Interview with LHAG Senior Partner Dato’ Thomas Lee
Interview with LHAG Senior Partner Dato’ Thomas Lee
Dato’ Thomas, you have been in legal practise for nearly 60 years. What inspired you to become a lawyer?
I will disappoint you with my answer as it was not a result of any inspiration. It was 1952, I was in the middle of schooling at the Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur. I was only thinking of my life in KL and enjoying my schooling, with no idea of what England was like. In 1952, shortly after the war and five years from Independence, things were very different. England was a long way away. Hardly any parents would send their children to school in England. It would take 30 hours and four or five stops by plane, and three weeks by boat to get to England. I was 14 years old and my father said to me, “I am sending you to school in England.” My younger brother Alex and I were the youngest in a big family, so we just obeyed and did what my father wanted even though we were nervous. In my time, children simply obeyed their parents. At that time, as a Chinese family, we did not even use fork and spoon when eating – we used chopsticks. The first time we were eating the Western style and wearing ties and jackets was in England. So, we went to a public school (which I must say I did not enjoy) and I survived. Then, my father said, “I want you to go to Cambridge University and read law – if you can get into Cambridge”. And when I asked “Why?” he said, “Law is very useful. Even if you don’t want to become a lawyer, there are many things you can do with a law degree – business or politics, for example.” Actually, my father had planned all along that by sending us to school in England, it would be easier for us to get into Cambridge University, where he had attended before.
I managed to pass my exams and got into Cambridge to read law. But I did not have any idea about legal practise and reading law was as good as any subject. I used to marvel at how some of the English boys took to the subject so naturally. Those days, the thinking of parents was for their children to be lawyers, doctors, accountants, engineers or teachers. There wasn’t much choice. I enjoyed myself at university and managed to get my degrees at Cambridge and was called to the English Bar and then completed my pupillage in London. I got an inkling of what lawyers did during my pupillage as I followed my Pupil Master to the courts. I also sat in their chambers and saw how the barristers worked. They shared rooms, except for the Head of the Chambers. They shared one chief clerk, a junior clerk and a secretary. All expenses were shared, with the Seniors paying more than the Juniors.
When I returned to Malaysia afterwards in 1961, I was still very young and immature in thoughts but luckily for me, I was admitted to pupillage by the firm called Bannon and Bailey – a very old firm established in 1917. You must understand that in the nine years that I was in England, I had only returned home three times so frankly, I was not acquainted with the legal or political developments in the country. My father was at that time so busy he wrote to my brother and me only once a month and never visited us, and our holidays were spent with a holiday home in England. My brother and I spent a lot of time away from our parents. Such a contrast to these days when children are so well looked after and spoilt. In the beginning, it was lonely, but the human spirit is strong.
I quickly learned to use Mallal’s Digest and legal precedents. I was very lucky because my companion in pupillage was a young lawyer called Chan Sek Keong, a top student from Singapore. He taught me a lot about Malaysian law. As you may know, he eventually became the Attorney-General of Singapore, and then the Chief Justice of Singapore, until he retired a few years ago.
Shortly after I was employed by Bannon and Bailey, all of a sudden, we were informed that the firm was dissolving due to serious differences between three of the partners and the Senior Partner. The firm was dissolved and three of the partners founded a firm called Skrine & Co using John Skrine’s name. At this time, Chan Sek Keong went off to Singapore to Braddell Brothers and later became a famous person and I was employed by Skrine & Co. So my models as lawyers were three British partners in Skrine & Co, John Skrine, Peter Mooney and Stanley Peddie. If you ask any of the lawyers who were with Skrine & Co, they would say the same thing about these three. They were the ones that instilled in me the importance of integrity and honesty and hard work - they never tolerated anything otherwise, so we grew with that culture. I grew up to really admire them; they were really generous in the way they allowed Malaysians to come up and prosper in the firm.
John Skrine was a solicitor and a very civic-minded person. He contributed a lot of time serving charities and the Church. He was the Chairman of the Board of Governors of a girl’s school and also a leader at the Bar Council and served them for many years, turning down offers to be the Chairman who he felt should be a Malaysian. He was a great lover of our forests and wildlife, and supported their causes. Stanley Peddie was both solicitor and barrister. Extremely methodical and meticulous, I admired him for his patience. Peter Mooney was the ex-Attorney General for Sarawak and set very high standards as an Advocate and for written opinions. He also contributed a lot to the Bar Council, the Church and many charities and donated a lot of money.
John Skrine’s passion and hobbies were horses and polo. Peddie was an international bridge player, and Peter Mooney was a concert standard pianist and devout Catholic, serving the Church and many charities. Their only common interest was the practise, which they devoted themselves to unselfishly and even though their thinking was not alike, they had greatest respect for each other because they were highly principled persons and their principles did not differ. I cannot speak highly enough about them.
You come from a distinguished background as your father was our first Finance Minister and you would have had many opportunities to interact with leading personalities at the time. Can you please share these experiences with us and how they shaped your subsequent dealings as a corporate lawyer?
My father knew most of the senior lawyers and corporate leaders and so introductions to them were not difficult. Of the lawyers that most impressed me (other than the partners in Skrine & Co) foremost was a lawyer called Ramani who was then Chairman of the Bar Council. I must say, the way he practised as a barrister reminded me so much of the top British barristers – his style, eloquence and intellect. However, he was not a particularly cheerful person - he hardly smiled and was not particularly tolerant of people, but I admired his appearance in court. He suffered from ill health, and understandably he was not cheerful. Later he would be our Representative to the United Nations, where he distinguished himself.
Of course, Peter Mooney and Stanley Peddie were also top, eminent barristers. At that time, I also remember David Marshall and Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, the Seenivasagam brothers in Ipoh, Eusoffe Abdoolcader in Penang and Robert Chelliah in KL. At this time of history, there were only a few hundred lawyers compared to thousands now, so it was actually a fairly quiet profession – a lot of room for progression. I was quite immature when I started out, and I really grew up in practise and developed myself, rather than becoming an instant lawyer, unlike young people nowadays with their involvements in internships and pupillage, who are much more savvy and educated; I was not and I learnt as I went along. Senior lawyers were always too busy to teach you, we just had to learn from assisting them and reading through their files.
Yes, because of my father, I met many important persons, but as a young person, just listened and kept quiet. To me, the person I liked and admired most was our first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman. He had that warmth and good humour about him and he could relate to all kinds of people. But he could also be tough. He was truly a Prince amongst people and cared for all Malaysians. I felt truly honoured to hold his hand as he got into his car – when he was very old. Another politician I respected was Tun Dr Ismail. They say, if he had lived long enough to be Prime Minister, the country would have been better for that. I remember being drawn in a golf competition to play against him. I was absolutely terrified to meet him as he had a stern and forbidding demeanour. But he turned out to be a very nice and sporting person who conceded defeat with a smile and generous handshake. Another outstanding person was Tun Suffian, who became a judge at a very early age and became Lord President. Such a nice and friendly man and very principled judge. But then politicians and top civil servants at the time were much more principled and multiracial. The Tunku was never good at his law exams, but I think he surpassed most lawyers. He was like Nelson Mandela, able to see the big picture and magnanimous. Unlike some countries, thanks to Tunku, we had a very smooth and effective transition after Independence. Many British and other foreigners were allowed to remain in the civil service, judiciary, armed forces, police, schools, voluntary organisations and businesses for a few years during which time Malaysians gradually took over the positions. Also, many foreign companies continued to be run by their own people for a few years, which gave the business community and our economy stability and confidence. And personally, during this time, I also benefitted by having clients who were British, Australian, American and others. I also remember that the best years I had at my golf club, The Royal Selangor Golf Club, were when there was this international community mixing with the locals. Led by Tunku and his senior Ministers, they played golf with Royalties, Diplomats, senior civil servants, business people and the ordinary members. It was the best of times. And I made a lot of friends at the club.
You were predominantly a corporate lawyer over the years. What are the areas of corporate law that you covered?
Those days, we always started out by doing debt collection as there was no specialisation. That was how I started too, but, in a way, it was a very valuable experience because debt collection teaches you not only to collect your debts but also to execute a judgment, handle a bankruptcy, liquidators and more. A lot of people think that debt collection is a waste of time – it is not. The Magistrates’ courts were on Court Hill, where Menara Maybank now is. I used to walk there from our office for the debt cases, and enjoyed meeting other lawyers sitting at a coffee stall there waiting for my cases to be heard. Somehow, it led me to become a corporate lawyer. I chose not to be a litigator, maybe I was put off by the many postponements and waiting, and I think, because I was quite good in English and drafting, it somehow became natural for me to pursue corporate law.
I did most of the things corporate lawyers did - incorporating companies; drafting articles of companies; advising them on formation of companies; joint ventures, directors’ responsibilities; mergers and acquisitions; bankruptcy law; liquidation; and receiverships; and later, on, banking work and loans.
I was involved in the Malaysianisation of some of the rubber companies like the Sime Darby group when they were taken over by Malaysians, and I also did some work for tin companies. Most of the big tin companies were based in London but their mines and agencies were here. A highlight for me was when I accompanied the client to London and we flew by Concorde to London for meetings. We flew supersonic and took only about eight or 10 hours. Unfortunately, the plane was later discontinued being not economical but what an experience to fly supersonic! When the Stock Exchange collapsed during an economic crisis, the Government had to form a new Stock Exchange and I assisted John Skrine on this – that was a very important piece of work and John Skrine and I had a lot of urgent meetings and urgent work and it was of national importance.
There was also the biggest loan matter that I worked on at the time, valued at about, I think, RM300mil, for Malaysian International Shipping Corporation for financing LNG tankers. I remember this very much because there was a signing ceremony to be witnessed by the Deputy Prime Minister, Hussein Onn, but up to the point of signing, the borrower and the banks were still not in agreement. The signing could not be postponed so the parties signed blank pieces of paper, and the actual agreement was only concluded much later that day!
I remember a court case in which I assisted Peter Mooney - there was a tin company called Pacific Tin with some tin mines in Cheras. The banks of the tin mines broke and flooded the whole of Cheras and Pacific Tin was sued for it. We defended Pacific Tin, and the trial took about three to four weeks. This must be one of the biggest tort cases in our history.
Apart from those which I vividly remember, being a corporate lawyer, I was an advisor for the Bank of America and the British banks for a very long time and also worked with AIA and the accounting firms a lot, many of whom have now merged into the Big 4. From there, somehow, I was asked to become a director of a company and so slowly, I gravitated towards directorships.
Until recently, you served as the Chairman of Alliance Bank and AIA Berhad. Are our banking and insurance laws robust, and which aspect(s) of our law do you think is(are) well drafted?
Banking and insurance laws and regulations are very robust, and I think that Bank Negara controls financial institutions very rigorously. There are many rules and regulations and if you do something wrong, you will definitely be penalised. But all I can say is even so, we witnessed 1MDB in which some of the money went through banks and that should not have happened, so how did that happen? Being a Chairman of a Financial Institution is a big responsibility. Although the law requires only oversight, nevertheless, any breach or failure can be blamed on the Board and Chairman.
If there is an area of law which you think needs to be reformed, which would that be?
Definitely laws which go against freedom of speech and laws that allow absolute power for the Executive. I think courts should always be able to oversee the Executive. We have seen how the Government can control the public servants. Also, that even Parliament can be compromised. It is essential then that we have an independent Judiciary. We have seen enough how governments stifle opposition by using sedition and other oppressive laws and also how the Judiciary can become an instrument of the Executive.
Can you please describe how the legal profession has changed over the last six decades, as you see it?
The figures of lawyers are at about 18,000 now. When I started, there were only about 500-600 lawyers. Apart from that, it is the impact of technology that has made all the changes – we did not have iPhones, iPads and computers back then. When I started practise, the only options we had were sending letters, or telegrams if we needed to communicate faster; faxes only came later. Come to think of it, we did not even have air conditioning.
In Skrine & Co in those days, we had a lot of British clients and worked with agents of companies in London so the communication was as follows: we would write a letter of advice and wait for about two or three weeks for an answer. It was quite relaxed, and you did not expect instantaneous communications like we do nowadays. Our lifestyles were more relaxed.
Having said that, this does not mean that the law was anymore easier to practise back then – you still had competition, serious cases and crises to manage. I was fortunate that Skrine & Co, being a leading firm, had a lot of very important cases. Even for constitutional cases, the partners were often consulted.
Speaking of legal research, it is much easier now. I remember from a distant memory of Stanley Peddie having had his own digest of cases. He was always methodical and whenever he did any research, he would always put it in his diary so he developed a tremendous book of cases for himself but otherwise, it was very slow. We could not use search engines to look cases up!
When I was a pupil in London, I was in chambers with some of the best lawyers. The head of Chambers was John Hobson QC who later became the Attorney-General. Barristers practised law differently back then in the United Kingdom. A lot of them would not have time to prepare for cases, and if they were specialists in common law, for example, they would have some standard textbooks and leading cases reports at home that they would refer to. That is all. They would be very clear and focused on the leading cases. However, if you ask them to look up thirty cases on a legal point, they would not do it. They were very good at understanding the principles of law in the leading cases and they were very good at applying them to the facts. They relied on their own memories.
My master, Charles McCullough (later a QC and High Court judge), would move from one court to another. There were times I did not see him for the whole week because he never came to the chambers. He would basically arrive in court, meet with the solicitor and client, learn the facts of the case, and present his case in court, then move to another court and another case. This type of practise requires you to think quickly on your feet. Assimilate the facts, know the law and present the arguments – that was it. It was unlike what we do here when we have time to prepare and research many cases. A very nice tradition was that the Master always bought lunch for the pupil when together.
The Queen’s Counsel (QCs), on the other hand, approached things differently. In more serious cases where QCs were involved, they were definitely more prepared. They would have a junior who did all the groundwork with a solicitor and eventually, the QC comes in to act as an advocate.
Back then, the emphasis was not so much on legal research and they knew just the leading cases that mattered. One quality top barristers had was the ability to master whatever the subject of the case was about. If it was a medical case, they learnt about the medicine and if it was a car crash, they learnt all about cars. Mastery of the facts was very important as well as the ability to articulate them.
In my corporate days, we would sit down, negotiate agreements, make notes, return to the office, type them out, and then pass the amended agreements to the other side – quite different from today. Now, you would take your iPad out and amend terms of your agreements immediately. Technology will definitely change the practise of law and our lives. Just read the book called “The Future of the Mind” by Michio Kaku. Will technology aid lawyers or replace them? Machines are already being used to diagnose diseases – what will happen to doctors? Lawyers need to focus on the areas which cannot be replaced by machines.
What values would you wish to impart to our younger lawyers?
Honesty, integrity and hard work – those have to be. In this firm, the partners have always insisted on those values. Sometimes it arises when an important client wants you to do something which you know is wrong; and we have to resist the temptation to do it even though that would mean you lose the client.
This happens with auditors, for example, when a client may want financial reports to be done a certain way. However, in auditing firms, there is always oversight. For instance, you may be the audit partner for a client but somebody else will be looking over your shoulder to check the work. The threat of being sued is always there. I think law firms should also practise oversight. After all, we can also be sued. We call it risk management. Oversight is of course also to ensure the quality of the work. Bank Negara is very insistent on oversight in every aspect of operations by Financial Institutions.
Nowadays, I can see that, if you want to pursue a career in law, you had better have a passion for it. You must really want to be a lawyer. If you do not really have it, of course, you could venture into the commercial sector, be an in-house lawyer, or use your knowledge of law for other purposes - but if you are a practitioner, you absolutely must need to want to do it. Otherwise, you would not be a good lawyer and able to compete.
The other thing I would tell people if they wanted advice on whether to be a corporate or conveyancing lawyer or a litigator. The former may be less stressful but there is a lot of competition. Sitting on the other side of the fence on the Board of Alliance Bank, when choosing lawyers, I learnt that the competition out there is very severe and there are a lot of good commercial lawyers out there.
However, if you are a litigator, you might start off with a hundred litigators that you are competing with in your 20s; 25 would have dropped out to do something else when you are in your 30s; there may only be 40 lawyers left when you are in your 40s. By the time you hit 50 years of age, there may only be 20 left! Therefore, your competition dwindles down amongst the senior lawyers. Take people like Datuk D P Naban; how many senior lawyers are there at his rank? Perhaps 20. So if you are good and you have that eminence, you will command the clients. But corporate law is different as more and more corporate lawyers are coming up so it is very difficult to get up there unless you are highly specialised in something and clients seek you for your unique expertise.
It is very challenging to be a litigator. In England, the top barristers had stomach ulcers because of tension and stress. I remember Geoffrey Lane (later Lord Lane) who later became the Chief Justice of England. We had a case - my master and I, against him. In the robing room, he chain-smoked, walking up and down the room. It was quite obvious he was tense. To side-track a little, here is an interesting thing about the British: even though I was a pupil, they would tell me to address them by their first names. So I called Geoffrey Lane QC ‘Geoffrey’, as strange as it seemed. He said, “Tommy, listen. You will always have butterflies in your stomach before a case. The moment you do not have butterflies in your stomach, you are past it.” I suppose that is true of any performer. If you do not feel that way, that is a sign that you are taking it too easy and that you have become too complacent and past your best.
The QCs in England made fortunes but were always under pressure and tension. They shared with me that the reason for wanting to be appointed as judges was for health reasons. As a judge, life was easier, and they would receive a pension upon retirement and they would also get knighted.
Why would a leading barrister become a QC? Because he has become so busy that he wants to reduce his workload. By taking silk, he enjoys the benefit of fewer cases for much larger fees.
One last piece of advice to young lawyers. To be a good lawyer, you need to be familiar with the world. You must understand the world, have a logical mind and understand the businesses that you advise – mastery of the facts and the psychology of people. To echo Lord Sumption, a brilliant English judge, lawyers will be better if they had also been schooled in other subjects like psychology, philosophy, history and more. Some people prefer to work alone or with few people. The late Raja Aziz, a very eminent lawyer, told me that he did not want partnership problems and practised alone, but he was a litigator. Sadly, it is true that when people get together there will be problems. But the big work has to be done by large firms, and they need good leaders and good partners. It is a sad truth that the more successful an organisation is, the more likely it is to have dissension. This is true of families, partnerships, companies and countries. Nobody quarrels when there is no money. Have you not heard someone say, “I remember the good old days when we were poor and life was simple.”?
You were also the Captain of RSGC and President of MGA and more. How do you balance between work and leisure?
Well actually, I have been quite lucky because the partnership allowed me to do things outside the practise. The meetings I attended for RSGC and MGA were outside office hours. It has been rewarding to be involved in those things. In the early days, I played tennis for the country and a lot of golf. I was lucky to be allowed to do that. Outside activities give one the opportunities to know a lot more people, which I did. One could join the Rotary Club or Lions Club, for example. I recall the Long Bar at the Selangor Club was a great place for meeting people. Lawyers, accountants and even judges used to gather there after a day’s work. John Skrine, Stanley Peddie and Peter Mooney all had extensive friends through their many activities and they were leaders in them. I became a Committee Member of RSGC at age 33 and Captain at age 37, and if I was wiser, I would not have done it as there were so many older and more distinguished people. But I was on the Committee for 14 years and unopposed each time. Maybe I was lucky and no one else wanted the job. I never believed in lobbying for votes. But it taught me the lesson of getting on with people. And I had to get on with all sorts of people from Royalty, to Ministers, corporate leaders, etc. The same with the work I did with the Malaysian Golf Association, where I was the President for 17 successive years and was always unopposed. I found that if you are sincere and not self-serving, there will be good people who will support and help you.
If there is a book and/or movie that you would recommend, what would that be and why?
To do with law, the book and film I find inspiring is ‘How to Kill a Mockingbird’. I would recommend any lawyer to read the book and watch the film. The film starred Gregory Peck as the lawyer and won 3 Academy Awards including Best Actor. He was quite inspiring as a person who stood for all a lawyer should be, even though he was unpopular for that.
What is your plan upon retirement from the legal profession?
I do not know when I will retire – it all depends on the firm. I do enjoy coming to the office, meeting people, and contributing wherever I can. I think you should always find something new to learn. Sometimes I feel like if I am asked to do something for the community, I would do that. I have never gone into politics and you might ask me why, since I come from a family of politicians. My father and brothers, Alex and Douglas, were politicians but somehow, yes, maybe you can say it helps the community, but the way people practise politics - I find something distasteful about it especially in this country. When I was young, I was asked to join MCA but I think that the way things were, if I had joined it, I would probably have been expelled for contrarian views with its leadership! You need to be quite thick-skinned and bad mouth people to be a politician, and I never had a taste for that.
My father advised me that to go into politics, one required money. So make your money first and then go into politics, not the other way around! When our earlier politicians were building the country, they made use of their own money. Tunku sold his assets to finance his politics. I have seen chits signed by my father when he was a Minister, dutifully submitting them to the treasury for reimbursements amounting to less than RM100 detailing how the money had been spent. That was how proper Ministers were in those days.
I think it’s very important that when one gets out of bed, one must be wanting to do something right up to the end of one’s life. The Japanese call it “Ikigai”. There is still a lot of tidying up to do including seeing to the publication of a biography of my father. This I would dearly like to see because it will show that there were many races and people who contributed to this country before this crop of politicians were even born. As one gets older, the more one wishes for harmony in one’s life, and for the country.
Were you involved with anything international?
One big stroke of luck I had was when I was appointed as arbitrator at the KL Commonwealth Games in 1988. The International Olympic Committee had formed the Court of Arbitration for Sport and I was appointed one of the arbitrators. I never knew that from that appointment, I would be appointed as an arbitrator in 3 Olympic Games – Sydney in 2000, Beijing in 2004, and London in 2012, and another Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in 2006. These were great experiences, getting to know arbitrators from many countries and taking part in arbitrations, apart from getting free tickets to watch all the events.
In golf too, I was very much involved for many years with The Asia Pacific Amateur Golf Confederation, and through its activities I met many important golf people in the world and travelled to many important events in golf like The Open at St. Andrews and The Masters at Augusta.
So my father was probably right – be a lawyer! It’s not a bad thing to do after all! But I know I have also been very lucky – lucky with my parents, friends, partners, wife and family – I owe it all to them.