Lawsocgate is likely to rumble on for a while. Legal processes take their own time and there are probably some facts yet unseen by the public.
However, I will argue that the issue it has uncovered goes beyond that of the Law Society versus M Ravi. Athough Ravi, colourful a character as he is, has a tendency to steal the show, we shouldn’t lose sight of an even more troubling question about the law profession itself.
Just to recap, on 16 July 2012, a Monday, just as a court hearing concerning by-elections got underway, a Wong Siew Hong from the Law Society appeared in court. M Ravi was then representing Madam Vellama in seeking a declaration from the court that the prime minister does not have unfettered discretion as to when to call by-elections. In chambers straight after the open hearing, Wong produced a letter from a psychiatrist Calvin Fones saying in a nutshell that Ravi was unfit to practise law due to a relapse of his bipolar disorder.
The judge sent Wong packing on the basis of a simple test: Does Ravi have a practising certificate? He did.
In quick succession, Wong then “gatecrashed” or attempted to, two other court hearings in which Ravi appeared as counsel.
At first the Law Society suggested in a statement that Wong was acting on its behalf: “The Law Society informed the judge of the contents of the letter as it felt that it was in the public interest to do so, and as officers of the court.” But this statement was withdrawn within less than a day and replaced by one that said Wong was acting on his own volition. The society said that its “Council was not in possession of the full facts” when the first statement was issued.
For a fuller account of the story as it unfolded, TR Emeritus might be your best source:
Online postings have also raised questions about the professional ethics of releasing a psychiatric report.
By the end of the week, M Ravi was making statements about suing the Law Society and possibly Fones. But there was some chopping and changing, and as of the time of writing, it is not clear what his next step will be.
Meanwhile, on Sunday 22 July, Ravi held a one-man protest at Hong Lim Park. I wasn’t there but the Yahoo News report was scathing: Lawyer M Ravi in bizarre tirade at Speaker’s Corner. The news report came with a photograph of Ravi hugging a tree that prompted an “Oh my god what a picture” response from a fellow lawyer, followed by three exclamation marks.
So the week started with the Law Society appearing farcical; it ended with Ravi trying to outdo them.
There is a real possibility that M Ravi’s practising certificate is at risk, and that more powerful forces might use this turn of events to totally discredit all that he’s been doing. At this moment, four public interest issues remain live, their passage through the courts uncompleted:
1. A challenge to the constitutionality of Section 377A, the law that criminalises male-male sex.
2. Various cases involving young men sentenced to death because they were minor drug mules; Ravi has been fighting to save their lives.
3. Madam Vellama’s suit regarding by-elections.
4. Kenneth Jeyaretnam’s challenge to the constitutionality of the Singapore government extending a loan to the International Monetary Fund without parliamentary debate and approval.
What will happen to all these cases if Fones and the Law Society succeed in having him committed to a psychiatric institution?
It is at this point that an eerie question rises out of the dark water: Why is Ravi the only lawyer taking on these public interest issues? Why must everything rest on his shoulders?
Why don’t we see, in Singapore, several more lawyers, perhaps prominent and well-established ones, taking on public interest cases on a pro-bono basis?
In the US, the two lawyers fighting the challenge to California’s 2008 Proposition 8 are David Boies and Ted Olson. They are top lawyers, who were best known for arguing against each other in the Supreme Court battle between George W Bush and Al Gore, over the results of the 2000 presidential election. Proposition 8 was the referendum-style decision by California voters to define marriage as between a man and a woman only. Olsen and Boies are arguing (and succeeding so far) that it violates the equality provision of the federal constitution of the United States.
Are the lives of our top lawyers too comfortable, incomes too rich, for them to take on “risky” cases that challenge the ruling People’s Action Party’s preferred model?
Over dinner last night, I mentioned this thought of mine to a friend. He then recalled something that another friend had said a little while ago. It wasn’t pertaining to lawyers, but it comes close. The mutual friend had said (we can’t provide an exact quote now, but something along these lines):
In Singapore, sensitive issues are far more often surfaced by artists than by academics — though as intellectuals, that should be a role of academics. But perhaps it is no coincidence that academics are far better paid than artists.
Here’s another depressing side to Singapore.