Jail can break a man – but not this lawyer and his resolve to defend others
I first met Subhas Anandan about 40 years ago in the most unlikely of places – a hospital ward in Changi Prison.
Clad in prison-issue hospital clothes, he was seated calmly on a bed, and I was the prison officer rostered to the hospital wing and doing the rounds.
Singapore’s best-known criminal lawyer in recent times, Subhas was 67 when he died last Wednesday, less than two weeks after his birthday on Christmas Day.
But in 1976, he was a newly admitted detainee under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, which allows for detention without trial.
Suspected of being in a secret society, he was held at the Queenstown Remand Prison. But shortly afterwards, he was admitted to the hospital ward at Changi Prison for psychiatric observation.
We did not talk much since we were on opposite sides of the fence as it were.
But among other things, he did tell me how terrified he was and expressed disbelief at being locked up in a single cell in Queenstown prison.
He said he had slammed his fists against the wooden door ceaselessly, a possible symptom of the claustrophobia that triggered his transfer to Changi.
In less than a month, he was cleared medically and was taken back to Queenstown, where he stayed among more than 300 detainees.
He was generally well-respected by those in detention, who admired his position as a lawyer, and, having grown up with four siblings in the rough and tumble of a Sembawang kampung, he was able to relate to them.
He was freed after nine months, and placed on police supervision for a spell following a probe which saw a police inspector prosecuted but cleared by a court in 1977 for the alleged frame-up of Subhas.
It is said that jail can break a man. But in his case, it seemed only to strengthen his commitment to defend alleged thieves, rapists and murderers who could not afford access to lawyers, no matter how heinous their offences.
As he once said: “I understand their plight better.”
Like the case of an alleged molester for whom he successfully obtained an acquittal.
The man’s mother approached him when he was working at Harry Elias Partnership and offered him $5,000 – all of her life’s savings.
He told her to keep the money as her gratitude was reward enough.
Or the case of vegetable packer Took Leng How, who killed eight-year-old Huang Na, a sensational case in 2004.
In an interview with this paper last November, Subhas recalled the day he took up the case for free after Took’s parents went to see him after taking an overnight bus from Penang.
“They really looked tired and they had no sleep. They said, ‘Please help our son.’ His grandmother was also there and she fell on my legs.
“I said, ‘I understand.’ They were completely broken during the trial.”
In the same interview, he was asked about a statue of a Hindu god placed in a glass frame behind his desk at RHTLaw Taylor Wessing, a firm he helped set up.
He said it was a gift from a client who could not afford to pay.
These anecdotes show not only how strongly he felt about defending people, which translated into his combative approach in court, but also his kindness and ability to look beyond the flaws of individuals, to the extent of persuading others to offer former convicts jobs.
Asked what Subhas had said about his own prison experience, Senior Counsel Harry Elias, who knew him for more than four decades, said: “He was angry but he said he promised his mother he would never harm the man who allegedly fixed him up.”
Legal consultant Vangat Ramayah, who also knew the man for more than 40 years, said growing up in a Sembawang kampung in the 1960s gave Subhas a certain philosophical outlook.
Not only did he face adversity, but he also lived in a close-knit community where the culture was for each person to look out for the other and overlook differences.
“Subhas’ approach was to live and let live, and he accepted people for what they were, warts, blemishes and all. This made him unique, and endearing to all,” he said.
But in court, there was a brashness about him, a seeming refusal to admit that the odds were against him.
Lawyer Mohandas Naidu said that Subhas never pretended to have the intellectual heft of others in the legal profession.
“He was direct, precise and pointed in his cross-examination of cases and showed ability to match the best, including senior counsel,” added Mr Naidu, a partner in the same firm in the years after Subhas’ release from prison.
My colleague Selina Lum, who covers the courts, remembers how the pragmatic Subhas always “went for the big picture, and did not quibble over small, small details in a case”.
He never gave up even when the cause was lost, as in the case of Anthony Ler, the man who manipulated a teenager into killing his wife. “Ler never ever admitted to murder of his wife to anybody,” he pointed out after his client was convicted and executed.
Some have suggested that his contributions to the pro bono landscape and the legal profession meant he deserved to have been made a senior counsel – a distinction introduced in 1997 to mark out those who “apart from having top-tier advocacy skills, professional integrity and being learned in the law, have a duty of leading and being an example to the rest of the Bar”.
It is believed that several years ago, he failed to get the referee he sought to mount an application for him to be appointed a senior counsel. After that, he dropped the idea.
It is not too late to honour him, and Subhas might well deserve to be made an honorary senior counsel posthumously.
Our first encounter in prison was not lost on him when our paths crossed again some 25 years later when I became a reporter.
I was one of many who tracked him on criminal cases and topical issues because of his willingness to share interesting nuggets to spice up a story chase or to provide a new perspective. Like how he once let on, after the conviction of a molester he had defended, that the culprit had failed a police lie detector test.
When we met last year after he returned from long medical leave, he autographed his book, The Best I Could, for me, writing: “Thanks for being a friend.”
Handing me the book, he said: “We go back a long way.”