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An Investment For Tomorrow

An interview with Sat Pal Khattar ’66             

The Legal Service, private practice, business – Sat Pal Khattar ’66 has excelled at all of them. Mr Khattar worked in the Attorney-General’s Chambers upon graduating from the law faculty and subsequently became a Legal Officer at the Inland Revenue Department. In this interview, he tells Victor Katheyas ’13 more about his career as well as what motivates him to give back to his alma mater.

In 1974, he decided to leave government service and set up his own law firm. That firm eventually became KhattarWong LLP, which is one of the largest law firms in Singapore. He left the firm in 2007 to run his investment firm, Khattar Holdings. Recently, Mr Khattar has chosen to endow a chair in tax law at the NUS Law Faculty. In this interview, he tells Victor Katheyas ’13 more about his career as well as what motivates him to give back to his alma mater.

LawLink: Maybe we could first talk about your law school years. Why did you choose to study law, and what were your law school years like?

Mr Khattar: I was not supposed to go to university for a tertiary education. My father ran a small business selling sports goods, which also included the obligation to travel to all parts of East and West Malaysia. I was then the only son, and my father needed me to help him in the business. So, I did not go to school for ‘A’ levels, and took the exams as a private candidate. I only sat for two subjects, where I obtained mediocre results in both and an average pass in General Paper. The law faculty was the only faculty that was willing to consider me for a place.

At that stage, I had no firm ambition to be a lawyer. I decided that I would do my tertiary education on a part-time basis because I still had to help my father in his business.

LawLink: So you were working and studying at the same time?

Mr Khattar: Yes. And I asked Tommy Koh ’61, who was then sub-dean, to see whether or not I could find some way to only do classes in the evening. He told me that he would arrange for my tutorials to be after 5 pm, but there was no way the lectures could be specifically arranged for me. So I used to attend the lectures, and then back to work.

Fortunately for me, I took to law like a fish takes to water. I had a book prize in the first year, on this part-time arrangement. I did well, and I realised that I liked studying law. So I told my father that I would continue with the same arrangements because he still needed me, and my father agreed that in the final term of the second year I would move to Raffles Hall. He had a major heart attack two weeks after I moved, and I moved back to the house. He spent about five weeks in the hospital, and was well on the way to recovery, but then he had a second attack. He passed away, six weeks before my second year exams.

LawLink: That’s quite tragic.

Mr Khattar: Tragedy has its own ironies. Despite this setback, I managed to get a book prize in the second year. But from then on, I had to look after the family. My father left behind my grandmother, stepmother, three brothers and sisters, the oldest of whom was seven years old, and the business to run for our sustenance. There was also the travelling to do for business. Somehow, it all worked out.

The business was also doing reasonably well, so much so that I could afford to give myself a new car in my final year. And there you are. That’s how I finished law school.

LawLink: What about legal practice? Once law school ended, you began work as a DPP. Were you still running this business?

Mr Khattar: I was running the business until then and had not applied to do chambers; I had not applied for Legal Service, and had some ambition of trying to manage my business and practice a little bit of the law on the side. I was not clear on what I wanted to do.

In the meantime, Legal Service wrote to me. They said, “We’ve got your results. You haven’t applied to us. Here is a set of forms. Consider applying.”

So ego got the better of me. I filled in the forms; I applied and was interviewed. Next thing I was appointed Deputy Public Prosecutor. That required me to cut myself off from the business, because you can’t do both when you’re a government servant. So I got some relative to take over the business.

LawLink: Did you like work as a DPP?

Mr Khattar: From a business background, that was not my cup of tea. You prosecute murderers, rapists and cheats. Although I did a decent job out of it, I didn’t like it.

Then, fortuitously, about six months later, there was a vacancy in the tax department. Nobody wanted to go to the tax department. The Attorney-General called me up. He said, “There is this vacancy in tax. It’s a great field. Would you like to consider?” I said yes.

I took to tax quite easily with my business background.

LawLink: Was it very quantitative?

Mr Khattar: You needed to know basic accounting, but my predecessors were never familiar with numbers. They regarded themselves as above numbers. I did not agree. I thought that you needed to know some basics in reading and understanding accounts.

By helping my father with his business, I had started to understand accounts. I knew how to write a journal; I knew how to read a balance sheet; I knew how to post entries and things like that.

So I took to tax quite well and quite easily. And they also rewarded me with fairly fast promotions. I became an uppertime officer very quickly.

LawLink: “Uppertime” meaning “superscale”?

Mr Khattar: “Uppertime” is not “superscale”. But I became one of the youngest superscales soon thereafter. I got my superscale long before I was 30. In those days, it was unheard of.

I was doing my job, and the Tax Department was happy with the job I was doing. So they promoted me.

The Tax Department didn’t like the idea of people being seconded from the Attorney-General’s office, and getting rotated every three years. So I became a senior legal adviser, in the Inland Revenue Department, not subject to rotation.

I stayed there for seven years. And then I decided that I really don’t want to be a civil servant all my life. So I resigned from government service to set up a small one-man practice. The idea was for it to be a boutique firm, doing nothing but tax. But it didn’t work out that way.

The firm started to expand. One of my classmates was Dr Wong who was vice dean of the law faculty, and he joined the firm a year after it started. At one stage, we were one of the largest firms in Singapore. And it was satisfying to watch a local firm grow to take on all kinds of work, both local and international. We did reasonably well.

LawLink: Are you still in any way involved with KhattarWong?

Mr Khattar: As a lawyer, you cannot be a partner in a firm unless you are a consultant or an active practitioner. So after I stopped being a senior partner, I was consultant for about four years, and then I left them completely, although it still has got my name.

LawLink: Why did you choose to leave legal practice?

Mr Khattar: I had already started to become an investor for my family company towards the tail-end of my practice in law, as well as when I was a consultant.

LawLink: Were these passive investments?

Mr Khattar: All were passive. As a lawyer you can’t do active investing. I was extremely lucky that I had two houses behind Shangri-La Hotel, and the land on which they were built was suddenly zoned for medium-rise. As a result, those two houses fetched a large sum of money. That formed the nucleus of the investment side of the family.

You see, a good law practice gives you a decent amount of money to lead a good life. But you cannot accumulate large surpluses; it’s just not possible. So you need some other avenue, if you are lucky to be able to get into making investments in a meaningful way. That opportunity came my way. At the same time, India was also opening up and we started to invest there.

LawLink: Why did you choose to invest in India? People usually say that it’s difficult to do business in India.

Mr Khattar: India is a difficult place to do business, but there are also a lot of opportunities. I was also blessed with a lot of good friends who were prepared to help me in finding those opportunities.

Opportunities in a place like India, with all its problems, are tremendous. Interest rates are high, inflation is also high. This creates a demand for capital which the businessman cannot get from the banks, or he has to beg the banks to give. So he is prepared to share his equity with you rather than go to the banks.

LawLink: So are your investments in India are generally made through joint ventures?

Mr Khattar: We don’t manage anything ourselves. We invest in other people’s businesses, where we place a high premium on the quality of business risks and the investment risks, and the quality of the partner we invest with.

LawLink: Are you still involved in the law in any sense, for example sitting on committees? Do you still maintain an interest in law? I see you’ve still got Halsbury’s here in your office.

Mr Khattar: Once law is in your blood, it’s impossible to completely take it out of your system. So I still read law reports, especially in my own field, tax. I still am on the Singapore Academy of Law Investment Committee, dealing with finance matters. To that extent, it's a very limited ongoing interest in law.

LawLink: Why do you choose to give back to your alma mater?

Mr Khattar: I am what I am because of my education – whether it was in Raffles Institution or in the faculty. Yes, I’ve been successful – I think – in business. The law faculty made me into a lawyer, exposed me to the tax side and the general side of law, and Raffles which gave me the basic education in order to be able to somehow find me way into the faculty of law…I regard both of these as being very critical to my career path. My career path has brought me to where I am today. So I am eternally grateful for both of these institutions.
 
I had no inkling about what law was about when I applied to do law. But somehow, law took to me; I took to law; and I thoroughly enjoyed my period in the faculty, then in the Attorney-General’s office, then in the tax office, and later in practice.

LawLink: So how have you chosen to give back to NUS?

Mr Khattar: As soon as I left law school, I first became a tutor in tort, then later a tutor in tax. After that, I took on various positions consecutively in the area of tax, from being lecturer, internal examiner, and then external examiner. I’ve kept in touch with the faculty throughout.

Over time, there have been opportunities to make some contribution financially to do faculty. I have tried to do my bit.

The question of endowing a chair in tax law came up to me recently when the Law Dean talked about it. He said, “Would you like to consider?” I said, “Yes, I’ll think about it.” And I thought it was a good thing because tax is virtually a forgotten speciality.

Most people don’t like tax, or are afraid of tax. I remember when I used to lecture in the subject, I strongly felt that students should understand basic accounts.

LawLink: How much is the endowment worth?

Mr Khattar: The total amount I am committed to is $2 million.

LawLink: What are some possible ways for alumni to contribute to NUS today?

Mr Khattar: If you are young enough, you should teach. You should share your knowledge, your expertise, especially in your chosen disciplines.

As you grow older, you should contribute in any other way you can. Financial contribution is one of the ways we can make a meaningful contribution…not towards posterity so much as to show that it is important for the next generation and the generations beyond. I would like to make a long term commitment and endowing the chair in tax law is a way to do this.

 

This Issue Dean's Diary Alumni Faculty Students Reunions

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you are young enough, you should teach. You should share your knowledge, your expertise, especially in your chosen disciplines.