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How I got here… Joseph Chun, environmental lawyer, Shook Lin & Bok

Chun tells Eco-Business about what it means to practice environmental law in Singapore, and says there is a need for public participation in environmental legislation.

Joseph Chun is an environmental lawyer who is a vocal advocate for policies that protect Singapore’s threatened natural landscape.

He has spoken out about Singapore’s wildlife trade and conservation laws, and, more famously, the Protection of Nature Reserves Under the Parks and Trees Act — in response to the government’s decision to construct a Mass Rapid Transit tunnel underneath the Central Catchment Nature Reserve

Having begun his journey in academia at the National University of Singapore (NUS), he is now positioned at the crucial intersection between a practitioner, as a partner at law firm Shook Lin & Bok Singapore, and educator of environmental law, as adjunct associate professor at NUS.

He has written widely on the subject, including a co-authored textbook on Singapore Environmental Law (2019), and seeks to make environmental legislative processes more accessible; in the hope of encouraging public awareness and therefore public participation in environmental policymaking in Singapore. 

In this interview with Eco-Business, Chun talks about the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on environmental trends in 2021, and the interdisciplinary rigour of his line of work. 

He also discusses the inefficacies of environmental legislation; notably that the lack of mandatory Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) in Singapore that mean the city-state is one of the few countries that overly relies on policy and administrative discretion to conserve its dwindling natural areas. 

What motivated you to delve into environmental law? 

After becoming an academic, I was initially interested in the involvement of the public for land use planning.

Gradually this academic interest in planning law broadened to include public participation in environmental decision-making and environmental law itself. That became the focus of my PhD. 

What motivated me were the procedural justice and distributive justice aspects of environmental problems; I started to ponder more on how access to environmental benefits and exposure to environmental harm were distributed within and between generations, and how these decisions about distribution were being made. 

What’s unique about practising environmental law in Singapore? 

I find that environmental law in Singapore is often structured to confer on regulators a wide administrative power.

Much discretion is given to regulate activities that are potentially harmful to the environment, with minimal transparency in the approval of enforcement processes and outcomes. 

This sometimes makes it more difficult to understand or advise on how such powers and discretion will likely be exercised. 

Additionally, the open-ended formulation also makes it harder for courts to exercise supervisory jurisdiction over the implementation of environmental law. 

The lack of legally enforceable provisions for access to environmental information and public participation in environmental decision-making also limits the role of law as a tool for environmental advocacy. 

What’s the most challenging aspect of your job? 

That would actually come from the non-legal aspects of environmental law and policy, as well as those that indirectly affect the environment. These aspects could include anything from the science and technology, to the economics, finance, and politics behind our laws and policies. 

I am also keeping abreast of developments in other areas of law practice, such as corporate governance and financial regulation that are increasingly incorporating sustainability considerations. 

 What has been the proudest moment of your career? 

That would probably be co-authoring a textbook titled, “Environmental Law in Singapore” that was published in 2019. 

I hope that the book will broaden understanding of our environmental laws, not only for those in the field but also for others whose interests include environmental protection and regulation. 

Hopefully the book also makes environmental law more accessible. With commentaries on legal developments added elsewhere, everyone, including policymakers, may look beyond the individual environmental laws and see more holistically at a systemic level its strengths, weaknesses, and gaps. 

What, in your opinion, are the most urgent gaps in environmental law and policies in Singapore? 

I think Singaporean environmental law tilts too far in favour of efficiency and expediency in environmental management.

It does not provide enough enforceable rights for the public to access environmental information, or to participate. 

These rights facilitate public understanding and scrutiny of the trade-offs involved in such decisions. Laws that promote legal accountability for the regulators’ exercise of discretion and power are also very important from a governance perspective. 

For instance, unlike the overwhelming majority of countries in the world, we are one of a handful of countries that do not have a law on mandatory EIAs, relying instead on policy and administrative discretion. 

Relying purely on the political goodwill of enlightened politicians and holding them politically accountable may not be enough. 

We have wisely entrenched the protection of our financial reserves from irresponsible governments in our constitution. Similarly, we should also consider how to entrench the protection of our environment and natural reserves. 

How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your job or plans? 

Encouragingly, Covid-19 has actually heightened sensitivity to the need for robust environmental laws, particularly in the protection of our wildlife and their habitats. 

While governments, businesses, and investors are busy working on recovery from the impact of this crisis in the short term, they are now more aware than ever that this is a manifestation of the bigger looming environmental crises that they will continue to face.

At this juncture, how we recover is important. We need to recover in a way that sees us through the Covid-19 crisis, while also mitigating the looming environmental crises.

The role of environmental law and lawyers are just as important now, if not more so than before, to help ensure the this. 

What are some of the trends in environmental law in 2021? 

I think environmental standards are going to be increasingly tightened because societies, regulators, investors, and businesses are now waking up to how much of an existential threat our environmental crises have become. 

Enlightened investors and businesses are recognising the crippling economic and financial risks wrought by the environmental crises, and are going beyond legal requirements to voluntarily adopt more stringent environmental standards. 

Voluntary standards can, however, only go so far; and laws must catch up to raise the minimum bar for laggards. In doing so, we can reduce the risk of greenwashing, and partner with investors, businesses, and civil society towards coordinated approaches. 

 Finally, what advice do you have for aspiring environmental lawyers like yourself? 

I wish I had known how much interdisciplinarity sustainability involves, then I would perhaps have chosen a more interdisciplinary educational path. Therefore, my advice is to not only focus on environmental law. The environment cuts across different disciplines and areas of legal practice. 

Understand and appreciate the underlying contexts in which environmental law is made, implemented, and administered or enforced. 

Within the law itself, to be a good environmental lawyer, it is, of course, necessary to also have a sound grasp of other types of law. These include international law, constitutional law, administrative law, human rights law, tort law, company law, financial regulation.

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