ll mention two. One for the profession and one for members of the public.
For the profession, we are trying hard to allow for a wide variety of non-trial matters to be video-conference enabled so that physical attendance can be dispensed with. We think this will allow lawyers to make fuller use of their time back in their office, or indeed anywhere, without having to come to court to take a queue number for, wait for, and attend what may, in essence, be a very short hearing.
For members of the public, we are going to re-do some of our front-end processes to allow a much more “friendly” front-end that is geared towards the unrepresented litigant so that certain matters can be dealt by litigants willing to “DIY” their applications. Of course, if there are disputed facts and uncertainty, you still need a lawyer and you should get one.
Some lawyers might ask if this means fewer clients coming to them, but perhaps it is like what we increasingly see in clinics and hospitals – patients show up having looked up their symptoms on the internet. This may help, but of course, it could also be totally “off”. In a similar vein, a client may show up at the lawyer’s office having “Googled” the matter at hand. Some may then show up better prepared to discuss their case with the lawyer. Some may have totally misunderstood what they read on the Internet, and some — like patients who decided to self-medicate — may decide to act “in person”.
What are your thoughts on legal technology and how will it change the way the law is served?
I think that we are at a very exciting inflexion point. The confluence of several factors has made it likely that very significant (and desirable) improvements to work processes can be implemented at different levels of work. Law firms are increasingly able to use affordable technology to help them manage their legal practices effectively. They can deliver work product to their client better and faster because of the plethora of legal research and drafting tools available to them. AI enabled search tools can help them organise and find relevant precedents not just “out there” but also in their own law firm’s knowledge management systems.
Lawyers will need to achieve some degree of mastery of the various tools at their disposal – from e-Discovery and computer forensics to data analytics, document assembly and advanced legal research and due diligence platforms.
However, the corollary of all this is that some of the things that the profession may have considered to be sacred will have to be revisited. Already, law firms are offering per-piece rates for certain types of work. This will only increase.
Furthermore, in-house counsel may find increasing ways to leverage off previous advice rendered by external counsel, such that less work may be referred out.
At the same time, from the perspective of citizens/litigants, technology will also facilitate their willingness to DIY certain legal proceedings. The profession needs to adjust to deal with these new realities.
Before my current position, I was in the FTCD prosecuting white-collar technology-related crime. Some of the trends I observed there are similar to what lawyers will experience: having to go upstream, having to get increasingly involved with what a client is working on before the client is willing to engage you. In the AGC, we were having to go closer to investigation sources and look directly at source materials, rather than just waiting until everything was analysed and bundled up neatly, ready to be sent to the prosecutors.
Is there anything being done to further encourage the use of technology in Court-related processes?
The Courts have tried to promote change. Twenty years ago, not all law firms had computers. We had to put together bundles of equipment and solutions for law firms. These days, no lawyer would imagine setting up a law firm without internet connectivity and computers. While we can’t force lawyers to use technology to present their cases, what we can do is to make the technology more accessible. We hope that lawyers find it helpful to adopt infographics, flowcharts and bullet points for particularly complex factual situations, and the Courts have shown appreciation towards such efforts.
What do you foresee being the biggest challenge for the legal industry in the near future?
Inertia and complacency are probably the biggest threats at this time. There is a tendency to delay change until “tomorrow”. As they say, those who snooze will lose. It’s very easy to say “let me worry about this tomorrow”, but the pace of change these days simply doesn’t allow us to take a wait-and-see approach.
Any advice for young aspiring lawyers/individuals who are looking to take up law?
I think new lawyers and law students have to be willing to go beyond their comfort zones and learn new things. It does not have to be hard-core technology or “coding” but they need to understand what possibilities there are with newer technologies, ranging from robotic process automation to e-discovery and practice management software. This ultimately requires lawyers to acquire problem solving skills to help re-engineer business processes. The good news is that none of this is “rocket science” and reasonably competent and hardworking minds can pick up all these things easily.
Could you share with us 3 fun facts about yourself? (hobbies/interests?)
I like computers, cameras, coffee and the cinema. For my home computer, I have not been able to ditch the habit of building my own, from carefully selected components I hand-pick. The latest is a custom-built AMD Ryzen 3700X. Where cameras are concerned, I am a Sony convert. Thirdly, for coffee, I average about 6 shots a day.
This article does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any matter discussed and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and practice in this area. If you require any advice or information, please speak to practicing lawyer in your jurisdiction. No individual who is a member, partner, shareholder or consultant of, in or to any constituent part of Interstellar Group Pte. Ltd. accepts or assumes responsibility, or has any liability, to any person in respect of this article.