Prominent Singapore human rights lawyer Ravi Madasamy looked unusually serene and relaxed on a Sunday morning as he settled comfortably on a wide beige sofa at a local café.
A refreshing sight compared to the smartly groomed, straight-faced professional in typical executive wear that members of the public are so familiar with. Even so, his commanding presence is hard to miss.
One of the most highly profiled and controversial lawyers of his time, Ravi’s dogged push for constitutional reform in areas that he feels “do not measure up to the ideals in the constitution” makes him a rarity, even in his profession.
Due to the social and political nature of cases he's handled -- from the lawsuit of Chees vs. Lees, to death penalty-related issues where he represented British investigative journalist Alan Shadrake and Malaysian Yong Vui Kong on different charges, as well as the repealing of Section 377A which criminalises homosexual acts between men – he naturally attracts his fair share of media attention.
Ravi admits he's placed himself under much scrutiny. On one hand, he is perceived as an “attention-seeker” and in some cases misinterpreted to be a rambunctious individual. On the other, ardent supporters admire him for daring to redress grievances and speak up for the marginalised, to the extent he takes up many cases pro bono.
But public perception aside, who is M Ravi?
Looking at the man he is now – an eloquent speaker with a charismatic smile -- it's hard to know a troubled childhood lies beneath his veneer of self-confidence.
The sixth child of seven children, Ravi was a joyful and mischievous boy. Like any typical school kid, he paid little attention to his studies and relished the times he played soccer with his friends.
Unbeknownst to the public though, is that Ravi came from a poor family with a history of domestic abuse and violence. Witnessing his mother’s struggles first-hand, the young boy yearned to protect her in his own way.
“When I was six, I remember seeing my mother smile each time she watched her favourite actress on TV dancing. So I watched and started mimicking the dance steps. Each time she cried, I would tie her sari for her, and then start dancing to make her smile. She would always laugh,” Ravi said, managing a small smile.
But one quality Ravi never grew out of is his intolerance towards injustice. “Last time even during hospital visitations, when I saw someone being mistreated, I would go up and try to help. Start a Committee of Enquiry and all, you know!” he laughed heartily. He added, “My mother always had to pull me out of these situations."
Ravi always wanted to study law, and took a particular interest to debates during his college years. The only child in the family who made it past secondary school, Ravi took on countless odd jobs including tutoring and loans to finally obtain double degrees, the first in Arts from National University of Singapore and the second in law from the United Kingdom.
With his innate talent and sheer hard work, this fine young lawyer proved to be a rising star. On his first case, Ravi represented a cashier who was charged of theft. Though it was a small case, the amateur professional did thorough research. After the first day of trial, the prosecutors dropped charges.
Handling general litigation, Ravi worked his way up and soon set up his law firm in 2001. Two years later, he took on his first human rights case defending Vignes Mourthi, a Malaysian factory worker who was found guilty of drug trafficking and slapped with the death penalty.
Mourthi had maintained his innocence throughout. This trial was what Ravi describes as the most emotionally and financially draining of his entire career.
“My biggest weakness even until today,” he said, “is getting involved in other people’s business.”
Currently, his firm is handling up to 80 cases, out of which only five to six involved are human rights cases. While they prove to be most time-consuming and least profitable, it is these few he finds most fulfilling.
“It’s an unenviable position that I’m in. I am vulnerable to the state, but I'm also vulnerable to segments of the community,” he said matter-of-factly. “Criminal law is accepted in our conservative society, but not civil and political rights. Human rights was like an empty chair that no one is fighting for. I just went to sit there.”
Unlike countries in the European Union, or even here in Asia such as Hong Kong and Malaysia, neither human rights nor activism is much celebrated.
Nonetheless, Ravi remains optimistic. “It is an exciting time, don’t you think? Singapore’s climate is changing,” he said exuberantly. He too has noticed that now, professors, fellow lawyers and local interns are more willing to lend their support.
At the end of the day, Ravi remains proud to call Singapore home. “Nothing beats fighting for your own people,” he told me.
“Even if in some cases, the people are the very ones fighting you?” I asked.
Ravi laughed for a moment. “Yes,” he said resolutely.
The writer previously wrote for an array of portals like Youth.SG and The Online Citizen. She now writes at her own blog in her free time.