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Five Reasons to Serve

An interview with Chandra Mohan K Nair ’76 

Senior lawyer, former Nominated Member of Parliament and former President of the Law Society, Chandra Mohan K Nair ’76, is not only involved in civic society groups, the legal fraternity and alumni activities, but he’s also organising a combined reunion of not one but FOUR graduating classes.  What motivates him to serve in so many capacities? He shares his reasons with Victor Katheyas ’13.

LawLink: What are your best and worst memories of law school?

Chandra Mohan (CM): Some of the best memories are actually of the friendships I had, the friendship I created amongst my classmates and generally amongst the law undergraduates, from first year to final year.

I have many fond memories because I used to participate a lot in activities, mainly in sports, because I was pretty much into sports, athletics, hockey and soccer. Because of the games, we also had the opportunity to go to Hong Kong for the Biennial Intervarsity Games, competing with Hong Kong University, the University of Malaya and Universitas Indonesia. There, we built relationships with the other universities.

The other fond memory I have is of the camaraderie and the friendship I had with non-faculty students, from arts, science, or accountancy. The university was more compact than it is now. I think we had the camaraderie because we met at Union House – that's where the canteen was and that’s where student activities were held.  We all used to mix around, not just the law students, but other students from other faculties as well.

The other fond memory I have is of my Malaysian classmates. We had a lot of Malaysian students because the University of Malaya law faculty started only in 1972. Some of my best friends are still Malaysians, who have gone back to practise.

We also had many interesting and caring teachers and professors. I remember Professor Tommy Koh was my dean for the first two years, then Professor Jayakumar was the dean for my third and fourth years. Professor Tommy Koh was a very lovable and friendly person; he was very close to the students and he used to encourage us to get involved in student activities.

The fondest memory I have of the university is, of course the time I met my first girlfriend, who became my wife. She was two years my junior in Law School . Her name is Goury.  After she graduated in 1978 – I waited for her – we got married in 1979, and we had a wonderful 20 years of marriage. Both our 2 children, Valmiki Nair and Dhania Nair graduated from NUS. Valmiki is in legal practice whilst Dhania, who majored in political science works in NUS. Unfortunately, my wife passed away in the year 2000 due to illness.  

We had very close friends as well – and I think that’s one of greatest things about university life, the camaraderie you have with your friends who remain with you for life.  
I would say some of the worst memories are of my financial situation at the time. My father was working for the British Forces and had lost his job as a result of the British withdrawal from Singapore . So it was not easy, to pay for school fees and transport. I used to do part-time work – shelving of books in the library to earn about $2.50 per hour. And in between classes, I would teach outside, tuition during the day, and Lembaga – that’s the adult education in those days –in the evening. But it made me a stronger and compassionate person. And I became more careful about money.

 

LawLink: How has legal practice changed since you were first called?

CM: When I was called to the bar – that was in 1977 – my first job was in Tan, Rajah and Cheah, and hopefully it will be my last job. I’ve been here for 35 years. They were very generous with me, giving me a place as a legal assistant. I think their generosity must be reciprocated with loyalty. I’ve been very lucky to be here and I’ve got very nice colleagues.

Legal practice then, in the 1970s and 80s, was more enjoyable. There was good friendship amongst the legal profession, because it was a small Bar compared to today. Then we had a few hundred lawyers; today we have a few thousand lawyers. It’s inevitable that, when you get larger, it gets a bit more impersonal.

The pace was slower then. We didn’t have computers, so every time we wrote a letter to the other side or to the client, it took a few days for a response. Today, if you send an email, a reply is expected within a few minutes. So I think the tensions are much higher.

In the old days, we had very good exchange of ideas and assistance from senior lawyers. They would guide you if you asked them; they would help you and I think there was more time for junior lawyers.

Today, everyone is in a hurry. So I think that practice today is much more exciting in terms of knowledge of the law, in terms of variety of work, and in terms of travel. But there was more closeness, rapport and the human touch in the past. 

LawLink: Do you think that senior lawyers care enough about the professional development of junior lawyers these days?

CM: You need a good master who is very caring and willing to teach you – not just the law and the practical aspects, but also the ethics and morality and the camaraderie of the legal fraternity and duty to the legal profession.

In the past, whenever we went to the Bar Room in the Supreme Court or the Subordinate Courts, there would be senior lawyers there and you could ask them a lot of things. They would even give you precedents if you were not sure, so you would have an idea of how to start off. Now, of course you have it in the books and all, but there’s nothing like someone who has gone through that, who has experienced that, telling you how to do it. So I think that was very useful and I tried to practice that for many, many years and still do.

LawLink: So how do you manage your clients?

CM: I think it’s the confidence that you give to your clients – how you handle them, and also the response time. To give them confidence, you must tell them what is possible, the practical aspects, and not just recite the law, because they are less interested and they want practical solutions. In terms of fees, you’ve got to make adjustments: if you are seen to be too expensive, they may move on to another lawyer. Many of them also have family members who are lawyers, more compared to the ’70s and ’80s. So their neighbours or friends can find a lawyer fairly easily compared to the ’70s or ’80s. 

LawLink: Earlier, you mentioned your involvement in the Law Society. One of your more prominent achievements as Law Society President was reaching consensus amongst lawyers with regard to the purchase of premises for the Law Society. Could you tell us more about that?

CM:  During that time, we always wanted to have our own premises. We were given a small room in the Supreme Court by the then Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin, who was a very good friend of the Bar.

Then we leased premises at Colombo Court. I used to wonder if we could get our own premises. I remember in 1979, the then-President, Ms Phyllis Tan, tried to purchase premises – we had a resolution to do that – but somehow that resolution was defeated.

So when I was Vice-President and later President, we started working on it again. My colleagues and I worked the ground and gathered support. This time we were successful. We got a unanimous vote to buy premises.  Now we have the current premises at South Bridge Road.

We had to impose a levy on members to pay every year, so some members were rather unhappy with me. But I told them, “This is good for the spirit of the Bar and for future generations of lawyers. We must have our own home. When you have a home, you have the energy and the love and affection.”

I would like the younger lawyers to realise that, with this as a base, you can move on to greater heights. Tomorrow you can buy bigger premises, maybe a country club-kind of place. That’s what the younger lawyers should be looking at. You have a duty to the profession to bring it to greater heights.

LawLink: What was your experience in the Roundtable?

CM: The Roundtable organisation is registered under the Societies Act. It is a non-governmental organisation. One of my journalist friends asked me to help register it, so I came in as a lawyer to get Roundtable registered with the Registrar of Societies, under the Societies Act.

When I said, “yes, sure”, she was surprised. She said, “Not many lawyers wanted to do it.”

The mood then was not to get involved with anything that has a touch of politics. Roundtable wanted to discuss issues concerning Singapore, to present papers to the Government or to the Cabinet. This group of very interested people consisted of journalists and lecturers from the university. The pro-tem chairman was Raymond Lim, who later became the Minister for Transport, and second Minister for Foreign Affairs.

After we had submitted the papers, we did not get a positive response from the Registry of Societies for months and months. So we asked them, why is it taking so long to register a society like this? I also told them, if you don’t register this society, we may have to take some legal action to make sure it is registered, you know?

LawLink: So you were considering judicial review?

CM: I half-jokingly said, “We need to get this done, and I don’t see anything wrong in registering this society. It’s a very good democratic society.” And I said, “You need to do it fast, otherwise we may need to take some action.”

Anyway, it was registered. After a while they asked me to be President, and I had to because it was a small number.

We presented some papers. But unfortunately, the constitution was such that you couldn’t do that much because you could only deal with members. And we had a really small membership. So I wanted to expand the membership to have more of the people who would be interested in discussing matters that were of importance to Singapore. But the committee felt that we were not able to move that much. So, on their own, they decided to close the Roundtable.

In the meantime, Raymond Lim had asked me to consider being an NMP, around the late 1990s. I was very reluctant, because I was very involved with a few organisations – civic organisations like the Law Society, the National University of Singapore Society, and quite a few smaller organisations.

I half-jokingly told Raymond that if you want me to be an NMP, you must get my wife’s permission. I knew my wife would probably say no. So he tried, and she said no.

But that guy never gave up, you know? The following term, he asked again and this time, my wife, said “Okay.” So I was caught. So Raymond said, “Well now you must. Goury said you can; you can’t back out.”

My wife said, “You’ve contributed in terms of the profession; in terms of the graduate body; now why don’t you serve the community in whatever way you can? And I know your heart is there.”

When I went into Parliament, I had to do my own homework. It was not easy, because I was a practitioner, and I had to do everything myself, with my own secretary. I had to give her some extra pocket money so that she didn’t resign.

The Roundtable itself, unfortunately, was dissolved at one of the Annual General Meetings, and became defunct. 

LawLink: So what are your thoughts on the current national conversation?

CM: I think over the years I’ve seen progress on the Internet and amongst the younger people wanting to have a say. So I think it’s a great opportunity created by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet for Singaporeans to speak up and examine all the institutions. If you can come up with practical positive ideas, I think they should be welcomed by the authorities.

[The national conversation] is also an opportunity for younger people especially to come up with new ideas. Think out of the box and see what is possible, because it is going to affect young people especially, for the next ten, twenty years.

I would encourage anyone who is interested in the welfare of Singapore to speak up in any forum. It can be through grassroots work, or institutions, the law faculty, university, graduate bodies. All of us should try to contribute to nation building.

The powers that be must be willing to have an open mind and receive these things. And one must agree to disagree, and not be angry because his or her idea is not accepted. Everyone must have an open mind, and I think it is important that people do spend time and energy on nation building, and on having good, fair and just institutions.

Idealism has to be tempered with a bit of practicality. But idealism is very important. Start from idealism and not from practicality. I think it should be a combination of both.  I think there should not be any fear in discussing, as long as it’s done in a gentlemanly way, and not in with anger or frustration. Overall, I think it’s good for Singapore and I hope that as many institutions and human beings as possible give their ideas. 

(Continued on the next page)

 

 

 

 

 

This Issue Dean's Diary DIrector Faculty Students Reunions Class Action

 

And the other important thing is, by doing this pro bono work, the community at large will say, “Hey, lawyers are actually nice people.” And that’s very important in terms of image of lawyers. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

... there’s nothing like someone who has gone through that, who has experienced that, telling you how to do it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Idealism has to be tempered with a bit of practicality. But idealism is very important. Start from idealism and not from practicality.