A champion of human rights

25 May 2004

Professor Alice Tay, eminent and outspoken Sydney University law scholar, anti-discrimination activist and human rights defender, died last month aged 70 after a long illness.

Born in Singapore of Chinese parents, Professor Tay (pictured) was president of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) from 1998 to 2003, and was the Challis Professor of Jurisprudence at Sydney from 1975.

She headed HREOC during a landmark period that included controversial human rights legal interventions in the MV Tampa case and the provision of access to legal representation for asylum seekers detained in custody.

Alice Tay picture
Alice Tay picture

For Tay and her fellow HREOC commissioners these and related events meant debating the extent of institutional responsibilities, and whether HREOC should intervene against the government and offer to assist the courts on human rights obligations.

Her five-year term at the commission was distinguished by her capacity to deal effectively with senior officials in parliament, government and the bureaucracy. Her tenacity and ability to push the debate, as well as her Asia-Pacific network of relationships, ensured that her voice did not go unheeded.

Admitted to the Singapore Bar in 1957, Alice Tay's early cases as a defence barrister involved opium and arms smuggling, murder, domestic disputes and Chinese farmers on trumped-up charges of cruelty to animals.

After two years as a criminal lawyer she became disillusioned with legal practice and applied for an assistant lectureship in the new law department of the University of Malaya (now the National University of Singapore).

Moving to Australia at the age of 27, she became committed to pursuing and promoting human rights in both western and communist societies, not just as 'rights' but as legal and constitutional concepts.

Professor Tay published more than 120 scholarly articles, co-edited 20 books and delivered and published numerous speeches and articles about the nature and function of law and the way of justice in different parts of the world.

Some of her senior appointments included commissioner with the Australian Law Reform Commission, member of the Australian Science and Technology Council, president of the International Association for Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy, and president of the National Office of Overseas Skills Recognition.

As director of the Centre for Asian and Pacific Law at Sydney University from 1993 to 1998, Professor Tay was active in organising and conducting intensive legal training courses in Vietnam and the People's Republic of China.

Professor Tay received a PhD from ANU in 1965 and LLD (honoris causa) from Edinburgh in 1989.
She was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1985 for her contribution to teaching and research in law.

Professor Tay's first husband, Eugene Kamenka, a German-born political philosopher and Marxist scholar at the Australian National University, died in 1995. Earlier this year she married Guenther Doeker-Mach, a visiting professor of law at UNSW.