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The Singapore Law Gazette

Harry Elias, SC

This eulogy for the late Mr Elias was presented by Mr Philip Fong on behalf of the firm at the Memorial Service held on 6 October 2020.

Thelma, Naomi, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I first encountered Harry when I was still a civil servant in the Commercial Affairs Department. After we had arrested someone, Harry called to enquire about the wellbeing of his client. I will always remember those words: “I am Harry Elias” because the voice was unique, and there was an unusual accent with a high pitch. I had little to do with defence counsel then and I didn’t know him from Adam and so I gave the standard monosyllabic non-committal answers that I, as a defence counsel, now get a lot of from investigators.

Sometime later, on a totally different matter, I saw Harry the man himself in the district court, making a plea in mitigation for another client. I was awe struck by Harry’s eloquence and the effort that he put in to persuade the district judge for a more lenient sentence which he succeeded. Little did I realise then that one day he will take me in as his pupil, join his firm, remain there for 25 years, be elected as managing partner 11 years ago, and have the privilege and honour to stand before you today to bring tribute to him.

In the two and a half decades that I have had the privilege of working with Harry, I have never ceased to be amazed by his industry, his discipline, the sharpness of his mind and his dedication to every brief. When he got up for a trial, he would be at his most intense, using his trademark coloured pens writing and rewriting on his yellow books which he referred to as his Bibles. How he could remember the detail, where he wrote what and the final consolidation of his neat scribbles into a devastating cross-examination, elude me to this day. He would never do any preparation last minute and he would start getting up, months before each trial. He would only do one case at a time for in that way he could put his whole focus on the preparation. He would also have the client involved, making him or her stay in the meeting room the entire day from 10am to 4pm, eating the same sandwiches for lunch as the legal team.

Those of us who had the good fortune of seeing how his sharp mind worked during the getting up did not have a free pass. We had to mark up the documents, prepare the bundles and of course amend his notorious charts overnight on a daily basis.

Harry would go to bed early and rise as early as 4am in the morning. We are grateful that e-mail wasn’t widely used in those halcyon days, which would have meant additional shift work.

By the time I joined him in 1995, Harry was already at the pinnacle of his profession, much sought after as a litigator and receiving massive briefs locally and abroad and he didn’t care much for legal directories. As the head of the firm, he was often strict because he demanded the best from us and because he wanted the best for the client.

Harry didn’t win every case in court because not every judge agreed with him on every point. But in every case, he would still make a good fight of it. What stood out was his courage under fire, and his ability to diffuse any tense situation by his quick wit. In one appellate case which I had the privilege of watching him at work, the judge chided him repeatedly that he had asked very long questions during cross-examination during the trial. The judge was clearly angry. In reply Harry said: “Your Honour I am sorry for falling so short in my cross-examination.” In another appellate case, a judge said to him: “Mr Elias, you know you cannot have your cake and eat it, right?” In reply Harry insisted with utmost innocence: “But, Your Honour, cakes are meant to be eaten!”

I doubt many of us would even think of pulling off such quips. But Harry didn’t do that out of disrespect; he always had the highest respect for the court and for all the judges he stood before and accepted that even if he could not win them over, he should at least try, with a good measured sense, and enjoy what he was doing. For all his prolific advocacy, his sense of fairness, his respect for the justice system, including his opponents, he was deservingly awarded the Law Society’s the Legal Eagle Award in 2000 and the CC Tan Award in 2005.

Work aside, Harry was the life of the party. For those of us who worked with and knew him, you would agree that he is NOT a man of few words. He would break out into his favourite song or ditty at the slightest provocation. He made his presence felt very quickly. When it came to play, Harry let his hair down in surprising ways. His favourite trick to play on his partners took place overseas. Every few years he would have the general manager organise a firm trip outside jurisdiction, and every trip there would be a partners’ dinner. He would appoint the newest partner to be in charge of paying the bill. Then at the end of the dinner, he would conspire with the restaurant owner to add a zero or two to the bill amount. Of course, the newest partner would get the shock and confusion of his life, and we enjoyed a good laugh.

In later years, Harry’s persuasive ability did not wane, but it did not win on a few occasions either. One notable occasion took place some six years ago when he was about to board an SIA plane from Singapore to Perth one morning. Several minutes before he was due to board, he felt a numbing pain near his abdomen which he initially attributed to some banana leaf curry he had the day before. When he recovered enough to enter the gate to the plane, the airport stewardess stood in his way. “Sir” she said, pointing, “the gate is closed.” Harry was not happy. He said, pointing, “The plane is still on the tarmac, there is another 10 minutes before the plane is scheduled to push off, I will only take one minute to get to the plane.” he stewardess was unmoved, resisted his charmed offensive and stood her ground. Despite Harry’s eloquent pleas, the plane took off — minus Harry. Left stranded, he did the next wisest thing, which was to see his doctor, Dr Raymond Wong. Dr Wong took a look at him and promptly sent him to Gleneagles where an angiogram revealed that his Left Main Stem, the major artery supplying 84 per cent of the blood to his heart, was 99 per cent blocked. Had his persuasion won the day, he might not have survived the flight, let alone the day.

Harry’s health deteriorated after that. But he maintained a daily schedule of coming to the office and offering whatever input and advice he could. And it was remarkable that he continued to read all the law reports every day. He maintained a sharpness and clarity with his trademark determination. He was supportive in all that the partners did, including our first merger with an international law firm. He even travelled with us to meet with our counterparts. An avid reader of books and a movie buff, he also revealed many stories and snippets of his life experiences.

When his 80th birthday arrived three years ago, we decided to throw a party for him. Although we had spent years working with him, we did not know him as much as we should. I decided to theme the party as the “Life and Times of Harry Elias”, and it quickly became a lively project to document the “HE’s story”.

Harry Elias celebrating his 80th birthday with members of the firm.

To spice things up at the party, we forced some partners to present a Hit Song in the Top 100 Billboard coinciding with the year which marked a milestone in Harry’s life. We didn’t do justice that day to the songs, but the musical tribute was a unique way to recount the story of a man whose life impacted those around him and in turn those around them, while he was still living and lucid. We presented him with his portrait which is actually a montage of thousands of photographs of him and members of the firm over the years. It symbolises the many lives he has touched during his life. After the event, Harry wrote to the partners and said: “Last night will remain indelible in our minds. The warmth, comradeship and affection shown, songs prepared, brought both Thelma and I into a teary state. Thank you for a memorable night. You created for us an atmosphere of sheer pleasure and delight.”

However, it was also after Harry’s passing that more stories of how he touched other individuals in his lifetime surfaced. One particularly memorable was that of how Harry was waiting outside chambers in the old Supreme Court when he observed a nervous young lawyer pacing around awaiting his turn to go into chambers. He called out to the young lawyer: “Young man, what is troubling you? Come sit down and tell me.”

The young lawyer explained the case to him, and Harry dissected the arguments and basically gave him a short tutorial. Needless to say, the result was a good one. They didn’t know each other then, and Harry would not have known that one day he would see that young lawyer becoming a Senior Counsel and then a High Court judge (and he is sitting among us today).

Harry’s largess and big-heartedness will be remembered for years to come and the Harry Elias alumni continues to grow. Many of his proteges have gone on to become leaders in society.

It was so appropriate that Harry’s last case was a Pro Bono one although how it came about was not of his choosing. Harry had not attended the Law Society Annual Dinner for some years until one particular year, the Law Society decided to schedule the celebration to coincide with the CLAS Anniversary. Harry, having been the first chairman of CLAS, was obliged to attend. Whilst at the function, then A-G, V K Rajah met him and urged him to represent a person facing a most serious charge. How could Harry refuse? The accused was in remand before and during the trial, and Harry had to make many trips to Prison to interview his client and take instructions. The walk and the climbing of many steps to get to his client exhausted him greatly because of his heart condition. He used to joke that all he wanted was to attend the dinner and instead he landed a lengthy pro bono case lasting more than two years. But in spite of all the hardship, Harry and his team prepared diligently for the case as he did for all his previous cases.

And so, today we come to bid au revoir to Harry but not to his spirit. We come to say farewell to his voice but not his message. We bid adieu to his presence but not his legacy. We say goodbye to his tired body and heart but not his dedication and love.

We are his family, friends, colleagues and brothers and sisters in the profession, and those who love him should return the favour that he so often did for others, and pay it forward as he had done, so much, in his lifetime.

Harry, we will miss you. May the Lord of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, bless you and keep you; The Lord make His face shine upon you, And be gracious to you; The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace. May the Lord now embrace you and hold you in his love forever. Rest in peace.

Philip Fong
Managing Partner
Harry Elias Partnership LLP

Withers KhattarWong LLP

Withers KhattarWong LLP