Veteran lawyer and former political detainee Dr Gopalan Raman, passed away at the age of 82 on Wednesday (9 Dec).
Dr Raman, who was fondly called G Raman or “Mr Reliable”, came from an impoverished family but rose to become a renowned lawyer who ran a respected law firm. A probate law expert, Dr Raman won the Singapore Law Society’s C.C. Tan award in 2014 for exemplifying the virtues of “honesty, fair play and personal integrity”.
A man who stood by his convictions, Dr Raman saw the legal profession as a form of public service. Fearless in standing up for his principles, he did not shy away from taking on cases that had a political flavour and represented clients like Poh Soo Kai and Said Zahari who were detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA).
Dr Raman himself was detained under the ISA after he was accused of being a communist by the government in 1977. He was arrested and detained without trial for a year whilst he was still a practising lawyer.
Embattled by the pressures and torture he faced during detention, Dr Raman made a confession to the authorities under duress. He vehemently and unequivocally retracted his confession once he was released from detention. He said in his 2018 autobiography, ‘A Quest for Freedom’:
”I was drilled in what the process and procedure would be. After the initial orientation I had producers from Radio and Television Singapura calling at the prison and interviewing me and rehearsing what was expected of me. Questions were put to me and I had to answer in the manner that my questioners (who were fed by my interrogators) framed the answers.
“The gist of it was that I accepted that I had promoted the activities of the Communist United Front by writing critical articles about the PAP government, taking part in activities of the University of Singapore Students’ Union as the Legal Adviser, abusing my position as a lawyer and trying to subvert the national security of Singapore.
“There could not have been a more dangerous man than me in the manner in which I had to present myself.
“I did all this because through the fortnightly interviews with my wife I had some idea of the angst and anguish my family was undergoing.
“My wife had no one else to turn to except myself. She had a sister who was eight years younger than her and an elder brother who was five years older than her but with his own personal problems.
“I had touched on the difficult situation my sister and brother were in. Why make them suffer for what I had done or for what I had been alleged to have done? Should I swallow the bitter pill and trade my dignity and my honour for the safety and well-being of my family members?
“There are people outside who have never gone through this kind of suffering or will not understand the turmoil within one’s own mind when faced with such drastic options. Yet they will never hesitate to condemn people like me as cowards and traitors.
“No doubt I have been cowardly in accepting the terms imposed on me but traitor, no.”
Many political commentators, academics and observers have expressed scepticism over the years that a communist ever existed and despite widespread doubts over the basis of the arrests, the Government has yet to apologise to the detainees or their families.
Despite the ordeal he suffered, Dr Raman carved out a successful career in law after his detention through sheer grit and determination. He came to be known as an estate duty expert and mentored young lawyers, as his small law firm boomed.
Dr Raman passed away peacefully on Wednesday, surrounded by his family. He is survived by his wife Sarala Devi Raman, daughter Rejini Raman and grandsons Bharath and Bhuvan Anantham.
Singaporeans have been paying tribute to the late veteran lawyer since news of his passing broke. Several lawyers thanked Dr Raman for shaping them, while others praised as an extraordinary man who will be dearly missed.
Among the groups that remembered Dr Raman was the Singapore Academy of Law (SAL). Sharing that it was saddened to learn of Dr Raman’s passing of Dr G. Raman, SAL extended its deepest condolences to his family and recalled his contributions to the SAL Legal Heritage Committee and its programmes.
SAL also published excerpts from an interview Dr Raman did as part of a joint project between SAL and the National Archives of Singapore. Take a look at what Dr Raman had to say about the ISA detention and his career before and after the detention. The full interview can be heard HERE.
Why he chose to practise in small firms
“I had this, what you would say rather outmoded idea that if you want to do work for the common man, the best way to do it is to set up your own practice or join a small firm.”
“Sole-proprietors play a very useful role in the profession. There is this personal touch when you go to a sole-proprietorship or a small firm comprising three or four lawyers.”
“…it must be emphasised that law practice is more a service than a money-making proposition. I may sound completely silly, stupid, completely out of touch with reality but that’s how I view things. It’s a service first and then you talk about money.”
Taking on cases with political flavour
“One of my good friends in the law at that time said, ‘Raman, you’re going into this, you’re handling dynamite you know, be careful.’ There was already that mood at the Bar that we don’t handle cases which had a political content. And maybe I was innocent at that time… but even if I was [politically] astute, I would have still represented him… you don’t say no to him unless there is something morally repugnant to what he did. Then your own personal conscience tells you that you shouldn’t handle this kind of cases.”
“I was prepared to stand up for principles. If a man had to be defended, represented. I was prepared to do it.”
“Whatever my political convictions, I never allowed my emotions to affect the conduct of my cases. I was always objective about what I did.”
“I have never actively encouraged or promoted the interest of my clients who had political objectives in mind. Even though I represented left-wingers like Dr Poh Soo Kai or Said Zahari, it was always done on a professional level. I had people coming to see me, wanting me to take up cases which I could have exploited if I wanted to.”
Recalling his first day of detention
“They took me to Whitley holding centre straight. And there, I was asked to strip. Everything was removed and they gave me three-quarter pants and a short-sleeve shirt which was made of sackcloth. Sackcloth is cloth that the Chinese wear at mourning, at funerals. And that is a slap in the face, an insult… that kind of cloth…you wear it when your father or your mother dies.”
Why he chose to make a public confession
“I’m ashamed of what I did. Ashamed in the sense that I had to go on TV, confess in public… that’s a day of shame which I can never forget in my life. I shouldn’t have but the price I had to pay if I want to remain steadfast was too heavy.
It’s not I who suffers. It’s my family who suffers. And a young child, I see her [his daughter] on the bed… she did not know what was happening… this image remains vivid in your mind when you are in detention, in that cold cell that you are thrown into and then the threats that come – wife will be charged, brother and sister will be sacked from their jobs. What do you do then? You are cornered.”
“What kept me going was my inner resolve. Look, all these things will pass one day, the oppression and the cruelty won’t last all that while. That’s the conviction I had within me. Alright, you’re made a victim, alright, you suffered but you at least stood up for a cause once upon a time.”
On being an expert on probate
“They said, ‘For two years you shouldn’t practise law. But we’ll give you a job suitable for your qualifications and experience.’ I ended up as Assessment Officer in the Estate Duty Division calculating the values of bungalows or houses and stocks and shares. Glorified clerk’s job, that’s what it was.”
“Once you know the basic technical things in estate duty and probate law, you can have a comfortable practice. It is so much laden with old English language… People get a little befuddled but if you calm yourself and look at it objectively without allowing yourself to get confused, you can master the subject. It’s like any other field of law; just concentrate and read and re-read until you understand what is involved.”
If God shuts one door, He opens another door for you
“The attachment that I had with estate duty was a boon in the sense that I became rather dubiously called expert in estate duty. Alec Ferguson, who was then with Drew & Napier approached me and said, ‘Can you conduct a seminar on estate duty Law?’ And there was the editor from Butterworths at that time who said, ‘Can you write a book?’”
I had tremendous goodwill from my friends. I had four divorces waiting for me when I began practice and two or three conveyances. Even one or two former ISD officers who interrogated me became my clients. They were buying or selling properties and they referred matters to me.”
Dr Raman re-started his law practice by sharing premises with another lawyer. He had potential clients waiting but he did not have the money. His friend Ronnie Lee had a spare room. From just one secretary, “we began to expand and I took in two or three others.”
He would eventually strike out on his own. “At one stage, I had an eight-man firm, including myself”, occupying half the 18th floor in Straits Trading Building with another two units on a lower floor.” As a leading authority on probate, wills and trusts Singapore, the bigger firms will refer to him for an opinion or ask him to take over what they were handling. “Practice was quite good. This is where as some people say, “If God shuts one door, He opens another door for you.”
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