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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Alice Erh-Soon Tay (1934–2004)

by Paul Sheehan

from Sydney Morning Herald

Alice Tay, by Greg Weight, 1997 [detail]

Alice Tay, by Greg Weight, 1997 [detail]

National Library of Australia, 13180307

"I remember my first meeting with Alice Tay she was wearing tight leather pants and was an absolute dynamo, very different from any other chief executive I had ever met." This is how Bill Kennedy, the director of international programs at the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, remembered his boss, the woman who was president of the commission from 1998 until her retirement last year and who has succumbed to lung cancer, aged 70.

"She smoked like a chimney," said her husband, Guenther Doeker-Mach. "She smoked Davidoffs. Made in Switzerland, very thin, very long. She looked like a femme fatale."

Femme fatale. Leather-clad dynamo. Alice Tay had a similar effect on many people, but while she loved to entertain, cook and drive around in a baby blue MGB convertible (later a silver Jaguar), she had immense intellectual will. When her doctoral research led her back to the 14th century, she learned Norman French so she could read the original legal documents for herself. When she became interested in studying Marxism and the Soviet legal system, she learned Russian in order to read the original texts. When she went to China on professional business, she spoke fluent Mandarin. She functioned comfortably in five languages.

"In China, she was almost a legendary figure," said Kennedy. "The most senior people, some of whom had fearsome reputations, would fawn over her . . . By her credibility and her great strength of character, Alice ensured that the Chinese saw us as genuine partners . . . rather than their natural inclination to see us as cat's paws for the pursuit of US policy."

When she moved to Australia in 1961, at age 27, she weighed barely 40 kilograms, still suffering the effects of tuberculosis contracted during the Japanese invasion of Singapore. The small package contained a large intellect, about which she had never been shy: "In tests I would finish with a lot of time to spare," she told me. "I would look at my sister's paper, kick her chair and say, 'Wrong!' "

Nothing changed. As a senior academic she would rail against declining standards. The universities, she said, had become comfortable with "the superficial, the fashionable and the shallow." Typical was this exchange, which we recorded shortly before Christmas, 2002:

Tay: "For our universities to become corporatised moneymaking operations is a recipe for dishonesty and hypocrisy."

Herald: What about the Harvard model, a private university with enormous wealth and prestige?

Tay: "Harvard! Don't talk to me about Harvard! I wouldn't send my enemies' children to Harvard!"

After the Howard Government appointed her to the presidency of the human rights commission, she would give the Government grief over its refugee policies, especially the detention of children. As she said in a speech: "Contrary to appearance, meek and mild as I may seem, I have been doing quite a bit of screaming the last few years."

Her resume only suggests the breadth of her intellectual life: PhD (Australian National University, 1964); LLD (honoris causa, Edinburgh, 1987); Member of the Order of Australia, 1986; barrister, Lincoln's Inn, UK; barrister of the High Court of Singapore, the Supreme Court of the ACT and of NSW; Challis Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Sydney; fellow of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences; academician titulaire of the International Academy of Comparative Law, Paris; visiting professor, Ministry of Justice, Vietnam.

Alice Erh-Soon Tay was born in Singapore, one of five children and the third daughter in a culture that placed great value on sons. Her father, a clerk for an Australian-owned company, had become fatalistic about having daughters by the time Alice arrived. "For no good reason, my father decided he loved me," she said. "My father was a very complex man. He was noble and not noble . . . My mother was very ambitious, very competent and very beautiful . . . They were very unhappy together."

The Japanese Army attacked Singapore in February 1942, just days after Alice's eighth birthday. "I was a very sick child. When I was two I was taken back to China, to my aunts, who were both doctors. I nearly died of pneumonia on the boat to China . . . I didn't shake it off until I came to Australia."

Despite this, she gained admission to prestigious universities and her mother, who had built up her own trading business, paid for her to study law in London. She completed her four-year degree in 18 months. "On the first day I got back [to Singapore] I went to see David Marshall, the top criminal lawyer in Singapore and a leading politician . . . That took a lot of cheek because I had no connections . . . I started almost straight away and he paid me 250 Singapore dollars a month. That was enough for me to give $100 a month to my father, and $50 a month for me. The other $100 I used to pay off a piano."

After two years, she became an assistant lecturer at the new University of Malaya in Singapore. Here the trajectory of her life was altered by the arrival of Eugene Kamenka, who was teaching logic and had earned his PhD from the ANU. They became inseparable. Kamenka persuaded her to join him at the fledgling ANU in Canberra. She went. "I don't like wishy-washiness, I don't like pale ghosts," she told me. "I like people who are engaged, people with gravitas. When I start on a path I take it to the end."

They married in 1964. It was a defining alliance. Kamenka, a German emigre of Russian Jewish parents, was one of the most erudite thinkers in Australian intellectual life, though clearly an imported species. They loved to entertain and the Kamenka-Tay salons were famous in their circles. They travelled the world together, edited and wrote together, collected together.

When Kamenka was dying in 1994, Alice Tay took up smoking.

In an oral history recorded at the University of Sydney, she describes her nine years of teaching at the law faculty of the ANU as "difficult": "A young Asian woman with a PhD whose intellectual interests now included reading Russian texts in the original Russian had little in common with her faculty colleagues. The students were not the problem, nor the undergraduate teaching. But the ritual of drinking beer after five with the boys and talking about discount tyres was." Instead, she did other things, such as writing more than 15 serious scholarly articles.

In 1975, she was offered the chair of jurisprudence at the University of Sydney. "It was a house divided," she told me. "They were at one another's throats . . . When Julius Stone retired there was great debate with the faculty, and among the students, a great split, about whether the department should continue or be dissolved. This was still a time of student revolutions, when students were throwing paper planes around and driving visiting professors to nervous breakdowns."

She would remain Challis Professor of Jurisprudence for 26 years. For nearly 20 of those years she was engaged in the fight to avoid having her department merged into the law faculty. This battle reflected her own move away from the mere teaching and practice of common law, to fields such as comparative law, legal philosophy, the history of ideas and human rights. This was reflected in her considerable output: more than 200 scholarly books, monograms, edited books, articles, and government reports.

When Tay finally lost her battle with the faculty of law, she did not take the defeat well. In December 2002, at the dinner to mark her retirement from the university attended by the Chief Justice of the High Court and the Chancellor of the University of Sydney, she launched this broadside: "The Department of Jurisprudence in the Faculty of Law, the best-known part of the Faculty of Law internationally, was dissolved while I was still alive, barely three months after my appointment as president of the human rights commission, but I may as well have been dead, since neither I nor any member of the department, nor faculty, were informed much less consulted dissolved by executive act . . ."

Tay was notoriously active. She set up the Centre for Asian Pacific Law at the University of Sydney to tap into the opening of closed systems in Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The centre set up offshore degree courses in China and Vietnam and courses in human rights law for officials around the region.

By the late 1990s, Tay had taken up with her second German intellectual, Guenther Doeker-Mach, a polo-playing, Europe-based legal scholar from the same family that produced Ernst Mach, the physicist after whom supersonic speeds are named. He is Emeritus Professor of Law and Politics at the Free University of Berlin and visiting professor at the University of Sydney. Once again, she had found an enthusiastic collaborator in writing, editing, entertaining, travel, collecting and debating ideas. They divided their year between her elegant home in Gladesville and his chateau in the south of France, at Pontiacq, near the Pyrenees.

She is survived by a sister, Elsie, and a brother, Tim, who also emigrated to Australia, and a sister, Margaret, in Singapore.

"Her ashes will be buried in the family crypt at the Chateau de Menvielle," said Professor Doeker-Mach. "I will be buried next to her."

Original publication

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Citation details

Paul Sheehan, 'Tay, Alice Erh-Soon (1934–2004)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 April 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Alice Tay, by Greg Weight, 1997 [detail]

Alice Tay, by Greg Weight, 1997 [detail]

National Library of Australia, 13180307