LexTalk World Interviews Dato’ Pretam Singh Darshan Singh. He is a formerly the President of the Tribunal for Home Buyers Claims and Consumer Claims Tribunal. His practice is highly regarded and recognized by major Listed companies and developers and is placed on the “Panel of Lawyers” of several developers, bankers, financial institutions, and government linked companies (GLCs). Dato Pretam had a humble beginning He started his career as a watchman in Chartered Bank whist studying during the day time He then was appointed as an Dy. Supt in Royal Malaysian Customs Dept where he rose to be a Supt.
After completing his LLB degree from University of London he was offered a post of a Magistrate in the Malaysian Judiciary and later worked in the Attorney General Chambers as Senior Federal Counsel, Deputy Public Prosecutor and legal advisor to several government departments and agencies including Ministry of Housing and Local Government, Ministry of Science Technology and Environment and Others .
He is currently the partner in a legal firm. Leveraging his vast knowledge and decades of experience and knowledge, he contributes articles to local and international journals, besides delivering lectures and talks in relevant forums. The Dato’ title is a recognition of his contribution towards the nation.
Host: We are really excited to know about your journey as a legal professional so far.
Dato: My legal journey started way back even before I became a lawyer. As you know, I started on a very poor background. My father was a policeman and after his retirement, he became a watchman. So, my first job was as a watchman at Chartered Bank in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. And then, I started studying. So during the day, I will study and at night, I will be a watchman.
After my equivalent A-Levels, then I got a job as an Assistant Superintendent of Custom in the Royal Malaysian Customs Department where I worked for 5 years initially and after my 5 years, I started doing my LL.B course externally from the University of London and it took me another 5 years to complete. And by the time, I have already become a Superintendent of Customs, I had by then completed my law degree 10 years from the time I joined customs. That was my first milestone, getting a law degree while working at the same time.
Now having obtained the law degree, I decided to join the judiciary as a Magistrate. I was appointed a Magistrate in 1986 and that year, only 2 Magistrates were appointed, and I was lucky that I was one of the two. So, the moral of the story is, as I have told others, that if there is a 1% chance of me getting a job, I will try that 1% because as I always tell my friends, I AM THE 1%, and I got it.
And of course after Magistrate, I have become Federal Counsel, a Senior Federal Counsel, a Deputy Public Prosecutor, Legal Advisor to various ministries in Malaysia. and that itself is also a very high post for a person of Indian origin and I contributed both as a public prosecutor and as a legal advisor to the ministries, to the government of Malaysia. So my earlier years were spent basically helping the government defend its actions.
Host: Please brief us about your most memorable case and what were your key takeaways from there.
Dato: I had some lovely period in the government service. As a Magistrate, my decisions have changed the Local Government Act, the State Government Act, the Federal legislation and also the Federal Constitution based on the decision I made.
You must remember that Magistrate is one of the lowest rank in the judiciary and after that you become higher and higher and higher as you go up. So that was my starting point as a Magistrate, I managed to make a contribution to the legal fraternity on these decisions that I have made, which has been highlighted in the Malaysian media all the while. Okay, talking about further cases, actually there are so many cases which are talking points but I will just take 2 cases to illustrate, one is a Islamic Law case. At that material time, I have actually not done Islamic law. Subsequently, I have done diploma in Syariah Law and Practice and I have that additional qualification in Syariah Law. But at the material time when I did this case, the issue was whether the wearing of the purdah was an essential and integral part of the practice of Islam and therefore protected under Article 11 of the Federal Constitution as a religious right. I was supporting the government whereas my opposite, another Singh, Mr. Karpal Singh was supporting her. So it is two Singhs who are battling, one say open up, the other say close. So Mr. Karpal said, “No, you have the right to close your face, only eyes can be seen”. I said, “ No, the whole face must be opened if the person wants to work in government service”. And of course, I succeeded in that case, it is a landmark constitutional law case which is worth remembering.
And we proceed to another landmark case, and again I would say it is again with Mr. Karpal. Anybody in Malaysia will know Karpal Singh because he was the leading lawyer against Government. So anybody have any grievances against the Government, they will always sort up Mr. Karpal and they know Mr. Karpal will never let them down.
So this other case was in relation to election petition because I was then acting on behalf the Election Commission of Malaysia and there was an election petition filed in a town, in Sandakan, which is about 2 hours flight time from Kuala Lumpur. So we were both on the same flight. I and Mr. Karpal were on the same flight to Sandakan airport and there was about 300 people waiting at the Sandakan airport to welcome Mr. Karpal Singh because for the first time in history for that small town, Mr. Karpal Singh is coming there, not me ah. And the people have all gathered to welcome him.
So the next day at 2:30 we started and I have raised about 7 preliminary points against the election petition and I started off by quoting a case from the Supreme Court of India, I can’t remember the case but what the case stated was, that India has got independence since 1947 and subsequently, there has been a lot of elections after that. There has been a lot of election petitions filed thereafter but the lawyers in filing the election petitions continue to make the mistakes and they never learn a lesson.
So I paused there, looked at Mr. Karpal and the other 7 lawyers who was supporting him and said, “My Lord, perhaps it is to my advantage, these lawyers continue to make mistakes and I intend to take advantage of each and every mistake that they have done”.
So I took out my chopper an started chopping, I spoke for 3 hours with my chopper on and I finished 5 points of argument in 3 hours and then I told My Lord, I said, “Can we continue next day morning instead of today?’’. His lordship said fine we’ll adjourn for next day morning. One hour later, Mr. Karpal calls me on the handphone and said, “I think we are withdrawing the election petition. I Said “Thanks, how much ...but you have to pay my cost, how much?
He gave me a figure. I said let me speak to the Attorney General Chambers and get the figure cleared. I said we are gentlemen about things, you want to withdraw, fine and I accept it. There is a cost figure, you are proposing this figure, let me get the Attorney General’s clearance whether we can accept it or not. So I spoke to my boss and he said, “ok, fine, and what is your view?’’. I said,” as gentlemen, we accept the figure Mr. Karpal is giving”. So we accepted his figure and therefore this matter was settled.
But the moral of the story is what Karpal Singh told me the next day, he said, “If actually I knew you are going to chop me up, I wouldn’t be here.
But I told him,”Karpal, as a gentleman, this was a strategic move by me. I Gave the assurance to the attorney general and my officers and my bosses in AG’s Chambers that I will not alert you on your mistakes because if I were to alert you, you will put corrective affidavit and correct the thing. So I took a very calculated risk and I told my bosses that I will stand by the decision that I have made.
So coming to the legal point, doing civil litigation is like playing chess. You have the bishop, you have the knight, you have the queen and the king but what you are going to move, is what will determine the case.
Sometimes you have the best case but you have the wrong move. So putting the right move at the right time is the basis for civil litigation, advocacy. So you may be a civil lawyer, but you do not have civil advocacy, you will lose out.
Mr. Karpal Singh was wheelchair bound at that material time. Yeah, he was wheelchair bound, a lawyer, because he had an accident a few years ago and his both legs are not working. So to come all the way to Sandakan, of course his son was with him. His son is now the member of parliament, both sons are member of parliament, one is a state minister. Three children have taken over his legacy.
And off the record, few days ago, somebody posted on the social media, Mr. Karpal’s photo in a Chinese house where they have put the pooja things and they put his photo also there with the words “Please save Malaysia.”
Although he has passed away so many years already now, people believe that he was one man who could actually save them if they are in trouble. And I know him personally, of course we have always been on the opposite side but he was always a gentleman because he will never hit us below the belt. He may sue the government but he never hit us below the belt. We have fight on the legal points all the way to Federal Court but he never hit us below the belt.
Host: Now, just one last question, just your views on civil litigation for this year and how do you think is going to change 5 years down the line.
Dato: Okay. Now, because of the pandemic, I think most of civil cases have gone online in Malaysia, especially, those non-contentious issues, even application for leave. Recently, I did a case at the federal court, it was online altogether. Totally online and leave was granted online too. I think that is the way forward otherwise we will all be rushing to Federal Court for small things. The future is online hearings. I think, of course there are advantages and disadvantages of online hearing because there is no emotional link with the judges because the judges will like to look at your face because I have been on the bench, I look at your face. And I can look at you and see how much you have prepared, you know. Your client sitting at the back may not know, but I can see from up there in your file that there is nothing much you have prepared.so there is advantage and disadvantage, the way forward is an online hearing.
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