Retired Chief District Judge Richard Rokmat Magnus died on Monday morning (14 March) after suffering a heart attack.
He was 76.
The lawyer who wanted “to do something which was useful to society”
Born in Perak, Malaysia, the 10th of 13 children. Mr Magnus’ parents ran an export business. He went to Anglo-Chinese School in Ipoh and came to Singapore in his teens to study at St Patrick’s School and later at St Joseph’s Institution. He went into Law School at the University of Singapore and graduated with a Master of Laws and was an alumnus of Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School.
Mr Magnus started as a legal officer during Singapore’s early days of independence before moving to the judiciary.
In a 2019 interview with The Sunday Times, Mr Magnus told the broadsheet’s executive editor Sumiko Tan, “I’ve always wanted to do something which was useful to society. That was my basic motivation”, and he felt that law would give him a platform and opportunity to interact with society, see how government policies work, and also how the disenfranchised could be defended.
Mr Magnus rose to become then Subordinate Courts’ senior district judge and was instrumental in clearing the heavy backlog of cases there — presiding over both petty crimes and headline-grabbing cases.
He was the sitting judge at the 1995 trial of Barings trader Nick Leeson whom he sentenced to 6 1/2 years jail for fraud and forgery. A report of the verdict in British newspaper The Guardian even called Mr Magnus “one of the tougher members of Singapore’s judiciary”.
Mr Magnus even headed committees of inquiry over the years, which included the Sembawang Shipyard fire in 1992, the collapse of part of Nicoll Highway in 2004, and SingHealth’s data breach in 2018.
His achievement was lauded by then Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong in 2008. CJ Chan noted how Mr Magnus had started annual workplans to set out clearly the goals for the year. This “very focused, systematic and goal-oriented” judicial management approach led to “impressive results in transforming the court process and the delivery of justice in Singapore”, he said.
Continues to serve Singapore after retiring
After retiring from the bench in 2008, Mr Magnus went on to other high-profile roles. Among others, he was the founding chairman of the Casino Regulatory Authority, and he is the current chairman of the Public Transport Council (PTC).
He was appointed in 2014 and under his leadership, the PTC was re-constituted as a body corporate in January 2016, and assumed a new role as an Advisor to the Minister for Transport. The PTC inaugural Advisory Report, which was presented to the Transport Minister in August 2016, was well received by both the Government and members of the public. Its recommendations had helped to improve commuters’ public transport travel experience.
Mr Magnus was the founding chairman of Temasek Foundation Cares since it began in 2009 and deputy chairman of Temasek Foundation.
He was also Singapore’s First Representative to the ASEAN Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights and became the first Singaporean to be elected as vice-chair of UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee in 2016. He is the current chair of Singapore’s Chair of the Bioethics Advisory Committee (BAC).
The BAC was established by the Singapore Government in December 2000 to address the ethical, legal and social issues arising from research on human biology and behaviour, and its applications. It develops and recommends policies on these issues, with the aim of protecting the rights and welfare of individuals, while allowing the biomedical sciences to develop and realise its full potential for the benefit of mankind.
For his contributions to Public Service, Mr Magnus was conferred the Public Administration Medal (Gold) (Bar) in 2003, the Meritorious Service Medal in 2009, and the Public Service Star Medal in 2015.
It was only last year (2021) that Mr Magnus was appointed Singapore’s Non-Resident Ambassador to the Republic of Finland. He was also conferred the Distinguished Service Order for the 2021 National Day Awards.
In her post on Facebook, President Halimah Yacob wrote, “I will remember him as someone who was always working to serve others; to create a kinder, more inclusive society. On the day before I conferred the Distinguished Service Order to him last year, we met at the launch of the Caring Commuter Week — an initiative he had driven as Chairman of the Public Transport Council, to foster a caring commuter culture in Singapore. … As Chairman of Human Capital Singapore, he had also been very supportive of efforts to promote inclusive hiring for persons with disabilities, including the President’s Challenge Enabling Employment Pledge.”
Calling him someone who “exemplified the definition of selfless service”, she said Mr Magnus will be missed.
Mr Magnus leaves behind wife Eileen, two children and three grandchildren.