The MP for Bukit Batok SMC, Mr Murali Pillai, who juggles the roles of parliamentarian, town councillor and full-time lawyer, was one of three legal practitioners announced in the coveted position of Senior Counsel by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon at the opening ceremony of the new legal year on Monday (Jan 6).
Senior Counsel are an elite group of litigators who are recognised as being the best and most skillful legal professionals in the nation and are expected to continuously raise the bar for their aspiring and young lawyers.
Litigators must apply to be conferred the Senior Counsel position and a selection committee, consisting of the Chief Justice, Judges of Appeal and Attorney-General (A-G), will assess each application and decide whether “by virtue of the person’s ability, standing at the Bar or special knowledge or experience in law, he is deserving of such distinction”.
Candidates are assessed based on merit and the selection committee considers their advocacy skills, knowledge of the law, professional standing and contributions to the law before conferring the position.
With the three newly-minted appointees, Singapore now has a total of 88 Senior Counsel. According to the Asia Law Network, Senior Counsel in Singapore have the right to suffix their names with the initials “SC” and are allowed to wear a silk robe in court, while other lawyers typically wear a suit.
Senior Counsel also typically charge higher hourly fees, likely in excess of $1,000 per hour, and have the right of precedence over all other non-Senior Counsel. This means they get to move to the head of any queue in court by virtue of their position.
Mr Murali, who was made Senior Counsel alongside Mr Jason Chan and Mr Mohamed Faizal Mohamed Abdul Kadir, has 24 years of experience in the legal profession.
A member of the ruling People’s Action Party, Mr Murali contested in Aljunied GRC in the 2015 General Election but lost to the incumbent Workers’ Party team. In 2016, he contested Bukit Batok SMC in a by-election that was called after PAP MP David Ong resigned from the ward due to an extramarital affair with a grassroots member.
Mr Murali, who went up against the Singapore Democratic Party’s Chee Soon Juan, won the by-election with 61.2 per cent of the votes. Since the election, Dr Chee has been walking the ground at Bukit Batok SMC and has indicated his intention to contest the ward in the next general election.
In November last year, Dr Chee raised questions about the quality of service elected MPs who work full-time day jobs give constituents. He recalled that he had said, during the 2016 by-election, that MPs should serve their constituents on a full-time basis and give them undivided attention.
Noting that Mr Murali responded that there is no need for this since it would require MPs to “give up their day jobs” and that PAP MPs who have full-time jobs “have not faced any problems going about their duties” as MPs, Dr Chee said: “This unfortunate description gives us an insight into his thinking – that an MP’s role is only a part-time gig.”
Asserting that one “cannot serve two masters at the same time,” Dr Chee said that holding a full-time job is taxing and will negatively impact the quality of service constituents should expect from their MPs.
He said: “Your day job requires you to deal with problems in the office – in Mr Murali’s case, matters regarding his legal practice – that are psychologically and emotionally taxing. You are mentally tired after 10 hrs at work. No individual can extend their full attention and tend to the people’s business after that.”
Dr Chee also asked whether Mr Murali would be willing to spend his weekdays at the town council and tend to his legal practice in the evening instead: “Here’s a thought experiment that will clarify the issue. Why doesn’t Mr Murali spend his weekdays at the Town Council? After he’s done, he can go to his practice in the evening to take care of his cases.
“If he recoils from such an arrangement, why should residents accept the alternative and less desirable one?”
Pointing out that no employer would agree to pay an employee a full-time salary for working during the weekends and once during the work week, Dr Chee added that Singaporeans should also not be expected to bear the costs of a full-time salary for an MP who does his MP duties part-time or the costs of outsourcing work to managing agents that elected MPs are supposed to do.