Johnian magazine issue 49, autumn 2022
Walter Woon: in a nutshell
Professor Walter Woon (1982) has had a varied and successful career, working as a lawyer, academic, politician and diplomat. Among his most prominent positions, Walter has served as a Nominated Member of Parliament, held multiple ambassadorships and served as Attorney-General of Singapore. Walter is currently a Visiting Professor at the Singapore Management University and was made an Honorary Fellow of St John’s in 2022.
I am an accidental lawyer. I got a government scholarship to study Business Administration overseas.
Unfortunately, something went wrong with my best A Level subject and I lost my scholarship. However, I
managed to secure another scholarship offered by a local bank to study at the University of Singapore. The chairman of the interview panel looked at my academic results and said ‘Would you consider Law?’ I replied ‘if you’re giving me a scholarship, I’ll have a go.’ And so I ended up reading Law.
I was destined for a career in banking. However, my results were good enough to attract the attention of the University (there had been no First in Law for seven years previously). The bank generously agreed to transfer me lock, stock and barrel to the University.
Subsequently, I was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship. Cambridge was a natural choice. My uncles had been at Fitzwilliam House (now Fitzwilliam College) and Peterhouse a generation before. Dr Malcolm Clarke had taught in Singapore, and though I hadn’t met him I was advised that St John’s would be a good option. I never regretted the choice. Happily, one of my twin sons is a Johnian (my other son read Law at Downing College).
No one expected Singapore to survive when we were ejected from Malaysia in 1965. To ensure survival the Pioneer Generation leaders ruled with an iron hand in an iron glove. For years the People’s Action Party (PAP) had no parliamentary opposition. The mood changed in the ‘nineties. The PAP leadership felt that such a system was not sustainable. Non-partisan Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs) were introduced.
Having supported the NMP scheme publicly, I felt that I could not cravenly slink away when the call went out for volunteers. The NMPs filled the role of an opposition. I was the first non-government member to have a Private Member’s bill passed. The Prime Minister noted my performance. He offered me an ambassadorship. I spent nine years as Ambassador in Bonn, Berlin and Brussels. Singapore is a bridge between East and West. Many of us are western-educated and yet retain our ‘Asianess’. In the great echo chambers of the Anglosphere we strive to inject some perspective and balance.
We returned home so that my sons could serve National Service. I was offered a position as a judge.
When I met former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, he said I should be Attorney-General. I was literally
speechless. However, the Chief Justice told me to accept, so I did. Unfortunately, Mr Lee and I had different views of how independent ‘his’ Attorney-General should be and we parted ways.
Education is the systematised acquisition of experience. I returned to my natural habitat of academia as I felt it necessary for those who have acquired experience to pass it on to the next generation, lest it vanish like tears in the rain.
To any 16-year-old I would say: don’t be afraid to take the road less followed. Who knows where it might lead?
Walter is currently a Visiting Professor at the Singapore Management University. He has has had a varied and successful career, working as a lawyer, academic, politician and diplomat. Among his most prominent positions, Walter has served as a Nominated Member of Parliament, held multiple ambassadorships and served as Attorney-General of Singapore.