COMMENT: On lawyers and our traditions


The last-ditch attempt to save convicted murderer Kho Jabing’s life was led by Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss. AFP file photo.

Lawyer Remy Choo reflects on the failed attempt to save Malaysian Kho Jabing from execution, and explains a tradition of the Singapore legal fraternity.

My coroner’s inquiry into Benjamin Lim’s death was substantially finished this week. On Thursday afternoon (19 May), I came back to the office to see Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss rushing out in Court attire, with a group of interns and trainees in tow (my law firm shares office space with hers). She told me she was hurrying to the High Court to file a last-ditch application to try to save Kho Jabing from the gallows.

It crossed my mind that I should probably drop by the High Court with her because Jeannette doesn’t normally go to Court and it might be helpful for her to have moral support. So I rushed down to the High Court to be with her team and talked through some of the law that she was going to present. I learnt that she had been asked by Jabing and his family to file the application just a day before.

It took Jeannette another more than 3 hours of waiting at the Registry before she finally got an audience before JC Kanan Ramesh at around 5.30 p.m.. Given the seriousness of the application she was going to make, Alfred Dodwell and I asked to attend in Chambers as observers with her, but were turned down. Jeannette went in alone, up against a top team of 3 lawyers from the AGC in a last-ditch attempt to get the Court to stave off Jabing’s execution on Friday at 6 a.m..

3 nerve wracking hours later, we found out that Jeannette’s application was turned down by JC Ramesh, but we heaved a sigh of relief to hear she had been granted permission to file an appeal against the decision at 11 p.m. the same night. Racing against the clock, Jeannette managed to get the notice of appeal filed on time.

The reprieve was short lived. 10 minutes later, Jeannette got an unprecedented call from the Registry asking her to argue the application before a 5 Judge Court of Appeal at 9 a.m. the next morning.Jeannette’s team spent most of the rest of the night preparing for the application the next day.

At midnight, the team called Alfred Dodwell for backup. Although he was at the airport picking his sister up, he agreed to be counsel the next day despite the short notice. Given the stakes, he felt he could not refuse. Slightly past midnight, we placed a call to former President of the Law Society Chandra Mohan K Nair, who agreed to accompany Jeannette to Court to address the Court of Appeal on the clemency process if necessary.


Kho Jabing was executed on the afternoon of Friday, May 20. Malay Mail file photo

On Friday morning, another former President of the Law Society and my colleague, Peter Low, sat at the bar table in Court with Jeannette. With them were a battery of young assistants and aspiring public interest lawyers: Damien Chng, Priscilla Chia and Johannes Hadi.

Friday’s hearing before the Court of Appeal was scorching. Jeannette and Alfred got put on the back foot by the Court, which accused them of an “abuse of process”. Lawyers from the Attorney-General’s Chambers insinuated that they were bringing the application in bad faith and for collateral purpose.

3 hours later, the Court of Appeal denied the stay application and ordered that Jabing hang. That same afternoon, Jabing was dead.

Whatever one might think of the death penalty, or those on the receiving end of it, as a lawyer I thought it was important to share this.

The legal profession has a quaint tradition called the “cab-rank rule”, which obliges lawyers to take on any case they have competence to handle regardless of any belief or opinion which he may have formed as to the character, reputation, cause, conduct, guilt or innocence of that person. It takes its name from the rule that London taxis are obliged to take the passenger who comes along as long as that taxi is at the front of the taxi queue.

Sometimes, this tradition is honored more in the breach than the observance.
On 19 May 2016, two lawyers accepted a seemingly hopeless brief: to stave off the execution of a condemned man.

In the best traditions of the bar, Jeannette and Alfred stepped into the breach and argued their client’s case with vigour.

The mainstream media has taken great pains to highlight Jeannette’s political affiliations, spotlighting the fact that she is an “opposition lawyer”. I don’t recall the mainstream media spotlighting the affiliations of PAP MPs acting for unpopular clients. The media is insinuating that Jeannette is somehow politicizing or using this case for capital.

This smearing is unfair, untrue and dangerous. Those casting aspersions today might well need lawyers with courage when they find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

I recall that when I was a pupil, the only lawyer who dared to handle such cases was M Ravi. That isn’t the case now. The machinery of death no longer rumbles on unchallenged. Defendants in politically unpopular cases have more lawyers to turn to than they used to.

Alfred, Jeannette, and their tireless support team have my greatest respect and admiration for maintaining one of the best traditions of our profession: acting courageously without fear or favour for those who need and ask for representation.

Long may that tradition continue.

Remy Choo is a lawyer with Peter Low LLC. This note was first published on his personal Facebook account. It has been reproduced with his permission. The views expressed here are his own.