This article was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 29, 2006
SINGAPORE – When he was a young lawyer more than 30 years ago, Mr Harry Elias represented a man who was involved in a gang fight at a sarabat stall in Sembawang.
The bloody brawl left two or three people dead. The man – who was charged with murder – went on the run but surrendered to the police a few years later.
As the lawyer assigned to the case, Mr Elias got the man’s charge reduced from murder to manslaughter. His client was sentenced to 10 years in jail.
After the sentencing, a “tiny shrivelled woman” showed up at his office. “She was the man’s mother and she took out a handkerchief – knotted at all four corners – from her samfoo. From each corner, she took out one dollar,” Mr Elias recalls over lunch at the Tower Club in Republic Plaza.
He continues: “She wanted to give me all her money – about $4 or $5 – for saving her son’s life. I told her I could not take the money because the Government had already paid me. She left reluctantly but half an hour later, she returned with a basket of oranges.”
The poor woman left such a deep impression on Mr Elias that he could recall the details of their meeting in vivid detail.
As one of Singapore’s foremost litigation lawyers, the 68-year-old founding partner of Harry Elias Partnership has represented all and sundry, including ‘prime ministers and hotshots’.
He was, for instance, Mr Goh Chok Tong’s legal counsel in 1995 when the then-prime minister sued the International Herald Tribune over a libellous article alleging political nepotism in Singapore.
He also represented several People’s Action Party (PAP) leaders in 1997 when they sought damages of $12.9 million in their 1997 defamation suit against lawyer and opposition politician Tang Liang Hong during the General Election.
But the poor have a special place in his heart. He was instrumental in setting up the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme in 1985, which provides free legal aid to the needy.
The idea for such a scheme came about in the early 1980s when Mr Elias and a group of lawyers were shocked by some sobering figures from the 1980 Census.
The census showed that 400,000 Singaporeans survived on a combined family income of less than $500 a month while another 90,000 lived in households earning less than $250 a month.
“People were getting jailed for shoplifting or other economic crimes and they were going to jail because they could not afford representation. We thought that if we spoke to the Attorney-General or if we helped them make a mitigation plea, they might get a different shot,” he says.
Mr Elias roped in hundreds of lawyers who agreed to work for free, and asked for donations from foundations and corporations.
The volunteer lawyers initially worked only on theft cases but now they defend those charged with capital offences as well.
Last year, nearly 9,500 applications for criminal legal aid were received. Volunteer lawyers were assigned to the 1,982 cases which were accepted. Of these, 198 of the defendants were acquitted or had their charges withdrawn.
Naturally, Mr Elias – who was once president of the Law Society of Singapore and among the first batch of senior counsel appointed in Singapore – is proud of the scheme. “It’s one of the areas where we can show the public at large that we are not monsters,” he says with a chuckle.
He is quick to point out that Singapore is the only country in the world with an outfit like the legal aid scheme where lawyers offer free legal services unaided by government.
“Everywhere else – Hong Kong, Australia, England – free legal aid is always given by the state,” says the senior counsel who was awarded the CC Tan prize last month.
The award, inaugurated in 2003, is named after the late Mr Tan Chye Cheng, the first elected president of the Law Society of Singapore and a founding partner of the law practice of Tan Rajah & Cheah. It is given to a lawyer who exemplifies key virtues of the legal profession – honesty, fair play and personal integrity.
Mr Elias, who is also a respected arbitrator and mediator, is the youngest of 12 children. His parents were Jews from Iraq: His father was a trader and his mother a housewife.
“My eldest and second brother had children before I was born. You could say I was an uncle before I was born,” he quips.
He grew up in the Jewish enclave in the Middle Road area and remembers a childhood where he had to observe strict Jewish customs and traditions. For instance, he was not allowed to use public transport or switch on electricity on Saturdays. At St Andrew’s School, he was “categorised” as a student who “couldn’t pay school fees or buy school uniforms”. The school helped him financially and allowed him to complete his education, something for which he is very grateful.
“That’s why I still pay back to St Andrew’s,” says the lawyer who gives liberally of his time and money to the school. He has sat on committees to raise funds for the school and was instrumental in building the St Andrew’s Village in Potong Pasir, which houses St Andrew’s primary and secondary schools as well as the junior college.
As a student, he had the gift of the gab and was the school’s champion debater. He already knew then that he wanted to be a lawyer.
He finished his Senior Cambridge, the equivalent of today’s O levels, in 1954 and even though he had good results, his family could not afford to send him to university.
He went to a teacher’s training college instead. Two years after he graduated, he decided to go to London.
As flying would have been too expensive, he sailed for Naples and then, from there, hopped on “the rail and carriage” to London where he worked in an exclusive Jewish school about 60km south of the city.
“When the principal heard me speak, he said he couldn’t have me polluting the speech of the students,” he recalls with a hearty laugh. “All the teachers there spoke with very posh Oxbridge accents.”
He was asked to teach mathematics instead. He enrolled at London University and studied law as he worked. Four years later, he was called to the Bar.
He returned in the early 1960s and practised as a lawyer in Kuala Lumpur before returning to Singapore in 1970.
He remembers working with the late Mr David Marshall – acknowledged by many as a brilliant lawyer and orator – on a custody case.
When Mr Marshall was presenting the case to the judge, Mr Elias kept feeding him with information, more than what Mr Marshall needed. “He kicked me violently under the table. Mind you, he wore very thick and heavy shoes.”
As they walked out of the court, Mr Marshall warned him: “I will kick a lot higher the next time you interrupt me again.”
The two became good friends. “I don’t quite know how to describe him. He was an actor and a showman but at the bottom of it all, he was an excellent lawyer who was always prepared. It was such a pleasure watching him.”
Although he had always wanted to emulate Mr Marshall’s achievements, he said there were fundamental differences between them. For one, Mr Marshall was very passionate about criminal law.
For Mr Elias, civil law is just as important.
“I also did not feel that I belonged to a one-man band. I wanted to work with people,” he says. Mr Elias worked for Drew and Napier before setting up his own firm in 1988. Harry Elias Partnership is now one of the top 10 law firms in Singapore with a team of nearly 60 lawyers.
Mr Michael Palmer, a partner at Harry Elias, says his mentor is “an aggressive court examiner. In a couple of cases that I’ve worked with him, the other party caved in once he started his questioning. His reputation is well known in the legal fraternity; you wouldn’t want to be on the other side when he’s in court”.
He remembers a case where he and Mr Elias were working for the second defendant.
After 45 minutes of intense questioning by Mr Elias, the plaintiff threw in the towel and asked for a settlement.
“They said they would still carry on fighting the first defendant but we were prematurely terminated,” recalls Mr Palmer.
Mr Palmer, 37, who did his pupilage under Mr Elias more than a decade ago, describes his mentor as a very good teacher.
“His integrity is beyond question, he sets an example that is very hard to follow. He is extremely insightful and has such a vast amount of experience that he can get right to the nub of an issue.”
Mr Elias is well known as a lobbyist for change in local legal circles.
Nearly 15 years ago, for instance, he was instrumental in introducing workshops where novice lawyers were taught how to present their cases in court – from body language to cross examination techniques. Their performances were captured on video and reviewed.
He felt that this was important because while new law graduates studied and knew the law, many did not know how to present their cases in court.
It is hard not to like Mr Elias, who comes across as a sincere, courtly gentleman.
He is an engaging conversationalist. He speaks rapidly but clearly, pulling anecdotes and examples from his memory with great dexterity. It is not hard to imagine his charisma in court.
His voice has a compelling gravitas when he is serious. But when he cracks a joke – as he does often in the course of our three-hour chat – he breaks out into loud guffaws.
“Someone once asked me who should play me in a movie. I said, Danny DeVito, of course,” he quips, referring to the short portly Hollywood actor.
The law, he says, has given him a lot. “It has given me confidence and the ability to hold my own,” says Mr Elias who lives with his home-maker wife Thelma in a condominium in Nathan Road.
Asked what being a lawyer has taught him about human nature, he says quietly: “Greed – that’s the bottom line for many. They just want more. Sometimes it’s not the settlement, it’s the upmanship.”
Although he has done his share of divorce cases, he confesses that he does not like acrimonious divorce cases.
“I don’t mind attending divorce cases and getting the best settlement for the parties involved. But when a marriage is over, what is the point of acrimony?”
He has been married to Thelma, his second wife, for nearly 15 years. He divorced his first wife, whom he married when he was in his early 20s. They adopted a daughter and a son, now aged 31 and 30 respectively.
Mr Elias started taking a backseat in the firm last year. While he has given up his administrative duties, which used to take up half of his time, he still does a lot of litigation work, especially “those that are not in court”.
Many of his cases are disciplinary ones involving doctors, lawyers and accountants.
His days are busy.
“I get up at 5.30, read The Straits Times and I surf the Net, reading newspapers from around the world. If I’m not in court, I’m in the office by 10 in the morning.”
His biggest indulgence, aside from food, is movies. “My wife and I don’t go to the cinema. But I watch at least one video a night. I think I’m watching Crash tonight,” he says referring to the movie starring Sandra Bullock and Brendan Fraser. He watches all sorts of movies although he is not a fan of courtroom dramas.
‘It’s all bull… They all ask questions without pieces of paper, everybody speaks so spontaneously. Because we know what goes on in law so much, we don’t enjoy it.”
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