When one of his former clients was about to be executed, Thangavelu did not hesitate to open his home to the man’s parents.
The former client was a foreigner who had been charged with drug trafficking in Singapore. His parents, who had flown in to visit their son for the last time, did not know anyone here. No one, except the lawyer who had represented their son.
It was, Thangavelu recalls, a very delicate situation:
“We did the trial; we lost the trial. So, he was sentenced to death. We did the appeal, and we also lost that. So, the sentence to death was affirmed. We did a clemency petition, we lost that also. So, a date was set for his execution. It is very difficult for me to now express how the whole environment was. They stayed in my house for almost a week. Here they are, the parents of the guy who is supposed to be executed. Here I am, the lawyer who has lost from the trial, all the way to the end. Lost. Not that I succeeded. And they are living here, in my house.”
After the boy was executed, it was also Thangavelu who went to the prison to collect the body. Thangavelu, who made the necessary arrangements with the Indian High Commission in Singapore to repatriate the body. Thangavelu, who then booked the parents on a night flight home.
To this day, the family members keep in contact with Thangavelu.
“It is not advisable to be so personally involved in a matter,” he admits. “But then again, I didn’t consider this as being very personally involved. My professional duty is one side of it; I’ve discharged it to my satisfaction, although we didn’t get the desired result. But there is also the humane aspect of it—to assist these people and not leave them helpless and grieving in a foreign land with no one to turn to. This is not Thangavelu, the lawyer, but simply Thangavelu, the man.”
But what has kept this doyen of the criminal bar going for 35 years, and counting?
Part of it is the challenge of criminal practice.
He’s good at it, and he enjoys it.
Prior to joining Trident Law Corporation in October 2019 as a consultant, the 69-year-old criminal lawyer ran his own practice, Thangavelu LLC. He decided to join Trident in order to “concentrate on work”, as opposed to the day-to-day administration of operating a firm.
Thangavelu explains that he chose Trident Law due to its strong reputation as one of Singapore’s best criminal law firms. In addition, the ethos of Trident Law—tenacity, rigour and ingenuity—resonated deeply with him. Having worked with the team for more than a year, Thangavelu has been impressed by the competence and “hunger” of Trident Law’s junior lawyers, whom he mentors on a regular basis.
The mononymous lawyer (whose legal name is simply ‘Thangavelu’, due to a mix-up when registering for his identity card back in primary school) has been described by his fellow lawyers as ‘someone who has the ability to see the solution with absolute clarity, when everyone just sees confusion.’
He chuckles when I mention this, before proceeding to unpack the quote in his matter-of-fact way. Turning confusion into clarity is no magic, but it takes a lot of hard work—a quality Thangavelu is known for.
In his words: solutions are shaped from having clarity of thoughts. Clarity is getting a clear grasp of the case. But this is easier said than done. To achieve clarity, one needs to marshal all the relevant information and do ‘deep dives’ to assimilate and assess the relevance of the information.
“Question and explore, yet always challenge the information gathered – what is relevant and how to connect the dots between various relevant information. Once you do such exercises (behind the scenes), then there is no issue of confusion. Uncertainty and wavering of the thought process come about when you reach a conclusion prematurely and without sufficient rigour.”
Yet, another reason behind his long legal career is the satisfaction of seeing the impact that his work has had on his clients’ lives. It gives him great joy when former clients remember him and come up to him to say hi when they see him in public.
“He’s [doing] well now, he’s ok. It gives you that happiness. Ok, we have done something for this guy. These are the little things that make you stay on.”
While lawyers in corporate practice often hope to get repeat clients, it is not something that criminal lawyers hope for or expect.
“I get very upset when I see the same people back again. I say, why? Was it not enough, or what?” Thangavelu shares, somewhat exasperated. “And when I see the younger chaps, they get an earful from me. Of course, I do my job. But, first they get an earful from me: ‘You’ve got to pull yourself together. You’re growing up. How long are you going to keep doing this? Where are you going to go from here?’”
It might have something to do with the fact that Thangavelu himself was once a troubled youth. He now considers those days far behind him, and seems reluctant to speak about them further.
“If I want to speak about those things, [it’s] nothing very remarkable. It was simply that I had the time to do something for myself. Instead of sitting there, doing nothing, I pursued something that I felt would keep me productively occupied. You start reading a lot. Read anything and everything that you can get your hands on. And that sort of broadens your mind. But then you come out into the real world, back from that. You carry with you a certain scar within yourself. That will remain with you for the rest of your life. But don’t let that affect you. Move on. You have your life ahead of you. Move on. Have that confidence that something will work out for you. You work towards it. And I worked towards it. I mean, that experience is like… it’s what not to do in life. So if you know what not to do, you look at what you need to do. And you move on.”
He started taking night classes for his ‘A’ Level examinations when he was placed under a police provision order, after he was first released from detention.
“Didn’t know what to do, right? 7 [pm] to 7[am]. For two years, I was doing night classes for my ‘A’ Levels. The grades led me to go to NUS subsequently. If I had quietly brooded and sat at home for the two years, what would have happened? [When I signed up for the night classes], I never for a moment had in mind that I wanted to go to the university. Because I didn’t grow up in that way, with any particular ambition”
This self-professed ‘accidental lawyer’ also has some words of advice for young lawyers who are eager to make their mark in criminal practice.
The crux lies in their answer to a simple question:
“Why do I want to do criminal law?”
Their answer to that question changes what advice he has for them, although he cautions that the ‘right’ answer is something for them to find; it is not for him to advise.
“If they have the right, correct answer for themselves, then they will find criminal law interesting. But if they think, ‘I want to do it in the interest of justice, I want to fight for the common man, I want to fight for their justice’…very laudable. I mean, you get into actual practice, and you may be disappointed as it is a different thing altogether.
“The right answer for them: they must come with the right attitude first. Why do they want to do crime work? There are a myriad of factors. The passion to do the work, the tenacity and rigour to continue in the practice. There is no equating all of this with what you will earn. Be prepared for that also. That is a bit of a sacrifice, you know? Are you prepared for that? And the tenacity to push and push. And push, until you cannot push anymore. You must have that strength. The mental strength. For young lawyers, I would say it’s hard work. Very, very hard work.”
But even before they can commence on the hard work, Thangavelu has stern advice for young criminal lawyers.
“Never, ever be judgemental about the person who’s seated before you. You may have all kinds of your own personal opinions about some things. Your own society, your own environment, the way that you’re brought up. Who you are, what you are. You are brought up in a certain way with a certain mindset. Take all that, and throw it out. Only apply what is the law.”
To Thangavelu, being a criminal lawyer isn’t just about being in the papers, or fighting for justice, or getting thanked by clients after a case hard-fought, or about being the best… even though all these are undoubtedly aspects of the work he does. It is the perpetual task of balancing a client’s interests, and working for the best outcome within the legal framework and administration of justice and jurisprudence.
All these must interest a young lawyer, and keep him satisfied with what he is doing for the next few years.
And if it does?
“If it interests you, then you’re in the game.”
This article does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any matter discussed and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and practice in this area. If you require any advice or information, please speak to a practicing lawyer in your jurisdiction. No individual who is a member, partner, shareholder or consultant of, in or to any constituent part of Interstellar Group Pte. Ltd. accepts or assumes responsibility, or has any liability, to any person in respect of this article.