Q and A with M Ravi: The lawyer who takes on cases that others shy away from tells P N Balji why he does it, how he runs his law business, what laws he wants changed
A. I was born in Singapore and brought up in the Jalan Kayu kampung, which was a multi-ethnic village near Seletar. I am the sixth of seven children; both my parents were construction workers. My mom was an extremely loving and compassionate person who influenced me immensely. She was the guiding light in my life. I applied myself in school and eventually I graduated from the National University of Singapore (NUS) with a degree in political science and sociology. I continued my studies at the University of Cardiff in the UK. I became an advocate and solicitor and was admitted to the Singapore Bar in 1997.
My entire life story is documented in my memoir, Kampong Boy, which is available at major bookstores.
Q. You have handled many high-profile cases, many of which others don’t want to touch. Why do you fight those cases?
A. There is an unhealthy perception that lawyers in Singapore are afraid to take up human rights causes. However, our oath at the Bar requires us to be fearless in the pursuit of justice. Such a pursuit becomes even more important when we have weak institutional checks on the state, like Parliament, and the role of the courts becomes even more critical as custodians of citizens’ rights.
As lawyers, we must be prepared to take up causes, regardless of whether they are unpopular with some members of the public – like the issue of Section 377A of the Penal Code – or whether they are unpopular with the government – such as the by-elections case.
These principles are informative when our firm decides what cases to take. We are often engaged, fundamentally, with helping someone get access to their fundamental rights and freedoms, to be treated with basic human dignity. When one engages in a constitutional challenge, it invariably critically affects all citizens, and hence our firm is compelled to act if the matter is in the public interest.
Q. There is a view that you take on these cases just to get publicity. How would you respond to that?
A. We are forthcoming with the press. The public absolutely has a right to know when their fellow citizens’ rights are trampled, when their liberty and their lives are being taken away by the state. Often, the government proceeds with policies and procedures – such as upholding the criminalisation of male homosexuality, or imposing judicial caning or the death penalty – on the basis that it is “the will of the public”. Really? How did that consultation take place?
In truth, I believe most citizens are unaware that our government sentences thousands of persons to caning every year or the brutality of that punishment (For a video of judicial caning, you can visit M Ravi Human Rights Network on Facebook). Further, I think most citizens do not know much about the lives of persons on death row for drug trafficking – the grinding poverty that many of them have come from, the family members who will die inside. I think very few people would consent to the use of the death penalty if they know these facts.
I am opposed to the death penalty, hence, there is a need to publicise the cause through activism locally and internationally. Activism and publicity at the end of the day are useless if no one cares about the client, the person for whom you are fighting for. But if these stories are told and if the public has the opportunity to participate in the dialogue on the principles and lives at stake, then there can be major changes in the way that law is reviewed and implemented.
The free press – in Singapore this would be foreign press, local online media and independent blogs – is really essential to democracy and has an inherent duty to the people. That said, for the personal publicity I’ve got, I could do without most of it. I don’t need to go into the personal information or some of the unfortunate characterisations made about me in the government- controlled media in Singapore. Publicity is a two-edged sword.
However, I will not be shy when there is an injustice that needs to be made known. I worry that in Singapore we over-value shyness as some kind of virtue. A more modest lawyer who is never in the papers is a more respectable man in our quiet culture. But what if he is not? What if he could have stuck his neck out and spoiled his quiet reputation to stand up for someone else? Some causes are far more important than our public standing or our privacy.
Q. Many of your clients are unlikely to afford the fees. Do you take on such cases for free?
A. In cases of life and liberty, yes, but we are limited by our resources. If we are working at full capacity and a new pro bono case would diminish our ability to serve our existing clients (a number of whom are pro bono), we will have to refer that person elsewhere.
Recently, we have been very fortunate to have the generous support of law professors and legal practitioners, legal interns and volunteer researchers who have given their time to support our pro bono work in Constitutional Law. This has been an immense help in these cases.
Q. What case gives you the most satisfaction and which the least?
A. Obviously, Yong Vui Kong is very close to my heart. It is heartening to know that he and others are alive today as their executions have been delayed for three years as a result of the series of constitutional challenges brought on behalf of Yong Vui Kong. Now they stand to benefit under the changes to the Mandatory Death Penalty.
Madam Vellama’s D/O Muthu’s constitutional challenge for the right to by-elections in Singapore was hugely satisfying to participate in. We were so happy when the court agreed that the Prime Minister does not have unfettered discretion whether to call a by-election! This was so historic and the outcome was the result of so many Singaporeans – professors, lawyers, librarians, interns and volunteer researchers, online journalists and bloggers – coming together and demanding with Madam Vellama that our rights be recognized.
Q. It was a surprise that cleaner Madam Vellama sought you to test the PM’s powers on holding by-elections. Did she seek you or did you seek her?
A. I decline to answer this question.
Q. You seem to want to test the boundaries, especially in cases that involve politics and the Constitution. You cut too close to the bone of the establishment. Aren’t you afraid to take on the big guns?
A. This was something I had to face when I had to cross-examine Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong in court in 2008. The Singapore Democratic Party approached me when no lawyers would represent them. It is an experience I won’t forget easily!
I think it is too late to be afraid! Anyway, if I acted on fear I would not be helpful to myself or anyone else. This part is spiritual, like walking across hot coals. One may know that it will be dangerous or painful to proceed, but there is simply no choice. So I just let my belief in the work carry me through and I find that, in this way, the universe will provide the people and the help that are needed if the cause is just.
Q. Will you go into politics?
A. I am asked this question from time to time; however, this is not something that is on my mind right now as there is so much work to be done in my present capacity as a human rights lawyer. In addition to my work in Singapore, I am working with a team to launch human rights clinics in Asean as well as working with international NGOs to improve access to justice in Asia.
I believe we all have responsibilities as citizens. You don’t have to become a politician to play your part in a democracy. Even if the opposition was in power, I would continue to take on challenges in the interest of our constitutional rights and our rights as individuals.
Q. What aspects of the Singapore law would you want changed?
A. Obviously, I want the death penalty to be abolished. I want an end to judicial caning. I want to see Section 377A of the Penal Code overturned.
I believe we need major changes in the treatment of the accused. The accused has a right to remain silent – the law must not undermine that. The accused has a right to an attorney and should not be questioned without his attorney present, full stop. The police need to respect this. It is especially disheartening when the accused has a major mental disability, and we find him remanded for days, subjected to marathon sessions of interrogation and he is completely distressed. What can be accomplished by this?
All statements taken from accused persons should be video-recorded. We have cameras at every street corner, but where they could actually protect our civil rights, we have none? Nonsense.
We must dramatically reform the offence of sub-judice contempt of court. Reporting on issues before the court is the function of a free press everywhere, especially in a public interest litigation. Why are we in the dark ages on this? I add to this the offence of “scandalizing the judiciary”. The threat of such offences has a chilling effect on appropriate public scrutiny of the judicial process.
I would like to see the implementation of a jury system in criminal cases, as Japan has recently implemented. One should be tried before a jury of his peers. Knowing how we excel in efficiency in Singapore, I know we can come up with an efficient mechanism to make this possible. Perhaps it could be a model for other countries to follow. I also believe that the state should provide a public defender to accused persons in criminal matters who cannot afford counsel, as is the case in Taiwan and the US.
I would like to see the establishment of a third tier of appeal in criminal cases in our justice system. Currently, we have the High Court and the Court of Appeal. Previously, our highest court of appeal was the Privy Council in London. It should have been replaced in our system with a Superior Court with a panel of five judges. When it was not replaced, it reduced our access to justice.
I would like to see the Elections Department to be made independent of the Prime Minister’s Office. I would like to see the Coroner’s Act amended to require that full reports are completed in any case of wrongful death. I would like to see some changes to the Industrial Relations Act to enable workers with greater recourse when their unions have failed to represent them. I would like to see massive changes to protect foreign workers in Singapore. I would like to see less restriction on freedom of assembly and free press… I guess there is enough to keep me busy for a long time!
Q. How is your health?
A. I decline to answer this question.