Justice Wong is the fifth and current Chief Judge of the High Court of Sabah and Sarawak. In September, he was named on the King’s honours list, receiving the Panglima Setia Mahkota (PSM) which carries the title Tan Sri.
In an interview with Professor George Williams AO, Dean of UNSW Law, Justice Wong shared valuable leadership insights from his 40+ year career. He talked of his inspiring journey from a humble childhood to being appointed Chief Justice to the Federal Court of Malaysia. Justice Wong is the first graduate in UNSW Law School's history to be appointed to the apex court of a nation.
From Sandakan to UNSW Law
Hailing from Sandakan, on the east coast of Sabah, Justice Wong travelled to Australia to attend boarding school in Lismore, NSW, at age 11. When he first left Malaysia to join his four brothers in Australia, Justice Wong knew the sacrifice his parents were making to send him abroad to get an education. He and his brothers felt an imperative to succeed.
“It was always at the back of our minds. Failure wasn't an option for us. We knew that, and that's why we had to work very hard.”
Justice Wong said the idea of pursuing a law degree all started with him arguing with his father – a trait that wasn’t widely considered acceptable at the time.
“I had this reputation of always arguing with my dad. You know, Chinese parents – you don't argue with your dad. If your father says you do something, then you do it. But I had this, I suppose you could call it, a rebellious streak in me, and I would argue with them,” he explained. “My father said to me, ‘You make sure you become a lawyer’."
His father’s comments stayed with him during his school years, and he worked hard at his studies to receive the academic results he needed to get into a good law school. Justice Wong graduated from UNSW, obtaining a Bachelor of Commerce majoring in Accounting in 1976, and a Bachelor of Law in 1977.
The trick to ‘being an Australian’
Justice Wong shared a secret passed on to him by his cousins during his school years about how to comfortably assimilate in Australia – know your sport.
“[My cousins] taught me – make sure you're good at sports, and you'll get accepted by your peers, by the Australians, and then you will get used to life,” he said.
This was a task Justice Wong was all too keen to fulfil and his love of Australian sport that has stayed with him.
“The Australian government tested us before we came to Australia, asking questions like, ‘Who is the captain of the Australian cricket team?’ I don't want to boast, but I passed it with flying colours,” he said, laughing.
“I knew all the sports. I can go to Sydney Cricket Ground and sit there for a whole day watching people hitting the ball … Even today I keep up with the Rugby League – for those in Sydney, St George is my team. Every morning when I read the newspaper on my phone, the Sydney Morning Herald is my next stop after Malaysiakini.”
UNSW is ‘etched in his memory’
Justice Wong said that his studies at UNSW have been instrumental to his career success because of the unique way it approached legal education. A key memory is his lectures in the Clancy Auditorium, where the first 10 minutes was devoted to what the law was, followed by 50 minute-discussions on what the law should be.
“That actually is etched in my memory, especially when I became a judge, because when you talk about what the law should be … you say that the law, as it is, is not satisfactory. You must aim towards a scenario where the law is really fixing things, and count all the factors. So, in my duty as a judge, I will ask this as the first question, and work towards a just decision.”
A whirlwind appointment
After his studies Justice Wong was admitted as a barrister of the NSW Supreme Court in 1979, before returning to Malaysia and joining the Sabah Bar, where he practised as an advocate and solicitor. He then served for seven years in the High Court of Sabah and Sarawak, until joining the Court of Appeal of Malaysia in 2013 where he served for five years.
On July 12, 2018, Justice Wong was about to head out to lunch when the Chief Registrar phoned him, asking him to go straight to the Palace.
“I asked, ‘What for?’ and she said, ‘Oh, you've been appointed as Chief Justice of Sabah and Sarawak.’ That's how I got to know. So, when you say ‘surprised’, it's understatement.”
In the space of half a day, Justice Wong had to meet with the Chief Justice at the time, obtain his appointment letter, see the King and hold a formal ceremony.
“By the time we got back to Sabajaya, it was after midnight. But I wasn't complaining!”