Citation for Dato’ Mahadev Shankar

This is the citation for Dato’ Mahadev Shankar by Tan Sri Dato’ V C George in conjunction with the former’s receipt of the Malaysian Bar Lifetime Achievement Award 2014 on 15 March 2014.

I have it from our President, Christopher Leong, that it was in the year 2011 that the Bar Council instituted the conferment of an award from time to time, to be called The Malaysian Bar Lifetime Achievement Award, in recognition by the Malaysian Bar of past or present members, for outstanding contributions to the Malaysian Bar “inter alia in terms of leadership, service to the Bar and/or to the Nation, and/or in their practice at the Bar, which contributions had a significant, historical and lasting impact on the legal profession and on the community at large”.

The recipient of the inaugural Award was the late Raja Aziz Addruse; it was conferred on him posthumously in March 2012.  For 2013, there was one recipient, Dato’ Dr Sir Peter Mooney.

For this year, 2014, the recipient is Dato’ Mahadev Shankar.

I have been greatly honoured by the Bar Council requesting me to prepare, on behalf of the Bar Council, the citation for the conferment of the Award upon Dato’ Mahadev Shankar.

Dato’ Mahadev Shankar was born in Kuala Lumpur in 1932.  His father, the late Mr T V Mahadevan, had been from 1931 to 1958 (when he retired from Government service), Private Secretary to the Chief Justice of Malaya.  Shankar’s primary schooling started in 1940 at the Pasar Road School.  Two years later, the Japanese occupied Malaya.  Under the Japanese military administration, the Japanese language, Nippon-go, became the mandatory language of education in our schools.  Shankar went to one such school, Tek Sin Gakko, and by the end of 1942, Shankar had acquired a working knowledge of basic Japanese.

The Mahadevans lived in government quarters on Peel Road between Cheras and Pudu, in Kuala Lumpur.  Shankar has recalled that the community of government servants in Peel Road, Cochrane Road and Shelly Road was a healthy mix of the main ethnic groups, with the children picking up each other’s dialect.  By the time he was 12 or 13, Shankar was fluent in Cantonese and spoke Malay, Tamil and Malayalam as well as basic Japanese.  However, English was the general medium of communication among the children.  Shankar had a propensity for languages and eventually had a working knowledge of spoken Hindi and Punjabi as well.

By 1943, with the Japanese occupation of Malaya, the populace was subjected to extreme hard times.  The country was cut off from the rest of the world and from the source of rice, the staple food of Asians.  Acute food shortages in the country compelled Shankar at the tender age of 11 to go to work, the inducement being a monthly ration of rice, coconut oil and sugar, and two cartons of cigarettes that could be sold in the black market!  He was not caught black marketeering and in fact was promoted to be assistant storekeeper and continued to be employed until the Japanese surrendered in August 1945.

Reflecting on the travails of the war years, Shankar, in an interview in 2011 by the Victoria Institution’s students’ Cosmic Magazine, summarised the lessons learnt:

So what were the lessons learnt here. “Sweet are the uses of adversity, which like the venomous toad, has yet a precious jewel in his head”.  Common hardship is a great unifying force provided it affects everybody equally.  We were still a united people despite our different ethnic groups.  Eternal vigilance was the other lesson learnt especially in matters of security of property entrusted to my care.  The next lesson was an instinctive knowing of what was important.  On three occasions I had seen a person being killed right before my eyes and on other occasions, seeing dead bodies at close range was a regular occurrence.  But such was the ingrained sense of youthful immortality it never seems to faze me that I too could be next in line.

He went on to say in that interview:

When the war ended I was only 13 years old. But I had the mindset of a young man of twenty. The lost childhood had given way to an accelerated maturity and a burning curiosity to find out what lay on the other side of the hill.

Under the British Military Administration of the country, after the Japanese were ousted, the schools reopened in late 1946 or early 1947 and Shankar, the 13-year-old adult, was back at Pasar Road School, and with a double promotion moved on to the Victoria Institution (“VI”).  There he was particularly active in debating and in the activities of the drama society.  He also made his mark as a scholar, as evidenced by his being made, in 1949, the Treacher Scholar and in 1951, the Rodger Scholar, prestigious VI awards for scholarship.

To the great delight of his father, Shankar chose, and went on to England, to read law.  He was called to the English Bar from the Inner Temple in 1955 and to the Malaysian Bar in July 1956 when he was accepted as a Legal Assistant in Shearn Delamore and Company.  He began to make his mark as an advocate and was at the early age of 29 made a partner of the firm, in 1961.

Shankar was actively involved in general litigation.  He achieved great success at the Bar as an advocate, and by the early 1970s was striding the corridors of the superior courts of the land, a veritable colossus, shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Ramani, David Marshall, R R Chelliah, Ng Ek Teong, Eusoffe Abdoolcader, Lim Kean Chye and Peter Mooney.  A measure of Shankar’s contribution to the law can be seen in the many judgments, in which he was counsel, which found their way into the law journals.  His skill as a counsel and legal advisor straddled many fields of the law, including in commercial, civil and medical negligence issues and cases.  He even found time to appear and excel in the criminal courts.  The written judgment in many of the cases in which Shankar had appeared as counsel are reported in the law journals from as early as 1962.

A criminal case that he handled brilliantly, of which I know something because he used to try out some aspects of the cross-examination and submissions he was going to make, on me, was the trial of an Englishman, Dr Kingsley Lewis, who had been a senior official in the British Council in Kuala Lumpur, and who was charged with the murder of his Congolese wife, whose chopped-up body was found in a trunk in the accused’s home together with a meat chopper which apparently he had purchased.  Between the evidence of an astute pathologist from Singapore, handpicked by Shankar, and the brilliant conduct of the case by Shankar, as counsel for the accused, the accused was found guilty, not of murder, but of the lesser charge of culpable homicide, reminiscent of the spectacular Brighton trunk murder in which Norman Birkett provided one of the great defences.  That other great English lawyer Sir Patrick Hasting once remarked:

If it had ever been my lot to decide to cut up a lady in small pieces and put her in an unwanted suitcase, I should without hesitation have placed my future in Norman Birkett’s hands.  He would have satisfied the jury (a) that I was not there; (b) that I had not cut up the lady; and (c) that if I had she thoroughly deserved it anyway.

Busy as he was in his legal practice, somehow Shankar found the time and spared no effort to render public services over a wide field. I emphasise that it was indeed a wide field.

During the troubled times, the aftermath of May 13, 1969, he was very active in resettling the refugees of the riots, regardless of their origins.  He served as a member of the prestigious National Emergency Fund and the National Goodwill Council.  In the field of community service, he played a useful part in the education of the underprivileged members of the community in his capacity as a Trustee of the Gandhi Memorial Fund.  He was the founder Chairman of the Koperasi Nesa.  He was President of the Astronomical Society of Malaysia.  He was Vice-President of Zoo Negara for many years.

He had been a member of the Whitley Council Staff Panel, of the Industrial Arbitration Tribunal, a member of the Bar Council and editor of INSAF.  He was in great demand as a speaker at legal and other conferences.  He was one of the earliest members of SUHAKAM.  He was the founder president of the Malaysian Medico-Legal Society.

He is a Paul Harris Fellow of Rotary International and had been nominated by the Human Rights Commission as its Advisory Jurist to the Asia Pacific Forum.  In 1985, he was made a Freeman of the City of London.

Since 1974 and up to the time of his elevation to the Bench in 1983, he had been a director on the Board of our national airlines — Malaysian Airlines System Bhd.  He made valuable contributions towards the development of the airline and took keen interest in the welfare of its staff.

A Royal Commission is a major ad hoc formal public inquiry into a defined issue in some monarchies, including in Malaysia, created by the Head of the State — in Malaysia by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong — on the advice of the Government.  Royal Commissions are called to look into matters of great importance, some of which could be controversial.

Mahadev Shankar holds a record of sorts, having been appointed to and served on no less than three Royal Commissions — the first being as early as 1971 — the very important Royal Commission on Law Reform of the Laws of Marriage and Divorce.  In 1999, he was on the Royal Commission to enquire into the injuries including the notorious black eye, alleged to have been suffered by Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim, and in 2007, on the Royal Commission Inquiry into the startling and revealing Lingam video clip.

In 1983, Dato’ Shankar was elevated to the Bench of the High Court in Malaya and thereby sacrificed a very lucrative legal career at the Bar.  He served as a Judge with distinction in Johore, Shah Alam and in Kuala Lumpur.  In 1994, he was promoted and appointed to the new Court of Appeal.  He retired from the Bench in 1997, on attaining the retirement age.  A large number of his written judgments grace the pages of the law journals.  I can say without fear of contradiction that Dato’ Mahadev Shankar, the Judge, epitomises what a great Judge should be.

Recognition of his contribution to the law and his work as a Judge came from many quarters, including by His Royal Highness the Sultan of Selangor, who awarded him the prestigious DPMS, by virtue of which he has to be addressed as “Dato’”.  But the greater feather in his cap is not having been given the recognition he so much deserved, by the Chief Justices and the Government of that time in their bypassing him when it came to promotion to the apex Court, an indication of recognition of the independent spirit of the man since it could not have been a lack of merit!

After his retirement from the Bench, Dato’ Shankar was appointed a legal consultant with Zaid Ibrahim & Co. He found himself being actively involved as an arbitrator, both in domestic and international arbitrations.  He was made an Honorary Fellow of the Malaysian Institute of Arbitrators and is a registered panel member of the Kuala Lumpur Regional Centre for Arbitration and of the Singapore International Arbitration Centre.

Meanwhile academia was given to tapping from his vast knowledge and experience: he has been a visiting Professor to the University of Malaya and of Monash University, Melbourne, and an Associate of the College of Law of Sydney.

Shankar’s interests went well beyond law.  He has always been a voracious and serious reader of all forms of writing, and being endowed with both a photographic and an elephantine memory, was and is able to spout out at a drop of a hat, apt quotations from where you will, including from the Holy Bible, the Holy Qur’an and from the Holy Hindu scriptures, the Vedas; from Shakespeare to D H Lawrence and even from Frank Harris’s Life and Loves.

I pause to note that Shankar attributes his elephantine memory to the fact that from a very early age, his Brahmin parents, devoted Hindus, insisted on his learning, by heart, extensive passages from the Vedas.  I can see his loving mother, rattan in hand, putting Shankar and his siblings through their paces, as was happening in the early hours in many a Malaysian home, including in my parents’ home, in those days.  It’s a good thing that neither Shankar’s parents nor mine were living in Sweden!  The Mahadevan siblings, and I and my siblings, could have been forcibly separated from our respective parents and brainwashed into believing that our parents and billions of Asian parents were ogres not fit to bring up children!  We would have been scarred for life and guilt-ridden at having snitched on our parents!

It was just a few weeks ago that Shankar sent me a copy of an email he had sent in response to a friend’s website on different forms of love defined by the ancient Greek philosophers.  Shankar’s response, was to refer to and to quote, inter alia from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native (or he wondered whether it was from Tess), and before ending his piece by “plumbing the bowels of Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White”, and then quoting from Eliot with a caveat that, now he is eighty he may not be word perfect!

All that in a response by return of email, by a man who suffers from a serious deterioration of the gift of eyesight!

Shankar had been an enthusiastic ornithologist, including birdwatching.  I have seen him in action at the annual birdwatching competition in Fraser’s Hill, armed with camera and binoculars and leech-resistant boots.  At his insistence, I gave it a try.  My reaction: “Fraser’s Hill” is a misnomer — it’s a bloody mountain.  No, thank you!  I reserve my birdwatching to the featherless kind!”

Apart from reciting from the Vedas, often in verse, Shankar never had any education in music.  He has always regretted that.  But he eventually became a student of aspects of music, Western and Carnatic.  He actually gave a lecture at the Lincoln Centre, the American version of the British Council, on Jalan Ampang, on the history of music!

I recollect his pestering me to hear him hold forth on the Gregorian Chant, a form of Medieval plain song, with video recordings of hours of somewhat boring verses of the Gregorian Chant!

When I once stayed overnight at the Judge’s House in Johor Bahru, I was awakened in the very early hours by the haunting sound of a flute coming from the roof just outside my window.  Shankar was the flautist!

I respectfully suggest that Mahadev Shankar is without any doubt one of the very small number of us Malaysians who can be said to be of the literati.

A matter of great pride and joy to Shankar, is the fact that his three children have done well: the elder son, a chemical engineer working in a senior position between China and Malaysia; and the other, a solicitor in London; and his daughter, a great gift to the community, using her Montessori training to focus on little children with special needs.

Finally, Shankar has been a passionate participant of that which I myself am somewhat familiar — food, drink and witty conversation.  Shankar is a bon vivant, a veritable gourmand and connoisseur of good wines.  With his walking stick, hearing aid and magnifying glasses, he turns up at many a food-and-wine gathering, often hosting it and contributing to the evening with his large store of anecdotes, with his knowledge of good food and quality wines, with his hearty wit!

Shankar has had a long and meaningful life experiencing a lot of good and some bad.  When I see him at those gatherings of friends, turning up year after year, I am reminded of the old Negro spiritual, Old Man River.  The world changes, Shankar had his share of toting barges and lifting bales, but Old Man River just keeps rolling, rolling along and may Mahadev Shankar himself, roll on for many more years.  Having been close to Shankar for some 60 years and been with him in some of his bad times and in many of his good times, I think it relevant to end by quoting from Lord Alfred Tennyson’s Ulysses:

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink

Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d

Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those

That loved me, and along, on shore, and when

Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades

Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;

For always roaming with a hungry heart.

Much have I seen and known; cities of men

And manners, climates, councils, governments

Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;

And drink delight of battle with my peers

Mr President, Honoured Judges, Members of the Bar, ladies and gentlemen, ecce homo — Behold the man, Mahadev Shankar!


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Posted on 18 March 2014. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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One Response to Citation for Dato’ Mahadev Shankar

  1. Pepper Lim

    Nice!