At the Smoke ‘n’ Mirrors cafe atop the National Gallery a stone’s throw away from the Supreme Court, M Ravi sips his second cup of long black.
Basking in the glow of the late afternoon sun, Singapore’s pre-eminent international human rights lawyer is in a relaxed and genial mood.
Just months ago, however, this would have been the last thing anyone would say of him.
Ravi has been a non-practising lawyer since 2015 when he was barred by the Law Society from his usual legal work. The ban was a result of Ravi’s public (mis)behaviour due to a relapse of his bipolar medical condition, a psychosocial condition he has now come to terms with and learnt how to better manage.
It was one of the most severe recurrences he had, leaving friends and loved ones desperate in trying to help him.
Although it has been 31/2 years since the prohibition, Ravi still awaits word from the Law Society and the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) on the likelihood of him practising again.
He holds no animosity, however, towards the Society, the AGC or the judiciary for preventing him from doing what he loves most. In fact, he is grateful that they have been entirely professional and respectful in their dealings with him.
“They (the courts) understood my personality, they know that I’m very passionate, they never curtailed (my work in court),” he says. “They allowed me great latitude to advocate my cases. They recognise the unique position I am in.”
To prevent future incidents, Ravi says he is working closely with his doctors and friends and has implemented several safeguards to contain any future relapse episodes.
In the meantime, he has not been standing still or wallowing in despair. On the contrary, he has taken his expertise to a wider region, outside of Singapore.
“I am more active now in international circles than I have ever been in my entire career,” he says. “This downtime has allowed me to build my personal brand, hone my passions and given me the luxury of time to travel to network, lecture as well as to be involved in legal causes on the international stage.”
Ravi’s vast experience in constitutional and human rights cases is being sought after by lawyers and organisations in countries from Asia to Europe to Africa.
“This year alone, I have been to Rome, Malaysia, Myanmar, Tanzania and Indonesia advancing my pursuits and passions, not just as an international human rights lawyer, but also as an activist and speaker,” he says with excitement.
He advises and mentors lawyers in these countries on environmental, constitutional and human rights law, and on how to craft effective, legal arguments.
“It is broader than what I was doing (in Singapore),” Ravi says. “The knowledge that I’ve acquired through the years, it is good to share it with lawyers outside Singapore.”
He also conducts training for lawyers on cause lawyering in countries such as Myanmar and Nigeria, where the legal systems are not as developed. Cause lawyering, he explains briefly, is “contesting state positions and using the court as a platform for advocacy.”
“It was great for me to be given the opportunity in Myanmar to see the amount of interest they have in this arena,” Ravi says. These countries, he explains, have greater recognition of individual and human rights. It is thus easier to advance a case there.
“In South Africa, for example, they have had people like Nelson Mandela, and apartheid, and so on,” he says. “They have an impact on the whole of Africa. The anti-colonial movements and post-Independence struggles… they have introduced a lot of human rights treatise and in fact they are more liberal than Singapore.”
There are also local rights commissions to safeguard the legal rights of individuals, he adds.
“So, there is a binding effect on the courts. You can really fight your case.”
“Even in Indonesia, the Bar is robust,” he says. Bar associations in these countries are “tough and forceful in defending human rights” and their own lawyers.
“With the Bar behind them, there is greater potential and appetite for constitutional challenges,” Ravi says.
He adds that countries where there are non-existent or weak institutions to protect rights, human rights lawyering “has sadly become ‘a noble cause’.”
“In the absence of national human rights commission, parliamentary ombudsman, a weak opposition, only the court is available,” he explains.
But what exactly is ‘human rights’, a term thrown around often but suspiciously ill-understood in a country like Singapore?
“Human rights, for me,” he says after a pause, “means respect for fundamental liberties.”
They have to do with the very essence and dignity of being human. As someone who has a fervent devotion to his spirituality, Ravi’s deep belief in the sanctity of life, and of our humanity, is steadfast.
“When we talk about fundamental guarantee of liberties, it’s all about dignity,” he says, with the conviction of one who has fought on the side of the lowly trampled upon by the powerful.
“Whether it’s right to life, freedom of expression, it’s basically respecting your dignity as a human being,” Ravi says. “That a human being has certain freedoms. To be a human being, you need (to be able) to exercise your freedom, of expression, of association, freedom of religion. The right to life is the most supreme and universal of all.”
Is this why he finds that he can do his job anywhere in the world – because these rights are universal?
“You are right, you are absolutely right!” he says, and throws out examples of this in countries where he has been.
“You go to Tanzania, the passion, the lawyers; you go to Indonesia, the amount of litigation going on. It is very inspiring to see how in the whole region, and internationally, lawyers are engaged in public interest litigation around the world.”
Ravi himself is immersed in this movement to protect the rights of the individual.
In India, for example, he is consulting with lawyers who are fighting to establish the right to water.
“The right to water comes under international humanitarian law,” he explains. “It’s a poverty issue, a basic amenities issue.”
He mentors and advises the lawyers working on this on how to make use of international networks; so as to “bring their case to a higher level.”
And in Thailand, Ravi assisted a lawyer on a legal challenge against the shackling of prisoners inside prison.
“The shackles will become rusty, and arsenic, and [the prisoners] die,” he says. “There, torture is actually prohibited.”
Unfortunately, the lawyer who fought the case won his first battle but lost in the court of appeal which did not see shackling as a form of torture.
But while his current work is meaningful and even crucial, and allows him to extend his network further afield, it is in Singapore that Ravi most yearns to practise his craft again.
“I note that in Singapore the momentum for human rights lawyering has slowed down recently,” he says, adding that he hopes to be involved here again.
“I would like to continue from where I left off and bring my international human rights legal experience to Singapore and share it with young lawyers here,” he says. “Singapore needs a new generation of cause lawyers. There is plenty to do here too.
“The work continues,” he says.
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