It is in his capacity as a lawyer that I am interviewing him today. At 3 o’clock, he waltzes into the conference room at TSMP with his jovial demeanour and trusty BlackBerry. It’s clear that he is in his element.
Adrian loves the law. According to him, the law is a textbook for life. If we lived on an island alone, we would have no need for laws. However, the fact that we don’t means that having rules is necessary.
“Our Constitution is like our society’s operating system (OS),” he says.
Adrian actually has a second degree in Computer Science (which he studied before it became popular).
“When we want to live in our society, the very first thing we need to do is understand our OS. The rise of social media means that everyone is beginning to offer up their views, and everyone has a strong opinion. And to an extent, it’s good for Singapore; I think every generation has new ideas. The problem is that before you have new ideas and opinions, you have to understand the OS first.”
Thinking that this is an interesting point, I ask him about his views on internet mob justice and trial by social media.
“Trial by mob has been happening in human history ever since society existed,” he points out, “and it will continue on for a long time. We cannot tell the mob not to have opinions just because they don’t have a law degree or because they didn’t spend several hours following the case instead of reading a two-line tweet. They won’t listen.”
What Adrian wants to do is to help people understand where their ideas fit into existing frameworks: “Here’s what I know about the OS. How does your idea fit with the OS? Or do we need a change in the OS? Instead of trying to stop the mob, we have to educate the mob.”
Contributing to Forefront, TSMP’s e-newsletter, is a part of that mission. Much like his books, Adrian’s opinion pieces on Forefront are articulate, accessible… and filled with pop cultural references.
“The idea of Forefront is to tell people more about the world and less about TSMP,” he says. “I guess every law firm will want to have newsletters talking about how great they are and how many cases they’ve won. But that’s just so awful and cringey. We don’t want to talk about the stuff that we won, we want to talk about that interesting thing that, if you’re having coffee with your friends, you’d want to talk about. [Forefront] has got very modest ambitions: we just want to give you something to talk about over coffee with your friends.”
On Forefront, there are no dashing lawyers in black suits posing next to the beaming clients of the landmark cases they’ve just won. There are, however, thought-provoking commentaries on SPACs, asset tokenisation and even government policy on foreign talents.
“We don’t just want to inform people,” says Adrian. “We want them to understand a perspective or have an opinion. They can disagree with us. In fact, we hope that people will disagree with us. It’s more for people to read, and it’s meant to ‘poke’ people.”
Did Adrian ever consider being anything other than a lawyer — perhaps, a journalist? He says that the two may be more similar than we think.
“I think that lawyering is like journalism — in a black suit. We gather facts, we present a written narrative. And then at the end, like good journalists do, we present an opinion. We say, ‘Judge, here are all the facts. And if you look at all the facts, don’t you think that it was ok for my client to do this?’ We call it advocacy, but it’s the same idea. Just as every journalist is an advocate, every advocate is also a journalist.”
Beyond advocacy, another thing that Adrian enjoys about being a lawyer is the opportunity to meet and help people, often when they are at the lowest point in their lives.
“When people come and see a lawyer, it’s usually not for a good thing. People usually come to see a lawyer at a time when they are friendless, in the sense that nobody wants to talk to them or have anything to do with them. Not all of them have the money to hire us. Lawyers, being human beings, will occasionally decide to help them anyway.”
Because of this, Adrian – who is honorary legal counsel for the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped (SAVH) as well as a member of Advocates for the Arts – strongly believes that lawyers should engage in pro bono work.
Referring to the Parti Liyani case last year, Adrian says: “That showed Singaporeans that pro bono lawyers are still quietly doing their work, sometimes with no recognition or reward. Did the lawyers do it because they hoped that, ‘One day, my client will win and the newspapers will publish my name and I’ll get a lot of business’? No, lawyers don’t plan stuff like that. Probably in that moment, the lawyer just thought, ‘Oh I feel sorry for this person, and I think I will stop taking some clients who will pay me. I will sacrifice that, so that I can help this maid.’”
The other thing about the law being an operating system, says Adrian, is that different legal systems are unique to a specific place. Just as an app written for iOS can’t be used on an Android phone, one society cannot be understood through the lens of another’s legal system.
“When we develop our individual laws and guidelines for what to do, our government writes it in a way that fits with our ‘operating system’. And the big idea is: we can never take our laws and put them into another country like the US. We cannot plug in our apps into other peoples’ OS. And other people cannot plug in their apps into our OS — unless they change our OS.”
A lot of what people know about lawyers from watching American legal dramas like Suits is untrue because Singapore’s ‘operating system’ is simply different from the one in the US.
“It’s fun to watch American law shows, but it’s not real life. We should stop using that as a reference point if we really want to understand what happens in Singapore’s legal system.”
Many years ago, Adrian – annoyed by the eminence of American legal dramas in the public consciousness – decided to work with a local producer and director to create a TV series called The Pupil. He describes it as “a Singapore TV show about how Singapore law is practised”. It grappled with uniquely Singaporean legal issues like national service obligations and Primary One enrolment.
“Singapore context, basically. Because what I didn’t want was for people to think that all lawyers do is cases on murder and rape. Because it seems that in every law case that [the TV station] can think of, someone gets murdered or raped. There’s more to Singapore law than that.”
Adrian thinks it’s important for Singapore stories to be told. It’s what he believed when he wrote The Teenage Textbook and The Teenage Workbook, the novels that made him a household name (and paid for his university education). And it’s what he believes now.
Despite this, he’s not sure if he’ll ever write another book.
“The sad thing about writing books very early in your life is that it makes you afraid to carry on,” he says. “Because the books were unbelievably successful, with every year I stopped writing, it felt like a greater and greater weight on me. People always told me two things: ‘Oh! I can’t wait for your next book,’ and ‘I bet it’s going to be great’. And I’m like, ‘Jeez, dude. You’re not helping.’ What if it’s an awful failure and it’ll dilute everything I’ve done?
“One day I’ll write it. But maybe I won’t put it under my name.”
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.