Photos by James Lew
Acceptance speech delivered by Cecil Rajendra, the recipient of the Malaysian Bar Lifetime Achievement Award 2019, at the 72nd Malaysian Bar Annual Dinner & Dance 2019 held on 16 Mar 2019
Brothers & sisters–at–law, ladies & gentlemen.
I am still in a state of disbelief that the Malaysian Bar has chosen to gift me this award.
When Ragu [Kesavan] called me sometime last year to say that they were putting my name up, I said: “You must be joking!”
Then Mureli came on the phone and said: “We’re not . . . . can you send us some biodata.”
I still thought they were having me on & replied, “Why don’t you just google me. I hear there’s a lot of stuff on the internet.”
But Dato Mureli, lazy S.O.B that he is, snapped back: “Why don’t you do it? I’m sure you know yourself better than I do!”
No arguing with that!
So, deciding to go along with the game, I cobbled some bio stuff from the backs of my books & sent it to both of them.
I then promptly forgot about the whole matter.
That is until a couple of weeks ago when Rebecca breezed in from her morning walk, with a big grin on her face & said: “Congratulations!”
I looked up grumpily from my morning paper and grunted: “What for?”
She replied: “The Bar is giving you a Lifetime Achievement Award.”
I countered: “Which bar? — Tiger? — Anchor?”
She said: “No, seriously . . . . look here, your office e–mailed this letter they received from the Bar Council”, and proceeded to show me an officious looking letter on her i–phone; ostensibly from the president informing & congratulating me etc.
But I was still not buying it — you know how much fake news there is on social media — so I phoned Mureli, who assured me that it was indeed true.
Nevertheless, I am still in a state of disbelief. Let tell you why . . . .
Over forty years ago, on the eve of my call sometime in 1977, I received two notices by registered post: one from the Bar Council and the other from the Attorney–General’s Chambers.(I tell you, Tommy, you have a lot to answer to for the sins of your predecessors).
Both notices were couched in the same minatory language: TAKE NOTE, on such & such a day, in the high Court of Malaysia at Penang, we will be objecting to the call of yours truly etc. No reasons or particulars were given. Just that the Bar & the A–G were going to stop my admission to the rolls of the mighty Malaysian Bar. I knew I had done nothing criminal, so I was shocked. But not entirely surprised.
I had an inkling that the Profession wasn’t exactly ecstatic about admitting me to their ranks. A couple of weeks previously, the Penang Bar had tried to fix me up at a Viva.
In those days, before being called, one had to sit & pass a Viva — an oral test.
That is you had to present yourself before three senior members of the Bar who would assess whether you were a fit & proper person for the Profession.
The chairman of my Viva panel was a pompous senior partner of the then–largest law firm in Penang. He shall remain anonymous but the other two members were the late Johnnie Johnson and Daljit Singh.
For reasons best known to himself, this bouncer Barman seemed hell–bent on barring my entrance to the Bar.
He posed some ridiculous questions that had nothing to with one’s character, legal knowledge, or suitability for practice.
Like, for instance, what was the colour of the cover of a certain tome by Fifoot — the Contract Guru. The other two members were appalled by the chairman’s hostile & inquisitorial attitude.
After all, by the Seventies, the Viva had evolved into a cordial social exchange between senior & junior members over tea & biscuits.
After an hour’s grilling, the panel retired to deliberate . . . . my fate hung in the balance. A few minutes later they returned and the Chairman informed me that he was most unhappy with my performance.
He then embarked on a long epistle — longer than St Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians — on what an esteemed & exacting profession the law was; and how a proper member of the Bar would have no time for such frivolities like writing poetry and playing football.
I could not resist telling his lordship: “Look, Sir, I spend less time penning poems than some senior lawyers spend downing whisky stengahs at the men’s bar in Penang Sports Club.”
He was not well pleased, I tell you, but the bozo was outvoted 2–1 & my Viva was done.
Now fast forward to my call day . . . .
The press had got wind of the objections of the A–G’s Chambers & the Bar Council, and, as no reasons were given, there was wild speculation. Objections were usually reserved only for miscreants with criminal records.
What heinous crime had I committed in London? How many corpses were buried in my back garden? The press were agog.
Thank God I had Mr Lim Kean Chye to move my call.
In the Seventies Mr Lim was a veritable Colossus of the Bar at the height of his formidable forensic skills.
He struck fear into the hearts of Judges & Lawyers whenever he appeared in court.
He demanded to know the reasons for the Bar Council’s & A–G’s objections.
Both said that my papers were not in order. Mr Lim — who had meticulously gone through my application the night before — said he had found nothing wrong in my documents. He insisted that both the A–G’s & Bar’s rep disclose to the Court precisely how my papers were not in order, and “Don’t hide behind confidentiality. This is not an ISA case!” he thundered.
Cornered & embarrassed, both admitted that there was a typo error in one of my affidavits.
Instead of stating that I had chambered from 1.9.76 to 31.8.77 it was typed 1.9.76 to 31.9.77. In those days of manual typewriters, my secretary had hit a “9” instead of an “8”, making it appear that I had chambered for 13 months instead of the mandatory 12, i.e. 1 month more, not less.
Kean Chye was furious. He went ballistic & gave the Bar Council & the A–G’s Chambers a severe tongue–lashing; asking them if they hadn’t more important things to attend to than indulge in nit–picking pettiness & wasting the Court’s time. Meanwhile up on the High Chair, diminutive Justice Gunn Chit Tuan, who had just been elevated to the Bench, was completely mortified.
This was his first call. He had been given to understand that calls were sedate formal affairs followed by a civilised sherry party.
So what was this flaming row before him all about? He hadn’t a clue. Besides he was also a little intimidated by Kean Chye.
Anyway, soundly whipped, the nit–picking couple meekly withdrew their objections & sheepishly sat down. A slightly dazed Justice Gunn admitted me & we all adjourned to the sherry party in the High Court library.
It was now my turn to get a royal bollocking from Kean Chye for not being more circumspect in my filing.
Smiles all around, Kean Chye then turned to the 2 chastised reps & asked them what was the real reasons for their objections.
Sherry in hand, both cheerfully admitted that they did not want to give “deffler” too much poetic licence!
Anyway, I started practice at Messrs Subbiah & Co — the same firm in which I had chambered.
Dato Subbiah, the principal, was State MIC Chairman, State Assemblyman, State Executive Councillor for Lands & Mines & Head of the Hindu Endowments Board. In other words, the Head Indian Honcho in Penang.
Not surprisingly, our clients included bankers, landowners, developers, temple keepers, captains of industry, stockbrokers and . . . . moneylenders.
In other words, a typical Chettiar law firm. And, the firm’s work consisted of run–of–the–mill land matters, mortgages, loan agreements, bank matters, transfers, debt collection etc. . . .
The sort of legal work that could be handled by any experienced chief clerk while the exalted partners dhoby–marked documents, played golf, & attended board meetings & interminably boring dinners.
Meanwhile, up in silicon valley in Bayan Lepas’ free trade zone, the electronics industry was booming & the multinational factories were running amok.
Free of trade unions, unencumbered by local labour laws (such as minimum wage & eight–hour shifts), factory workers (mostly young women) were being totally exploited both financially & sexually.
Also, farmers & fishermen up–country were being displaced as their land & homes were being gobbled up by avaricious developers aided by unscrupulous politicians.
Every week, Alfred — a young social worker in the area — would bring 5–6 persons to my office with every imaginable type of complaint.
I could tell you a hundred horror stories about forced evictions, beatings, slave labour, rape, infanticide etc.
And so, at the 1979 AGM of the Penang Bar I presented a paper on why it was imperative for us, members of the honourable profession, to set up a free legal aid clinic in Bayan Lepas to help the hapless.
There were some mutterings among members; one said he could not see how giving free legal assistance could benefit the Profession; another went further to say it would in fact be depriving members of legal work . . . “Like throwing sand into our rice bowls”.
I told this wise guy: “Look Mister, in the first place these poor people cannot afford to throw sand — they need it to build their homes — and, in the second, fat cat lawyers like yourself hardly eat rice from bowls but, more likely, rump steaks off sizzling platters!”
The Penang Bar grudgingly endorsed the proposal and we started work in 1980; first in a small village coffee–shop & later in an even more modest wooden shack.
It was a night clinic (as all of us worked full–time during the day) starting at 7.30pm & often finishing around midnight.
There were queues every night and we could hardly cope; and, as we were the only rural legal aid clinic in the country, we were receiving cases from Alor Star, Sungai Petani, Taiping & as far as Kuala Kubu Baru.
Then, I received a second bombshell from the Bar Council: “Who gave you permission to open a legal aid centre? Don’t you know you need prior approval from the Council? You are in breach of the Legal Profession Act etc. etc.”
I responded with a single sentence:
“Sorry, I was not aware we needed anyone’s permission to help the poor!”
The Council was not pleased and threatened to shut us down.
But we had strong support from the public & the press: Tan Sri Dr Tan Chee Khoon, in his column — "Without Fear or Favour" — hailed the advent of the bare–foot lawyers in Malaysia.
And heavyweights in the Penang Bar were firmly behind us . . . . and I’m not just talking about the likes of Lim Kean Chye & Karpal Singh but also of Lee Kok Liang, David Choong, R Rajasingam, N Shanmugam, Phock Kin & most especially of two remarkable lawyers–cum–statesmen who went on to be Judges — Mustapha Hussain & Oliver Phipps. Here I must also acknowledge the support of volunteers from USM including their outstanding deputy Vice Chancellor Prof K J Ratnam & their fearless activist/academic, the very special Dr Rohanna Ariffin — who went on to found the Women’s Crisis Centre.
But still, there were rumblings from KL . . . . then, out of the blue, I received a short hand–written note from the legendary John Skrine himself. It was just a couple of lines: “Cecil, ignore the naysayers & carry on . . . . but you must get yourself on the Bar Council.” And he enclosed a couple of helpful papers on legal aid in the UK.
Kean Chye & Karpal were also pushing me to stand for election to the Bar Council, saying it was the only way I could take the legal aid programme nationwide.
I was reluctant but eventually I stood & got elected somewhere in the mid eighties.
Now, even though I was in the Council, I found I was far from being accepted by the legal fraternity.
KL lawyers looked down on me with utter disdain. “Who was this upstart bumpkin from the boondocks? They say he is a lawyer, but he doesn’t talk like us, he doesn’t dress like us, he isn’t a member of any of our clubs — Lake Club, Penang Club, Bukit Jambul Golf Club . . . . and, worse some more, I hear he writes some dreadful subversive stuff . . . . even our Uni Profs say he is not so much a poet as a troublemaker . . . .
Who is this guy?”
In those days I had but one true ally in the KL Bar — the late great Raja Aziz Addruse, without whose friendship & guidance, I wonder if I would be standing here today.
But let me close with an anecdote why I am still in a state of disbelief & bewilderment. In the early eighties, one of the guys who frowned at my antics was an up–&–coming corporate lawyer at one of the largest law firms in the country.
He was never seen out of his pin–stripe suit during working hours & never out of a batik shirt in the evening.
In other words, he was the exact opposite of yours truly.
Twenty years on, he was president of the Bar Council & yours truly, chair of the Human Rights & Legal Aid Committees.
Now, as sitting president, we had to invite him, of course, to our Festival of Rights, Orang Asli meetings, Human Rights marches, kampong kenduris & openings of Legal Aid clinics in remote fishing villages.
As most of these events took place on a week–end our president sometimes brought his little son (about 10 years old) along.
At one such village function, his son watching me prance around in my sleeve–less t–shirt and jeans, while his father, the perfect president, stood by unflappable in his batik shirt, looked up to his dad and asked innocently: “Pa, is that uncle really a lawyer?”
The president looked down at his son, shook his head and answered deadpan: “Yes, son, I’m afraid so.”
And so, I too am a little afraid that when I return home to Penang, there may be a notice awaiting me saying: Take note, we object to your award & will be applying to quash it forthwith.
Still, it’s gratifying tonight to be appreciated by one’s peers and I would like to thank all those irresponsible people responsible for granting me this award.
Thank you one & all!
16th March 2019
George Varughese presents the Malaysian Bar Lifetime Achievement Award 2019 to Cecil Rajendra
Life’s Reality Check
A lifetime achievement award?
What‘s that all about?
Especially as he thought
all his endeavours
had trickled to nought . . . .
He’d spent a lifetime pursuing
not Law – that indomitable ‘Ass’;
but Justice – the forever elusive
fugitive from corridors of power.
A thankless task, marked
for the most part, by failure!
And, as for his poetry . . . .
with Michaelangelo Buonarotti
he repeatedly asks of himself
if he had achieved anything at all.
He wonders if two lines
of his verse will survive posterity
A lifetime achievement award?
Pray tell, what’s that all about?
Cecil Rajendra 2019