Faculty Feature

Associate Professor David Tan:
A Road Less Travelled

Associate Professor David Tan, Vice Dean (Academic Affairs) has taken an unusual road to academia. David has previously worked with McKinsey & Company, DBS Bank and the Singapore Administrative Service.

He is the first associate professor at NUS Law to be appointed to the position of Dean’s Chair in 2016. His legal expertise covers three key areas of intellectual and intangible property – (i) personality rights; (ii) copyright; and (iii) trademarks – as well as tort law and comparative constitutional freedom of expression.

David was named The Outstanding Young Person in 1998 by the Junior Chamber International (Singapore) and the Most Promising Young Person in 2001 by Singapore Tatler. He is also a well-known fine art and fashion photographer, having contributed to magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar and Elle, and has had solo photography exhibitions presented by luxury brands Cartier and Versace.

Fresh from the launch of his latest book The Commercial Appropriation of Fame: A Cultural Analysis of the Right of Publicity and Passing Off, David shares more about his book, his experiences and the challenges of his role as Vice Dean (Academic Affairs).


Can you tell us more about your latest book, The Commercial Appropriation of Fame: A Cultural Analysis of the Right of Publicity and Passing Off?

The book is a culmination of years of effort that started with my PhD candidature at Melbourne Law School in 2006. This book, published by Cambridge University Press, is concerned with how the commercial exploitation of the fame may be regulated by right of publicity and passing off laws in common law jurisdictions, and how an understanding of the cultural phenomenon of the contemporary celebrity may better shape the development of these laws.
Professor Graeme Dinwoodie from Oxford wrote a fabulous foreword. It has also attracted very generous advance praise from some of the most esteemed intellectual property scholars such as Jane Ginsburg (Columbia), Barton Beebe (NYU), Rebecca Tushnet (Harvard) and Megan Richardson (Melbourne). It was officially launched at NUS Law on 8 September to much fanfare with local celebrities Kit Chan and Allan Wu attending. I am very honoured that former Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong, Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin and CEO of National Arts Council Rosa Daniel also attended the event.


What have been some of the highlights of your career?

It was way back in 1994 when I was the first undergraduate at University of Melbourne to be offered a summer internship at McKinsey; these opportunities were usually reserved for MBA candidates. I was first exposed to strategy consulting there, and I am still applying what I learnt then to my job today. After three months, I received a full-time offer to join them as a business analyst upon graduation, but I chose to return to Singapore to join DBS Bank.

I started work in project financing at DBS, but soon got a transfer after a few years to the corporate communications department where I was involved with branding and change management communications. The highlight there was initiating the DBS Theatre Fantasy – a triple bill of world-class productions – as an annual arts festival to build corporate brand equity featuring award-winning drama, dance and musical performances presented by DBS in association with IMG.

I left in 2001 to join the Singapore Administrative Service where I managed the Contact Singapore international network of offices in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, London, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Chennai, Sydney and Singapore. In 2002, I conceptualised and launched a successful global testimonial print ad campaign “Singapore. Your World of Possibilities” which received positive editorial coverage in the Wall Street Journal and was featured on the front page of The Straits Times.

It appears that country branding was fast becoming my forte. When I was posted to the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports in 2004, I produced and co-wrote lyrics for Singapore’s first sports anthem Live Our Dreams for Team Singapore with French composer Thomas Schönberg and Australian lyricist Robert Vicencio. I even persuaded my dear friend Kit Chan to sing it!

Unfortunately, while there was not much “law” in that decade-long journey through the private and public sector, law always remained my first love! I had published six law articles during my undergraduate years, and another during my LLM candidature at Harvard – and I was itching to research and write more. So I quit my civil service job in 2005 and enrolled in the PhD program at Melbourne in 2006. A highpoint then was securing an offer to join NUS Law in the middle of my doctoral candidature, and finally setting foot on the Bukit Timah Campus in December 2008.


What are some of the most challenging aspects in your role as Vice Dean (Academic Affairs)?

Geoff Garrett and Graeme Davies believe that academics are like cats. They cannot be ordered around; they do whatever they please. In fact, Garrett and Davies dedicated an entire book to managing academics in 2010, titled Herding Cats.

Well, they are wrong! Academics are like a menagerie of exotic animals … you can herd cats in one direction with a can of tuna, but there’s no way you can do that with my colleagues! I suppose I am doing a decent job at the moment – so far no scratch marks and no puncture wounds! Seriously though, I enjoy this portfolio as it draws on my skills and experience honed in the private and public sectors. I love forward planning, organising things and ensuring that policies are consistently applied in a principled and predictable manner.



You are currently the holder of the Dean’s Chair, in recognition of your area of expertise. Can you share with us more on the field of research you’re pursuing with the grant from this award?

My primary area of research and publication is to investigate the impact of an interdisciplinary cultural studies approach to intellectual property (IP) laws. My scholarship is consistently characterised by a strong interdisciplinary approach that synthesises cultural studies with black-letter intellectual property law.
I am working on a semiotic critique of popular iconography as protected by IP laws. The commissioned article is tentatively titled “Cultural (Re)Codings: Copyright, Trademarks and the Right of Publicity” and will be published next year. For the longer term, I am contemplating a second monograph Fashioning Law: Style & Substance in Contemporary Times.



What do you think lies ahead in the future of legal education?

In a successful transnational education, there are three attitudinal qualities – curiosity, empathy and skepticism – and three qualities relevant to analysing ideas and information – logic, patience and creativity – that one should develop in students today. Jeffrey Lehman wrote about this a few years ago, and I think it is very much relevant today in how we at NUS Law infuse these ideals in our teaching pedagogy and curriculum. While technology will be of great relevance in the delivery of knowledge, the inculcation of these qualities should remain the driving force.