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Lunch With Sumiko: A life in chapters for lawyer Philip Jeyaretnam

Lunch With Sumiko: A life in chapters for lawyer Philip Jeyaretnam

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 25 Aug 2019
Author: Sumiko Tan

 If life were a book, Philip Jeyaretnam is now at a happy chapter, finding purpose in work, public service - and cooking.

There is a formal - but not unfriendly - air about lawyer Philip Jeyaretnam when we first meet.

He is pleasant and polite, picks his words carefully in a strong British accent and has a tendency to look down when he speaks.

He helpfully answers every question I ask, but I'm wondering if I'll ever get a glimpse of the person behind that serious, controlled demeanour.

The moment finally comes 50 minutes into lunch when the waiter brings us our main course - pasta for him and steak for me.

Are you a foodie, I ask, not expecting much of a reply.

He laughs heartily - his first real laugh.

"I actually enjoy cooking a lot," he says, surprising me. "Yeah, I do."

"I'm not a great cook, so it's not meant to say I'm a great cook or anything, but I enjoy it tremendously. I enjoy the getting better at something, right? It's fun. Then of course there's always a product that people can eat so that's good. So, yes, I spend time on that."

He hastens to qualify that as far as being a foodie is concerned, he isn't one. He also doesn't like long, elaborate meals at restaurants.

"If I have a chance, I would prefer to do something else. I'd walk with somebody rather than sit down and have a long meal, these meals which go on for, you know, seven courses. Oh my gosh, no thanks." (Luckily, I think to myself, our lunch just runs into three courses.)

He started cooking when he was at Cambridge University, putting together South Indian dishes on an electric ring burner in his room.

In the last few years, he has been cooking more.

"It's relaxing, it's a challenge... I had to consciously be more precise when it's something that requires precision, like baking, and then also work at the flair - how is it that you emulsify or how is it that you whisk to make sure that, you know, your bechamel sauce comes out right. It's moderately purposeful, it's mostly fun."

What's your best dish?

He chuckles, demurs, then says he enjoys doing something like a carbonara, where speed is of the essence. "But whether somebody else would objectively say, 'Oh this is great', I think that's another matter altogether."

He also enjoys working with the oven, like roasting.

Baking, too?

"I haven't done very much baking but I prefer things like tarts and pies to cakes."

We are both smiling happily now (I, too, am partial to tarts and pies although in my case, it's eating rather than baking). Our conversation from that point on becomes more relaxed.


Mr Jeyaretnam, 55, has been in the public eye for much of his life.

In 1981 when he was 17, his father J.B. Jeyaretnam became the first opposition politician to win a seat in Parliament.

A few years later, his name started appearing in the books section of newspapers. His fiction, including First Loves and Raffles Place Ragtime, got good reviews and were bestsellers.

He continued writing even as he made his mark as a lawyer, specialising in commercial litigation and international arbitration.

He became a Senior Counsel at the young age of 38, and served as Law Society president from 2004 to 2007.

He's now global vice-chair and Asean CEO of the international law firm Dentons, which is the world's largest law firm by number of lawyers, and managing partner of Dentons Rodyk, the Singapore operations.

Since 2009, he has served as a member of the Public Service Commission (PSC), which oversees the public service. He has been a member of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights since 2012.

The appointments - by the Government - raised eyebrows given the combative relationship his father had with the ruling People's Action Party leadership.

He also chairs the board of Maxwell Chambers, which is the reason we are having lunch today.

Maxwell Chambers is an integrated dispute resolution complex in Maxwell Road, offering facilities and services for arbitration and mediation.

Earlier this month, it opened an extension, Maxwell Chambers Suites, which occupies the conserved space that once housed the headquarters of the Traffic Police and later the Red Dot Design Museum. The buildings are a boost to Singapore's ambitions to be a leading centre for cross-border dispute resolution.

Lunch is at a private room in Otto Ristorante in Maxwell Chambers. The Italian restaurant is fast filling up when I arrive, a few minutes before him.

He's happy with how Maxwell Chambers Suites has turned out, and how the buildings are "creating positive ripples" with a legal precinct developing.

He remembers thinking some years back that the Red Dot building would make a good extension for Maxwell Chambers. "It had these nice small spaces, a little bit higgledy-piggledy, and it felt to me a little bit like the Inns of Court in London."

The Law Ministry backed the idea and $25 million was spent to refurbish the Red Dot building.


Although his parents were lawyers, law wasn't an obvious career choice for him. Literature and history were subjects that fascinated him instead.

At five - one year younger than his cohort - he started primary education at Raeburn Park, a private school here.

His English mother, Ms Margaret Walker, had moved to Singapore after she got married and wanted him to have an English education. He has a brother Kenneth, who is five years older.

After O levels at the United World College here, he went to Charterhouse School in England.

His mother had by then been diagnosed with breast cancer and died in 1980 when she was 50. He was 16. His father, then secretary-general of the Workers' Party, won the Anson seat the next year.

He came back to do national service when he was 17 - he was an officer - then went to Cambridge. He had wanted to do history but his father felt law would be a more useful career and that he would also enjoy it.

The elder Mr Jeyaretnam got one of his son's English teachers to persuade him that law was a better option. It worked.

While he was at university - he graduated with first-class honours - his father was in the thick of Singapore politics.

Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam won the Anson seat again in the 1984 General Election but lost it two years later, after being convicted of making a false declaration of party accounts.

More court cases followed, with PAP leaders accusing him of defamation. In 1997, he became a Non-Constituency MP after his team in the former Cheng San GRC topped the losers' list. Four years later, he had to leave Parliament after he became a bankrupt for failing to pay up sums owing in damages from lawsuits.

He was discharged from bankruptcy in 2007 and founded the Reform Party in June 2008. He died of heart failure three months later at the age of 82.

I wonder if Mr Jeyaretnam is tired of how interviewers inevitably ask him about his father.

"I mean, I think, no. I mean not really," he says.

Was he conflicted when he was invited to join the PSC and the Presidential Council for Minority Rights?

"First and foremost, you know, I'm a patriot. I believe in Singapore, I want to see Singapore flourish," he says. "Secondly, I'm a doer, I like contributing. I like to see how one can do things that help other people around you, that can help build sustainably something for the future. And because of that, I really don't see a conflict."

The PSC plays an important role safeguarding the integrity and independence of the civil service and ensuring there's a pipeline of the right kind of people for it. "To me, that's a valuable role which I'm very honoured to be a part of."

Ditto Maxwell Chambers, which allows him to contribute to the legal profession and Singapore.

Has he ever felt discriminated against because of his father?

He pauses, then says that when he graduated in the 1980s "there was hesitation on the part of some of the senior partners of big firms to bring me in". He also noticed that friends whose qualifications were not as good as his found jobs easily.

"But in time, first of all, people look at me in my own terms. And, secondly, people are quite practical. If you do a good job, then people will trust you with work, right?"

There were also many in the legal fraternity who had a great deal of respect for his father and who welcomed him to the profession.

One senses that if there had been any difficulties, or even bitterness, in the past, such feelings have long been resolved.

"You know, one can't complain, right? You take the rough with the smooth. I had many, many, many advantages although my father, by the time I graduated, was practically penniless," he says.

"Nonetheless, for that first 24 years of my life, he and my mother had helped to provide a very good, privileged upbringing, the best education that we could get. So, you should take all these things together, they are what they are.

"I think the right attitude is to be grateful for what has helped to get you where you are today, which is not just the good bits. Frankly, if you never have challenges, then your life would be rather bland and you wouldn't have grown very much.

"So definitely, my father, being who he was, created some challenges but how I dealt with those challenges is part of how I've grown as a person and, at the same time, there's also so much of value that I imbibed from him."

I wonder if he had ever wished his father had an easier time in politics.

He stays quiet for a long while before he says: "My father went through quite a lot of things and undoubtedly much of it was very difficult for him, especially after my mother passed away and he didn't have the emotional support from her.

"He did look to me actually for quite a lot of emotional support and I was happy to give that to him. And, of course, yes, there were times I felt the pain that he felt."

He remembers how, after the Cheng San election, a stream of ministers sued his father for defamation, engaging different law firms to issue separate writs.

"So one Saturday afternoon, he was sitting at home and then, you know, this succession of law clerks - most of them very apologetic because they knew him - from all the leading firms in town came to serve him. And so, of course, the first thing he did was to call me and I went over to be with him and to face yet another challenge.

"But that was the life that he chose. And in a way he relished the battle because he believed in what he was doing. And so actually that's a life which is well lived. He lived a hard but I think very fulfilling life... He never just coasted, he never rested, right? He was always trying to achieve something that he believed in.

"And I think I've imbibed some of that from him. I think we are here to do our best within the time that we have, to do things that we find purposeful."

While his brother Kenneth is helming the Reform Party now, he has no interest in politics.

"My father very much wanted me to go into politics and in my 20s, I almost sort of in a way gave in. And that would have been wrong on my part because each of us has to live the life that we believe in, right? That we think makes sense for us... I don't see myself as a politician."

Is he interested in Singapore politics at all?

"The honest answer to that is probably not a lot," he says.

"Politics operates at different levels. One level is almost like the level of gossip, right? That's where sometimes people get very upset in the sense of who said what and what scandals are brewing. That doesn't interest me."

What does matter to him are the big questions, like how Singapore is positioned, given its small size, but such issues aren't answered by day-to-day interest in politics.

One believes him when he says: "I want to do things that are meaningful, that are helpful to people, that build things for the future. I want to give opportunities to others. I want to grow myself."

He says he is able to do all this in his work at Dentons, which has 10,000 lawyers in more than 70 countries, and in his public service roles.

"I think it's very important to see your life in terms of chapters or segments and see how you make the most of each of those," says Mr Jeyaretnam, who is divorced and has two sons and a daughter.

"I really feel that at my age, with the 30 years of experience and - touch wood - I still have a lot of energy and stamina, not as much as I did when I was 20, but still pretty good - again, touch wood repeatedly - but that feels like a very sweet spot to be in."

We end lunch on this happy note.

I e-mail him later for a photo I could use. Maybe of your childhood or with your parents or - I try my luck - even you cooking?

Mr Jeyaretnam enjoys cooking as he finds it relaxing. He is seen here in his kitchen with a beef Wellington. PHOTO: COURTESY OF PHILIP JEYARETNAM


Otto Ristorante 32 Maxwell Road, 01-02/03 Maxwell Chambers

2 chef menu: $136

Total (with tax): $160.07

Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.




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