Reminiscing the Call to the Bar

We are pleased to continue our Reminiscence series comprising of senior lawyer reminiscence. In this installment we gather some remembrance of long calls as it used to be practised in the High Courts of Malaysia which was provoked after a reading of ‘A Meditation about Moving by an Occasional Mover.’

[Professor Gurdial Singh Nijar] I was in court for someone’s call in June this year – after a long lapse and was shocked to see how the calls were being ‘moved’. They were replete with tediously long narration of thank you including the respective boyfriends or girlfriends and a generous surfeit of accompanying trivia. The speeches struck me as rather mechanical recitations par excellence. I now see why. Faithful obeisance to the Template!

Reaching into the past (don’t we older and, in my case – former, lawyers soak ourselves in nostalgia!), I recall a very senior lawyer, Lim Kean Chye, starting his call speech with seeking the Court’s indulgence to depart from the lawyers’ only role of appearing in court, that is, to plead a cause. And having been accorded this special privilege – he would then weave the background of the would-be lawyer in ‘exciting’ prose. But then, Kean Chye was a great orator and not all movers can hope to match his skill. I myself, a much lesser and unknown ‘legal’ mortal, once – in moving the call of a former sub-Dean of the law faculty of Singapore University, who was then 8 months pregnant – raised a poser as to whether the call to the Bar would ipso facto include the call of the baby – mother and child being then biologically fused as one! The judge Justice Anuar of the High Court in Johor Bahru then spent some judicial time pondering the implications.

(By the way, I believe that the practice of the pupil being robed by the master started in Johor Bahru in the 1980′s by Justice Anuar – do others have a different recollection?)

On a more sober note, our former premier, Tun Razak’s call to the Bar is reported in the MLJ and provides some guidance of sorts, which are useful to consider in addition to Fahri’s ‘guidelines’. But then all speeches ought to have a different take. There must be preserved, and enhanced, the diversity of the speeches – to reflect the uniqueness of the pupil, the stamp of the mover, the mood of the moment and the dignity of the proceedings!

So yes, away with Templates, the pupil’s draft, and all such else! As a renowned political philosopher once said: “Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom”!

[Serene S. Ong] Yes Gurdial, I had the honour and privilege of Lim Kean Chye moving my call. He flew down to Johor Bahru from Penang the night before, demanded a whiskey in a crystal glass (no less) with his dinner, moved my call the next morning in his usual inimitable and entertaining manner, got fed lunch and flew back straight after. The late Tan Sri (then Dato’) Syed Othman was the presiding judge and being an old family friend, started his response with “I have known the Petitioner since she was this long”, holding his hands approximately 12 inches apart. It was a very personal and meaningful call, the memory of which, 34 years later, I still treasure with many a chuckle and much fondness.

My heart goes out to those who are unable to say the same for what is, professionally speaking, their one big day, the day where a lawyer is the focal point in the nicest way. The other time this happens is when he not there … at his Reference. The latter too, is not what it used to be … but that’s another story.

It was the tradition too that pupils, during their pupilage, paid courtesy calls to their seniors who would treat them to lunch to get to know the prospective member better. The late Abdullah A. Rahman would offer a sherry in his Chambers to those he took to.

All lawyers would make an effort to show up for the call, which they saw as a welcome to a new member of their brethren and an opportunity to get to know him better. The speeches were entertaining, erudite and meaningful. After the call, Bench and Bar and the petitioner’s family members would mingle together in the Bar Room over sherry and buffet lunch. And sometimes, the liquid refreshment would stretch to champagne. Many a time the afternoon hearing would be postponed by the judge/president/magistrate who would be monitoring the inebriation level of counsel who were slotted to appear before him later in the day. All in all, it was a good opportunity for Bar and Bench, regardless of seniority, to socialize without any hint of impropriety. It was a warm and memorable welcome to the newest addition to the Bar.

It was Justice Anuar who started the practice of having the pupil master robe the new Petitioner right after he granted the petition. He started the practice in Ipoh when he was on the Bench there and carried the practice down with him to Johor Bahru and on to his other postings.

Today, things are very different. Pupils no longer pay courtesy calls. They do not send invitations to their call so one only stumbles upon a call by chance if one happens to be in court on that day. When one attends, one finds the speeches monotonous and cursory following a template. The mover is often inaudible and the judge’s response is often, I suspect, also one of several templates of his own that he rotates; template A for Mondays, B for Tuesdays etc., etc.

After the call, one’s new brother at law is secluded in a private room with his master, mover, family members and judges enjoying an exclusive meal. So much for coming to welcome him and to get to know him better! Magistrates and Session court judges do not bother to attend. Everyone else who attends is directed to a food laden table set out in the court corridor to join the back of a queue of court staff bearing Tupperware and other containers to “ta pow” the food. One is expected is eat and drinking standing in a public corridor with litigants, detainees and the general public passing by, a most uncomfortable, undignified and un-salubrious experience.

I confess that I no longer attend calls unless it’s a friend’s or the child of a friend or when I am moving the call. I find it purposeless and meaningless to attend. And even if I wanted to attend, it would be difficult to as one no longer receives invitations or notifications.

Oh, for the good old days, if not for us the seniors, at least for our young ones. They should have the opportunity to enjoy what we had.

[Rachel Loo] Yes, Serene those were the good old days. I remember my call vividly until today, maybe because it has so much significance for me. Mr Tan Meng Poo moved my call on 26 October 1996 and eight days later on my birthday, I accepted Christ. I still wonder until today where it was all a divine arrangement. Meng Poo as we all know in Johor Bahru is a spiritual giant and has now left practice to concentrate full-time in his RBC Ministry. I may soon follow his footsteps. I don’t know who inspired who more, but I was in awe of Meng Poo. I still am until today. My Master organised a private luncheon for her chambering students (the two of us) after the call at a private villa on top the hill overlooking the Straits of Johor and Justice Abdul Malik was the guest of honour. Now, how many Masters these days ‘spoil’ their chambering students like this? For a souvenir, I had my picture taken with Justice Malik and my Master.

[Americk Sidhu] Let me add my own experience.

Circa 1982. Hot August morning at the High Court Kuala Lumpur… the building to the left of the Klang river. [Editor's note: Americk refers to the former court building on Jalan Raja near Dataran Merdeka]

All prepared and waiting. Mum, wife, Dad all present.

Dato’ Param Cumaraswamy, my master, proudly in attendance.

Dato’ Ronald Khoo moving my call.

Delay. A lot of whispering amongst Court staff. More delay.

Eventually court interpreter says Judge wants to see me in chambers alone.

Escorted into chambers. Judge wants to see my IC (Identity Card). Don’t have it on me. It’s in the car parked at the Selangor Club.

Take off jacket and sprint across road to Selangor Club to retrieve IC. Sprint back to Court.

Back into chambers. Judge studies IC. Looks at me and grunts. I take that to mean I have passed whatever test he had set.

Back into open Court. Everything proceeds smoothly, speeches made and I am eventually robed.

Judge calls my Dad into chambers and says “Sorry, Tara. I didn’t realize he was your son, my staff told me some Mat Salleh bugger was being called.”

That was the beginning of my career as an Advocate & Solicitor of the High Court of Malaya.

[Kasthury Sellapan] Ms Low Beng Choo, moved my call and in the process moved many to tears on that wonderful day in court not too long ago and the best part was, I did not see it coming!

I had no idea of the ceremony or what it was supposed to be, I guess it must be the pace at which work is being done in firms nowadays.

I met up with her only once before and thought it was just a cursory visit. I was even a bit intimidated with all the personal questions she asked me (not that I thought it mattered to her anyway).

But on that fateful day, I thought she knew me my entire life as she narrated my life story up till then in a simple and beautiful speech. It was a second in eternity when your life-flashes-in-front-of-you moment. I can’t thank her enough.

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Posted on 17 January 2010. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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2 Responses to Reminiscing the Call to the Bar

  1. mak jun yeen

    I have recently "moved" many new advocates and solicitors.

    They told me that they were advised by the Bar (those) who organise the call to keep their speeches short and follow the template.

    I have observed many "movers" did just that, dishing out the speeches in monotone voices devoid of drama, humour and excitement.

    The Call is a solemn and grand ocassion.

    It is an occasion for the parents, spouses and the new advocates and solicitors themselves to cherish and remember for posterity.

    I have always ensure that my speeches would be peppered with anedotes and proverbs with a dash of humour for good measure.

    Low Beng Choo and Manjit Singh Dhillion make good movers.

  2. Aravind Vasudevan

    Mine was comparatively recent,3rd August 2000.

    My mover was Ms Gunavathi formerly from Messrs Nazri, Aziz and Wong…I must mention my undying thanks to her for giving a beautiful speech that encapsulated my hopes in a be successful without losing my integrity, to do right by my client..

    I can safely say that after 9 years I have not lost sight of those perhaps I am very successful after all, haha.

    I've read some of the earlier comments with some concern, as I think that is exactly the issue at hand.

    We treat our pupils like profit centres, squeezing out as much as we can for their then can we expect them to understand the importance and responsibilities entailed with being an advocate and solicitor?

    Half of them will never again wear the robes of a lawyer after that special day, and will be safely ensconced in the corporate world..where all that matters is how fast the agreement gets finalized and how much can I charge for it.

    I remember once in my very early days being gently chided by a very senior practitioner for quickly leaving court after a matter; he told me that I should stay a while and eat and chat with other lawyers in the court canteens…he told me that even if I didnt know anyone, they'd be my friends and colleagues one day.

    (In fairness, Uncle Dons was tastier than what we have now in Jalan Duta!)

    I also remember on another occasion feeling slightly crestfallen let-down after losing a case; my more senior opponent took the trouble to tell me that I'd done well, and that another set of facts would have rendered a different conclusion altogether.

    He then proceeded to treat me to a good lunch, which is of course tradition for the winning counsel.

    How many of our young lawyers are taught these things?

    Is it then fair for us to hearken back to the good old days of what once was?

    If we expect our young lawyers to understand the importance of the robes (and once you put on the robes, they become a part of you even if you never wear them again), we must teach it to them.

    I do not even consider myself to be part of the 'we' being still relatively junior, but I hope the sentiment stands.

    We must help each other and stand together, especially in these troubling times when justice seems illusory, and lawyers are once again treated like pawns by the courts.