REMEMBERING DR GOPALAN RAMAN (1938 – 2020)
We are saddened to learn of the passing of Dr G Raman and we extend our deepest condolences to his family. For many years, he served on the SAL Legal Heritage Committee and we have benefited much from his contributions to our heritage programmes. We had the privilege of recording Dr Raman’s oral history interview a few years ago. His vivid recollection of what he witnessed and experienced during his years of service in the courts and legal practice is an invaluable record to our legal history. The full interview can be heard here.
Dr Raman was 10 years old when his family moved to Singapore from their home in north Perak. Life was tough and since his father was unemployed, Dr Raman contemplated going to work after he finished his primary education. “My friends gathered round me; one guy bought me a pair of canvas shoes to wear to school.” One teacher gave him $20 and another paid for his school uniform. “They all persuaded, ‘Look, don’t.’ My parents also said, ‘Never mind, we will struggle, we will see you through.’”
Despite the family’s impoverished circumstances, Dr Raman had ambitions to be a lawyer. The closest the then 19-year old boy could achieve was a job as a court interpreter. It gave him the opportunity to be “exposed to the legal milieu, [to] see in front of you what’s unfolding.” But he almost didn’t get employed because his interviewers sensed that “this man is an ambitious guy…they said I won’t stick for long in the service.”
He worked seven years in the interpreter service from 1956 to 1966 on a monthly salary of $210 during which he also studied for his ‘A’ levels and an external law degree. “It was an uphill task but somehow, I managed it.”
He was to spend another two years to do his barrister exams and fulfil the dining requirements in the UK. “I returned to Singapore even before my results were announced. I was running short of money. Being the eldest, I had that responsibility to ensure that you don’t squander money, you spend minimum.”
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 in 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.”
The interview was part of The Development of The Singapore Legal System, a joint oral history project by SAL’s Legal Heritage Committee and the Oral History Centre, National Archives of Singapore.
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