As the last year and decade draws to a close, I shall take time in this final message of the year to bid a short farewell from the Bar to our old Bar Room at the octagon shaped State Courts. As part of the closure, let me do my own retelling of some of the retelling, vivid memories and personal anecdotes shared during Law Society Council’s specially organised farewell lunch at the old Bar Room on 12 December and its aftermath (on social media). This will not take the place of historian Dr Kevin Tan’s chronicle in Fiat Justitia that I commend to you to read. But rather, this serves only to capture a slice of history based on some of the limited sharing that I have been gloriously privileged to glean.
The multifaceted, multigenerational sharing of place and people brought new meaning to the Bar Room to those regaled by the tales for the very first time. They certainly put a smile of remembrance, elevated a mood of nostalgia and stirred evocative feelings for those hearing them for the second or perhaps even the umpteenth time! Call it what you will. A blast from the past or the honouring tribute to the yore of yesteryear. The way we were … as a profession.
The State Courts Bar Room was a place of tradition at the Bar. The knights of the Round Table as they were known became the stuff of legends. It was not only the knights, but others who saw them in word and action, who could vividly recount the gallantry of their jousts in the courtroom. The full list of “King Arthur’s” knights will remain a mystery. I shall let future historians among readers volunteer to memorialize this or take oral history! But one name that surfaced during our special farewell lunch to the old State Courts Bar Room was Leo Fernando, a legend in criminal law in the 1970s and 1980s. As an iconic “criminal barrister”, he and others like him, left an indelible mark on the legacy of law. Gone but not forgotten. Missed but still in our midst.
The Bar Room served as a place of tutelage as well. PLC (now Part B) Advocacy students gathered here for an informal mingling with trainers over lunch in between learning the finer aspects of the art of examination in chief, cross-examination, plea in mitigation and oral submission. As one of the Advo Trainers and Moderators for many years, I witnessed these magical meetings up close and personal. The Bar Examinees were the “children of the profession” comprising not only litigator wannabes but also corporate pupils. Advocacy was not only taught but caught here. The Bar Room was also the setting in which the informal mentoring and training of lawyers took place. It was here that Michael Chia learnt the tricks of the trade on impeaching a witness from Sant Singh SC. In this very precinct, N Sreenivasan SC has shared (on social media) two memorable anecdotes: a criminal case involving a client claiming he was interrogated and a DATA granted by Tan Siong Thye DJ (as he then was). Ask Sreeni about it.
In the premises was a place of collegiacy. No Bar to anyone entering the Room. That same spirit should, beyond peradventure, pervade and not perish if we are to be truly inclusive. Senior women lawyers recall a segregated room for ladies at one stage of our history (you have to check in with Sujatha Barghavan on the fuller narrative on this). But, this was still a room without divide in the Bar for both men and women. May it be said, even as Malcolm Tan (former DJ and prosecutor) did, that he felt welcome. Today, it feels like a second home if his face-to-face vignettes in person and on Facebook are anything to go by. Where members of the Bar can let their hair down without letting their guard down confidentiality-wise. In its most sublime moments, the Bar Room proved a safe sanctuary and refuge in between the travails and trials of litigation even if a lawyer felt hemmed in in the courtroom. Remy Choo recorded this as a place to “share war stories, impart inter-generational wisdom (and gossip) …”. Camaraderie and collegiacy at the Bar is the elixir for us all to imbibe for long lasting, lifelong friendships. As invaluable it is, the Bar Room is only one of several avenues to nurture the special spirit even without spirits. There will be others. Maxwell Chambers Suites, Law Society’s present premises has its own aspirations.
It is only befitting to end this piece with a flashback to “once in your life you find him” Arthur who passed on exactly two years to the day that we held our farewell. We said our adieu to him on 12 December 2017. And so our event was held (unbeknownst to us at the time) on the second anniversary of Arthur’s passing. A doubly poignant meaning for attendees. Arthur with his uniquely infused lemon tea was “every lawyer’s friend” and the “King” of his Court. And he inspired older practitioners, old and young, with his reliable, warm and friendly presence helming the State Courts Bar Room. It is always encouraging to see a friendly face receive you especially after a torrid time in court! Arthur’s legacy will live on in the consciousness of the Junior Bar too. Remy Choo remembers: “I’ll always remember, as a newly qualified lawyer, nursing a dozen “langgar” files on CDR day in the Bar Room while Uncle Arthur made his special iced lemon tea for me.”
I know every single one of us, who spent one moment in time in the Bar Room, will have our own unique narratives to relate. May those become cherished memories. These have shaped our lives in the law. And we are the richer for it. It is time to create new memories.
You can take the lawyers out of the Bar Room. But you can never take the spirit of the Bar Room out of the lawyers. May the finest, richest and noblest traditions passed on from generation to generation of members of the Bar carry on into the new year or a new decade in a new room at the new State Courts.
Happy New Year!