Top Singapore lawyer Harry Elias dies at 83

Staff Writer, Singapore
·Editorial Team
·4-min read
Harry Elias was one of the first 12 people appointed Senior Counsel in 1997. Among other accomplishments, he helped set up the Law Society’s Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) in 1985. (Photo: Harry Elias Partnership)
Harry Elias was one of the first 12 people appointed Senior Counsel in 1997. Among other accomplishments, he helped set up the Law Society’s Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) in 1985. (Photo: Harry Elias Partnership)

SINGAPORE — Prominent top lawyer Harry Elias died on Wednesday (26 August) at the age of 83.

He was one of the first 12 people to be appointed as Senior Counsel in 1997. Among his many accomplishments, he helped set up the Law Society’s Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) in 1985 to help the less fortunate get free legal representation. He was also the society’s president from 1984 to 1986.

In a statement announcing his passing, the law partnership he founded in 1988, and which bears his name, said on Thursday (27 August), “Mr Elias had a remarkable influence and impact on many people. He was truly a unique human being and his legacy is palpable in the spirit and character of the firm he founded. While we may mourn his passing, we must celebrate his life, and now live his legacy.”

The firm’s managing partner Philip Fong said, “For our firm, Harry was our founder, leader and mentor. For our profession, Harry was the epitome of a fearless and first-class advocate. For our society, Harry was a trailblazer with lasting legacy. For us personally, Harry was a true friend, a teacher and a kind and generous soul. We are honoured to have walked with him for a part of his impactful life.”

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Senior Counsel Gregory Vijayendran, president of the Law Society of Singapore, said in a statement, “He was a Silk [Senior Counsel] with exceptional persuasion, peroration and panache.”

Vijayendran recalled a hearing in a judge’s chambers nearly 30 years ago in which Elias ultimately persuaded the judge “in classy advocacy.” Vijayendran, who was a pupil at the time, said, “That left a deep impression on me as the watching apprentice. It was pure poetry in motion.”

“There is now a void in the Law Society with this sad loss of one of its finest gems,” said Vijayendran.

He added, “Yet the greatest legacy he left behind for the Law Society is that he gave justice to the weakest in society. In the corridors of time, Harry Elias’ name will forever be inextricably linked with the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme that provides access to justice for the indigent. 35 years on and going strong, CLAS, like its visionary architect, is pure class and now Singapore’s Office of Private Defender.”

In a Facebook post, Minister for Law K Shanmugam recounted how he first met Elias as a pupil in 1984. “He was already a much storied lawyer. I did some work for him and over time we became friends.”

“And as a person, he was a gem of a man, larger than life, the life and soul of any meeting, party, gathering. In and out of court, he was a gentleman, known for his dry wit, and disarming charm.

“Large footprints, a man you would never forget, once you met him. You will find many who have wonderful things to say about him, and hardly anyone with anything negative to say about him. He was an icon,” said Shanmugam.

“A man who made an impact on my life and whom I can never forget. The legal profession is poorer for the loss,” he added.

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Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Indranee Rajah also paid tribute to Elias who was one of her first bosses at law firm Drew and Napier in 1988. In a Facebook post, Indranee said, “Harry was one of Singapore’s foremost litigators and strode large across the stage of the legal profession. He was one of our greats – with a big booming voice, and rapier sharp as he did battle in court. He was often in the headlines, his clients a list of who’s who.”

“He was a kind boss but he didn’t cosset either. He didn’t hesitate to tell me point blank and in no uncertain terms if I got things wrong. But he never failed to teach. Harry had a good heart and a zest for life, a wonderful enthusiasm that was both infectious and uplifting. He also had tremendous wit and a great sense of humour,” she said.

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School association St. Andrew’s Alumni also paid tribute to Elias, who was its president from 1995 to 1997. In a Facebook post, the association said, “He played a key role in the change of the association's name from 'St Andrew's Old Boys Association' to 'St Andrew's Alumni' to be inclusive of female students who were in pre-university classes of yesteryear in SASS and eventually in SAJC.”

“Harry will be dearly missed by the SAA and our family of schools. May he rest in peace.”

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