Friday, January 26, 2007

Singapore. The dismal man. A lawyer at Peoples Park Center

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have discovered that prolonged political subjugation and control over a population, such as in Singapore, leaves many of them in the end, forlorn of hope, desolate and miserable, drains them of any ambition, zest or energy and eventually leaves them hopeless. I have discovered this in meeting people in Singapore again after more than 20 years. The very people whom I knew in 1970s, after years of life in Singapore, appear to have almost given up on life.

This is the story of my meeting a Singapore lawyer who has an office in Peoples Park Complex in Singapore. Let me call this story, My meeting with the Dismal Man. I had known this man since the late 1970s. He was a teacher then, like many other lawyers, who decided to change careers and become lawyers by taking the English law exams through correspondence. When I knew him then, he was ambitious, lively and full of energy, a man with burning ambition, taking a risk but a risk well worth it, at least he thought at the time, to leave his mundane measly teaching job and train to be a lawyer, with big dreams of becoming successful, famous and rich.

Then it was very pleasant to talk to him. He was full of life.

He did study for the law and pass his exams and was admitted to the English Bar as a Barrister. About 1980 he returned to Singapore and embarked on his law career.

Recently I met him again. The man that I knew in 1970s was totally different from the man I met now. On the whole, he appeared despondent depressed and miserable. He appears to have prematurely aged and had entirely grayed. He was not getting much work and was hardly able to pay his rent. He told me that an office in Peoples Park Center was all he can afford, Peoples Park Center being a building in Chinatown next to the lower courts offering cheap rent to small law firms unable to afford better premises. He gave various reasons for the the reduction of his business. For one, the courts filing fees were too high. You had to pay as much as $500.00 to file a civil suit, on top of which there were various other miscellaneous fees payable such as trial costs which can cost as much as $1,000.00 per day. This exorbitant cost actually prevented, according to him, many from filing suit.

There were also the problem of the big government connected firms taking all the cases, reducing the number of cases going to sole proprietor small firms like his to a trickle. He said, the government gave all the cases to law firms which had government connections. Since he did not have any government connections, he was not getting the lucrative work.

He said, he was in a Catch 22 situation. Advertising costs money, and since he did not have much of it, it prevented him from advertising. Studying the law and holding oneself as an expert does no good, he said, in the Singapore context. It is not how good you are at the law that matters, he said, it is who you are. Judges have a bias towards the government connected lawyers as they are beholden to the government. They are not, he said, as independent as judges in other countries where they follow the rule of law.

I asked him, if all this bad news is actually happening to lawyers like him, why did he not garner support from other lawyers and demand some fairness from the Law Society which is supposed to represent him. He called the Law Society a "lame duck" and claimed that it's role was to execute the dictates of the Lee Kuan Yew government and not to represent the interests of it's members! A fact, which alas, we alreay know.

If he hated what was happening that much, why did he not emigrate? He said he was too old now, although he was only 55. He should have done it earlier, he said. Referring to me, as I was living in the USA, he said I was the "luckiest man", for having left.

Well then, I said, since he knows all this, then why did he not join the government political party, the PAP and work towards being known as a Lee Kuan Yew government supporter if this then is the only way to succeed. He said he did not really think of doing this in the past, but now it is too late, as he is old, he claimed, even though he was only 55 years of age. Telling him that 55 years is not old at all, that people have scaled Everest at that age without oxygen, but it all fell on deaf years.

He appeared resigned and desolate. My trying to liven him up did no good. He said he came to the office occasionally and was planning to give up practice of law entirely. He says he plays the guitar and spends time in meditation. My trying to tell him that it was never too late to change the political climate in Singapore did not have any effect.

What I found with him and a number of other lawyers I met was the fact that any attempt by me to talk of the political injustices in Singapore, the negation of the rule of law, human rights and justice and fairness did not kindle any interest at all. In fact, he just told me not to waste his time talking about politics. He simply told me that it won't make any difference.

My conversation with another lawyer in PKMS building, another cheap rent building away from the city, was similarly depressing. He had no hope left whatsoever. He simply said there is nothing he could do to change anything. He even went the extent of saying he was waiting for the Maker to take him! Very sad indeed.

It appeared that all of these lawyers appeared determined to be helpless, determined to have excuses against any suggestion to better their lot.

And none of these lawyers were lacking in qualities when they first started. They were once highly motivated highly qualified English trained barristers. Today they are nothing more than shells of their previous selves. Drained of energy, ambition and life.

I am making a guess as to why they have degenerated so. It has to be the stifling political climate in Singapore which expects everyone to conform without complaint. The need to tow the line. The need to accept anything that is thrown at them. The need to conform to the generally expected behaviour. The need not to stick out like a sore thumb. The fact that all nails that stick out will be hammered in. The long years of these people, even though educated and skilled, forced to conform and accept government dictates, stubs their imagination, stubs their ambition and reduces them to compliant and obedient subjects, unable to get out of a difficult situation because they do not know how.

My study in this case was confined to lawyers. I am sure the same wasting and degeneration also applies to all others, no matter what their profession or vocation. And this way of merely complying without question equally applies to the children of these individuals. A whole generation upon generation of people merely waiting to do what the government has planned for them, unable to take their lives in the direction of their choice.

One reads in the state controlled newspapers that Singapore plans to venture in various new projects and developments, not previously existing in Singapore. This requires independent and courageous thinking on the part of the planners. If this is the sort of Singaporeans that populate the island one party state, I wonder who it is that is planning and thinking all these new things. If indeed all that they say is true.

Gopalan Nair
39737 Paseo Padre Parkway, Suite A1
Fremont, CA 94538,
Tel: 510 657 6107
Fax: 510 657 6914 EMail:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Why is teaching mundane and measly? Good heavens.