Monday September 6, 2004

Pursuit of justice

By CATHERINE SIOW

Malaysian-born Tan Sen Kwang missed the cut to study Medicine, but found his calling in life. This KL boy is now a Superior Court judge in the United States.

Judge Tan Sen Kwang, in Anchorage, Alaska: 'My interest in law came from the legacy of books my father left behind.'
Name: Tan Sen Kwang 
Age: 49 
Hometown: Kuala Lumpur 
Education: LaSalle Primary School, Penang; Pasar Road Primary School, Kuala Lumpur; Victoria Institution, Kuala Lumpur; The University of Kent at Canterbury, Kent, Britain (Bachelor of Arts with Honours, Law, 1978), Northeastern University School of Law, Boston, Massachusetts, United States (Juris Doctor, 1982)  
Occupation: Superior Court Judge, Alaska  
Current base: Anchorage, Alaska  
Years abroad: 26  

or many of us, the adrenaline rush of seeing justice done may be felt vicariously by watching gripping court dramas on television. For Tan Sen Kwang, a.k.a. Judge Sen K. Tan, the gratification and action are real, and part and parcel of his daily life.

As Superior Court Judge of the Third Judicial District, Alaska (Civil Bench), Tan, who is based in Anchorage, manages a civil caseload involving the entire spectrum of civil litigation, conducting both jury and non-jury trials, and all facets of pre-trial work. The court is also an intermediate appellate court for appeals from administrative agencies and the District Court of Alaska. (Above the Superior Court are two levels of appellate courts, the Court of Appeals and the Alaska Supreme Court.)

“The Superior Court is the trial court of general jurisdiction; that means the court has jurisdiction to hear all levels of criminal and civil disputes. In Anchorage, the trial bench is divided into the criminal and civil departments. Since my appointment in December 1996, I have served on the civil bench,” said Tan, 49, who was in the country last month to attend a reunion dinner for former students of the Victoria Institution, Kuala Lumpur.

“When I saw the confirmed guest list of some 160 former schoolmates, I just had to make the trip. It would be rare indeed for that many of us to meet together again in this lifetime,” said the affable judge who decided on a four-day break despite his heavy caseload.

Tan, who was appointed to his current position at the age of 41, has his hands full “managing a dull docket every day”.

“As a trial court judge, my days are spent trying cases, settling cases, and deciding motions and applications. My job is to serve the citizens of the state of Alaska, to help people resolve disputes,” Tan said.

The young judge, who was born on May 1, 1955, in Kuala Lumpur, never thought he would one day be sitting as a judge so distant from where he was born.

“I did not set out in any particular direction, career or otherwise. I view life as an adventure and take things as they come, and life’s experiences can come from the most unexpected sources.

“My decision to pursue a legal career was not so much choice but fate. I was in the Science stream throughout my upper secondary school education and took Science for my A-Levels. However, I missed the cut to study medicine in Universiti Malaya and did not wish to pursue a dental career.

“My interest in law came from the legacy of books my father left behind. Some of the books discussed the principles of the Rule of Law. I was very interested in law as an organising principle for a fair, just and compassionate society. Thus, I settled on reading law in Britain,” said Tan, whose father passed away when he was 10 years old. Tan’s father was at that time working for Exxon. Tan’s mother, a teacher, instilled in her son a “love of learning, and encouraged him to pursue whatever career path that interested him.”

Tan attended the University of Kent at Canterbury, Kent, and graduated with a law degree in 1978. He then went for further studies in the United States.

“In 1978, my mother retired from teaching and emigrated to the US to join my older sister (Tan’s only other sibling) who was then living in Nashua, New Hampshire. I joined them after my graduation and pursued further studies at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston.”

Judge Tan Seng Kwang with his family: (clockwise from left) his mum, son Rushi, wife Averil and daughter Yinshi.

Tan obtained his Juris Doctor in 1982. (A Juris Doctor is a law degree; it is a passport to being a lawyer in the United States.) An outstanding achievement during his four years at Northeastern was when he won the Best Orator award at the Jessup International Law Moot Court (Northeast Region) competition in 1981. The industrious student also worked during summer vacations to help pay for his studies.

In his final year at Northeastern, Tan had another of life’s “unexpected experiences” and he soon found himself working and setting up home in Alaska.

“In the summer of 1981, I wanted to find a job in a place as far away from Boston as possible while remaining in the US. This narrowed my choices to Hawaii and Alaska. At the end of that summer, a judge I met while working for the Alaska Judicial Council offered me a one-year clerkship after my graduation from law school. That’s how I landed in Alaska. The one-year stint has now stretched on for more than 20 years.”

After his clerkship in 1983, Tan worked as an assistant public defender with the Alaska Public Defender Agency for six years. In 1989, he was appointed assistant attorney general with the Alaska Department of Law (Oil, Gas and Mining Section) and was promoted to supervising assistant attorney general in 1993, a position he held until his appointment as Superior Court Judge in 1996.

“Alaska is a lovely place to live in, and a great place to raise children. Anchorage is a small city of 250,000, with much to offer. The winters can be long, but the summers are wonderful. If you are ever in Alaska, do visit us. I’ll take you to some of the most scenic spots,” said Tan, who is married with two children.

Other than work, family life takes up much of the remainder of Tan’s time. Tan met his wife Averil Lerman, an American, at law school. They married in 1984 in California and have a son Rushi, 18, and daughter Yinshi, 16. Averil works as a lawyer with a public agency while Rushi and Yinshi attend high school in Anchorage.

For leisure activities, Tan enters another type of “court”.

“I play tennis regularly. When I was younger, I used to play badminton. However, I wore out my knees,” quipped Tan, who once represented Alaska in badminton at the Arctic Winter Games for communities living above the 60th parallel.

The sporting judge also enjoys riding his motorcycle, a Honda Sabre, and taking his family on long-distance summer vacations.

“On beautiful summer days, I may take a ride on my motorcycle down one of the scenic highways. In the summers, too, there is hiking, camping and fishing. Because Alaska is so far away from the rest of the US and the rest of the world, we spend a lot of time travelling to visit relatives. My mother lives with me in Alaska part of the year but she leaves for Seattle where my sister currently lives when it gets too snowy and icy.”

Pretty much a family man and not one to forget his roots, Tan makes it a point to visit Malaysia as frequently as possible.

“My trips back to Malaysia average about once every four to five years. Mostly, I miss the people. I come from a large extended clan and I like to visit them, to get back to my roots. I also have many dear friends in Malaysia. They are my old schoolmates, some who attended primary school with me, and I like to keep in touch.

“I also miss the food. There are Malaysian restaurants now in large US cities, but there is no substitute for the real thing. The little things that create a homey ambience – the smell of the place, the thunderstorms, the feel of the heat, the warmth of the people – all add up to the experience of belonging to a place,” Tan added.

This latest trip back to Malaysia was Tan’s second in three months.

“I was here in May to fly with Mum back to the States after her six-month stay in KL. Mum is at that age when she doesn’t want to fly alone. My sister had flown in with her late last year,” said Tan who is first cousins with world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Judge Tan Sen Kwang is cousin to Cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

“Yo-Yo’s father is Mum’s elder brother. Our parents are from China but Yo-Yo was born in France,” revealed Tan whose parents met while studying at Nanjing University in China but left the country during the Cultural Revolution.

“Family roots run deep, and in 2001, my sister and I flew with Mum to visit relatives in China. It was a rare and memorable trip for us all,” Tan said.

Indeed, it was also a rare and memorable event for me to have met a judge in person – and one who had actually taken time off his hectic four-day itinerary for an interview at my place of work, making me feel like the honoured guest instead, and raring to return his hospitality.

Who knows, one of life’s many unexpected experiences might just turn up my way and I get to make good the kind judge’s invitation and return his visit.

In the meantime, whenever I watch any of those court dramas on TV and swoon over the learned judge’s impeccable manner in dealing out justice, I’d take great pride in acknowledging that the “rush” is real – for I have met a real-life judge and he is a son of Malaysia.