In Conversation with Justice David Wong
On Aug 19, UNSW Sydney and the Australian High Commission in Malaysia co-hosted a special event featuring a Q+A session with The Honourable Justice David Wong Dak Wah.
Justice Wong is the fifth and current Chief Judge of the High Court of Sabah and Sarawak. In an interview with Professor George Williams AO, Dean of UNSW Law, Justice Wong shared valuable leadership insights from his 40+ year career, and his inspiring journey from a humble childhood in Australia, and his career trajectory being appointed Chief Justice to the Federal Court of Malaysia.
As an alumnus of UNSW Law, Justice Wong is the first graduate in the school's history to be appointed to the apex Court of a nation - an achievement that represents extraordinary recognition of his standing experience and legal skills. Below are five key highlights from his discussion with Professor Williams.
1. Humble beginnings in Sandakan
Hailing from Sandakan, on the East Coast of Sabah, Justice Wong’s father travelled there from China after the Second World War, where he met and married his mother. Together they started a corner store and raised a family of five sons.
At age 11, Justice Wong and his four brothers travelled to Australia to attend a boarding school in Lismore, New South Wales. Later, he attended UNSW where he obtained a Bachelor of Commerce majoring in Accounting in 1976, and a Bachelor of Law in 1977.
When he first left Malaysia to join his four brothers in Australia, even at the age of 11, Justice Wong knew the sacrifice his parents were making to send him abroad to get an education.
He recalls a time when he was young, his father being exasperated at the challenge of trying to send his children to Australia when he was “just running a corner store”. Due to the emotional and financial commitment, Justice Wong and his brothers felt an imperative to succeed.
“It was always at the back of our mind. Failure wasn't an option for us. We knew that, and that's why we have to work very hard”
2. Embracing his rebellious streak
In sharing what led him to pursue a career in law, Justice Wong said it all started by arguing with his father – a trait that was not widely considered an 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. “So my father, he said to me, ‘you make sure you become a lawyer’."
His father’s comments remained with him since his schooling years, directing him to study law, and to work hard at his studies to receive the academic transcript needed to get into a good law school.
3. The trick to being an Australian
For comfortably assimilating in Australia during his schooling years, Justice Wong shared the secret passed on to him by his cousins who lived there first – 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, however, with a love of Australian sport that has stayed with him all his life.
“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 laughed.
“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.”
4. UNSW ‘etched in his memory’
Justice Wong has said that his studies at UNSW have been instrumental to his career success because of the unique way it approached a legal education. A key memory from his time at the University is his lectures in the Clancy Auditorium, where the first 10 minutes of the lecture 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.”
5. A whirlwind appointment
After his studies Justice Wong was first 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 later 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.
In describing his eventual appointment as Chief Judge last year, Justice Wong says describing his reaction as ‘surprised’ would be an “understatement”. On July 12, 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!”