C C Tan Award Acceptance Speech
Mr Amolat Singh
The Honourable Members of the Judiciary, Mr President and members of the Council,
Ladies and Gentlemen
It gives me great honour and pleasure to stand before you and I am deeply humbled by this award.
I am humbled looking at the achievements of Mr C C Tan and also at the list of the past recipients. They are all luminaries and giants of the legal profession. I am but a small man doing small things.
Some might say that I am plain lucky and I could not agree with them any less. After all, the alphabets of my name stand for: A Matter of Luck and Time. Many others are eminently qualified and deserving.
When I was asked to say a few words, I instinctively asked if I should take it as read and that I should only highlight the salient points. After all, what we say and hear every day becomes part of our vocabulary and second nature, just like a good judge who went to the dentist and said: “Do you promise to take out my tooth, the whole tooth and nothing but the tooth?”
On an occasion like this, it would not be out-of-place for me to acknowledge that I was very fortunate to have such luminaries as Mr Harry Elias (who was my pupil master), the late Mr Subhas (with whom I worked on a few big capital cases) and Mr Peter Low (with whom I did the first capital case) as my mentors. They took pains in patiently explaining to me how as a lawyer, I should conduct myself. For instance I remember very vividly Peter telling me: “Cross-examination does not mean examining the witness crossly!”
Sometimes, we pick up the wrong signals or advice. For instance, a young lawyer who had read a joke book about lawyers and asked me if it was ok to behave as the lawyer did in the joke book. The story goes that in court, the judge had told the barrister: “Whatever you are saying is going through one ear and out the other”. Without missing a beat, the barrister shot back: “My lord, that’s because there is nothing in between to stop it.” I told the young lawyer that there were other ways to commit suicide!
I have learnt that the more upset the Judge is, the lower I bow to him and soon the storm is over.
Then there some of our clients also come up with ingenious tactics and expect us to act accordingly. There was once a case of a farmer who saw that his lawyer was having a tough time with the Judge. He went up to his lawyer and said: “Shall I send 12 ducks to the judge’s house just to smoothen things a little?”. Of course, the lawyer was outraged and told his client: “You will do no such thing!”. The next day, the tide turned and the farmer won his case. Once again, he ran up to his lawyer and said: “See, see, I knew it would work.” On hearing this, his enraged lawyer reminded him: “I told you to do no such thing, you mean you actually sent the 12 ducks?” The farmer replied: “I know, I know … I did send the 12 ducks but I put a note to say they were from the other side.”
Likewise, do not be misled by how some senior lawyers engaged in a feud may have written to each other. A senior lawyer wrote a letter to his equally senior opponent starting with: “We are perturbed with your client’s allegation, etc, etc.” To this, I was very surprised to read a simple one-liner reply: “You may wish to remain perturbed!”
When I had first started out and if doing a chamber matter, some of my opponents would come up to me just before the hearing and say: “Hey, do you know what you are doing or not?” I would politely smile and say: “Actually I really do not know but let’s go in and find out.” I suppose you could call them the early disruptors long before the term disruption technology was mooted.
I have also been brought up to be fair and courteous to opposing counsel. I always give the opposite side my submissions well before the hearing although I have not always been returned the courtesy. Just recently, I was served the other side’s lengthy submissions at 8am for a hearing fixed at 9am. Of course, we are trained in the SAF and we do not show our sweaty palms.
As I have said, I am an ordinary small man doing ordinary small things. I am also a firm believer that I am amongst fellow travellers on this highway of life. We do what we do to earn a living and if I could pause every now and then and check myself in how I deal with others, then it would have been enough for me and worth my efforts trying to live up to the ideals of our profession.
As a small time, street lawyer, I truly and genuinely feel that I am indeed in the trenches where most of common humanity lives out its lives. I am a firm believer of mediation to solve disputes.
I feel accomplished in mediation to be able to make parties drop their deeply entrenched positions and take on board each other’s interests. At the end of a few very tiring hours, it is most satisfying to see a smile on the litigants’ faces and many have even reached across the table and shaken hands. I never lose sight that it is the parties themselves who have made it all happen. What part have I played? Nothing more than being a facilitator, a small man doing small things.
There is a Chinese saying that a bit of fragrance clings to the hand that gives the flowers. In undertaking volunteer work, I feel that it has made me a better lawyer. I would commend my fellow lawyers to doing volunteer work. If not in this life, the soul food would certainly help in the life hereafter.
Volunteer work also reminds me to be humble and charitable. We should try not to be like Margaret Thatcher who was a great leader. Once, she brought her cabinet ministers for lunch at a posh restaurant. The waiter who was taking her order asked her: “Ma’am, what would you like for the main dish?” She replied: “Steak, of course!” The waiter then asked: “What about the vegetables?” She took one glance at her cabinet ministers and shot back: “They will have steak too!”. That’s how she viewed her cabinet ministers, no more than mere vegetables.
Finally, before I end, I wish to say that I owe a debt of gratitude to my dear departed wife, Gina who watched my back and had always given me support in every way possible so that I could do what I do. She was my soul mate and wife for 36 years and passed on last year. I dedicate this award to the memory of my dear wife: “Wherever you are, darling!”
Thank you very much once again for the kindness and generosity in giving me this award. It will certainly spur me on and I will strive to live up to the ideals of our profession, and yes, you guessed it: as a small man doing small things.