The Occult in Legal Practice

In Dato’ Mahadev Shankar’s delightful collection of anecdotes appropriately titled, Legal Anecdotes, there is a story called the “The Occult”, which begins with this line:

“In the life of a lawyer, one sometimes comes face to face with the occult.” This is true. If you haven’t had such an incident, I’m afraid you have not had the authentic experience of Malaysian legal experience.

This was my encounter with the occult:

I pupiled in my father’s firm, Azzat & Izzat, between 1998 – 1999. My good friend, Andrew Leong, pupiled at the firm too. He is now a respected family barrister and recorder in England. However, back then Andrew Leong, Esq., sat in the cubicles upstairs of our office. There were three cubicles in a row just outside the library close to the partners’ and lawyer rooms. I sat downstairs. Andrew sat in one of the cubicles, next to my cousin, Tariq Ismail, who had by then assumed the role of the firm’s eternal paralegal. Although we were a floor apart, Andrew and I often hung out together during our breaks, discussed our work and legal arguments.

Andrew and my initiation into the occult legalistika began one fine Monday night midway through our pupilage. That evening we worked late. We had our respective written submission to get ready the next day for filing in court and service on our opponents. We stopped at around nine-ish for dinner and went over to the Bangsar McDonald’s for burgers. We ate, drank, bitched about this and that then headed back.

Our office then was at Jalan Setikasih 5, Bukit Damansara (since taken over by the architect firm, GDP Architects). The route we took back to the office had us go down the steep hill of Jalan Beringin before we took a generous left turn to reach Jalan Setiakasih 5 and our office, which was in a row of six stand alone shop lots. At the turn off there was a triangular patch of grass. It was around ten thirtyish when we passed this triangular patch. I noticed a single lighted candle in the middle of the patch. I thought it strange because it wasn’t there when we left, or I did not notice it there when we left.

“Did you see that, Andrew?”

“See what?”

“A candle at that patch of grass. We just passed it.”

“No. Why should there be? There are enough street lights around.”

He was right, of course. People do not simply light a candle and leave them in the middle of triangular patches of grass at turn offs; especially those that live in Bukit Damansara.

Andrew parked the car and we walked to the office. As we approached it we smelled a strong stench in the air. We also noticed splotches of faint yellow and white adorning the entire front of the office. When we reached the sidewalk there were smashed bits and pieces of the eggshells on the ground near the walls, some of which were glass. The entire front office was covered with rotten eggs that I surmised were thrown at close range. The stench was unbearable. It inspired us to the point of vomit many times. If you told me that they found the most rotten eggs in the world and let it rot some more before throwing it at our front office walls, I would have believed you.

We decided not to bother the bosses or the staff by telling them and cleaned it up on our own.

In retrospect we should checked what cleaning equipment we had before we decided to clean the place up. It turned out the office only had a vacuum cleaner, a variety of liquid soap and cleaning solutions, and cloth because the office was fully carpeted. It was too late to pick up cleaning equipment then. We dug out a pail. We took as much cleaning detergent as we could find. It didn’t matter what it was for. We took them all: floor cleaner, toilet cleaner, window cleaner, and dishwashing soap. With a handful of cloth each, we set to work.

It was hard, grueling, and smelly work. Some of the yolk and egg white had dried on to the surface. In truth, it was not dissimilar from the work I would handle in the years to come.

We divided the work. He would take one half and I, the other. We started at the edges and met in the middle. So there we were, two young pupils with degrees from Bristol University dreaming of stellar legal careers cleaning the office front of a shop lot of rotten egg whilst immersed in stench in Bukit Damansara late night until the early morning. Not quite the inspiring start most pupils hope for, but I’d like to think it was not bottom of the barrel. When I reflect on that heady night, perhaps the cleaning Andrew and I did was good wholesome experience, good wholesome legal experience.

Because that’s what litigation is about: cleaning up and resolving other people’s mess they cannot or are incapable of doing so amicably themselves. If human beings could resolve their disputes with each other amicably, reasonably and fairly, there would be no need for litigation lawyers or courts. But litigation exists because a great many people (I include artificial entities in this definition) cannot do this, don’t want to do it, or are incapable of it, and there are a group of people who enjoy that sort of work – dispute resolution.

So whenever you catch yourself complaining why we need lawyers in this world, the answer is because of unreasonable, greedy, and fearful people, and there are lots of them. Present company, which comprises you who are reading this and me, are excluded, of course.

We wiped and washed the front office three times because the stench of rotten eggs was powerful. We used all the liquid soap, cleaning materials and even found a room air freshener to scrub the stench out. Even that did not fully eradicate it. The best we could do was transform the stench into a strong sickening mix of lemon, metallic, and lavender with a hint of rotten eggs.

We finished at close to three in the morning.

Our backs, arms, shoulders and asses were sore and hurting.

But we still had the submission, bundle of authorities and cover letters to finish.

So we went back to our computers, finished off our drafts as best we could, photocopied the authorities, and had that all bound up with the cover letter ready for filing and service that morning. I was done around five in the morning and headed home to sleep. I think Andrew was still going at it when I left. When I stepped out of the office, I gave the front office area a whiff and was pleased to find the stench had faded somewhat.

When we both returned later in the day we told my father and our boss, Izzat, what happened. It turned out, at the time, Izzat was handling a case involving the eviction of squatters in Johor. He suspected the rotten egg incident to be their work because he recently obtained an eviction order against them in the Johor Bahru High Court. They were appealing against the decision and had filed for a stay of execution, which was due to be heard in a few months.

We thought that was the end of the matter.

But early Wednesday morning, I received a frantic call from Kak Aza, one of the litigation clerks: “Encik Fahri, please come to the office quickly!”

“Why? What happened?”

“Someone put kunyit in the front of the office.”

I didn’t know what kunyit was at the time and what that meant.

“Uh. What is kunyit ah, Kak Aza?”

“It’s like a herb, a spice. They drew a like half a circle on the ground in front of the office and we cannot go in.”

“Ha? Why can’t you go in?”

“Because if we break or cross the line then the hantu (ghosts) may come for us or we will receive bad luck.”

“I see. So you want me to come over to … break the line?”

“None of us dare do it, Encik Fahri. Please come now.”

Whilst I was pleased to hear of their desire to enter the office, I was less pleased about how they had no compunction in having me suffer a hantu attack or bad luck.

“Okay, okay. Just wait for me.”

I bathed like a water buffalo then flew like a bee, to the office. However, when I arrived no one was outside. I saw the office lights inside turned on. I looked at the ground in front of the front door. Someone had swept away most of the kunyit on to the drain cover next to the sidewalk with the rest dispersed thinly on the ground. I guess they grew a pair! I thought to myself as I went in.

I went to Kak Aza to ask her what happened. Apparently, soon after Kak Aza spoke with me, Kak Wan, the other litigation clerk, was dropped off by her husband. He was a special branch officer. When Kak Aza told him about the kunyit ward in front of the office, he was unimpressed. He dispersed the kunyit with his boot, swept some of it away and instructed them to go in.

The day proceeded uneventfully, so much so that I thought it was all over. But it was not to be.

When I turned up on Thursday morning, I saw our clerks huddled outside the front door of our office. When I cleared my throat to announce my presence, they turned and parted to reveal a doll which lay on the ground in a small circle of kunyit. Of course, none of them picked up the doll, preferring to speculate excitedly above it. So I picked it up and kicked the kunyit circle apart.

It was an amateurly made white cloth doll. What was significant about it was firstly, my boss’s name was written on the chest of the doll. Secondly, the doll was used as pincushion. Stuck at his name on the chest of the doll were a bunch of pins. I was pleased to say that I knew this occult instrument: a voodoo doll. I later passed the doll to Izzat when he arrived at the office later.

He immediately made some calls and before I knew it we were speeding somewhere in his car.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“We are going to see this uztad I know. He is very good with these things. Maybe he can even find out who made the doll.”

I followed him into see the uztad. I sat at a distance and could not hear what was being said. They talked for a bit. I saw Izzat show the uztad the doll. The uztad examined the doll. They talked some more then the uztad put his right hand to Izzat’s forehead. The uztad’s eyes were closed and his lips moved furtively, as if in a fit.

Once they were done and we were on the way back, Izzat explained the uztad told him that someone was very angry with him and wanted revenge. He wanted Izzat to suffer. Izzat, however, did not have to worry because the uztad had put protection on him so the spells would not work. The uztad’s powers and insight could not tell with certainty who it was but he was confident that it had something do with a case Izzat was doing.

I could have told him all that, but I suppose it sounds much more impressive when someone with a kopiah says these things. But perhaps the uztad did actually do something because after that visit, there were no more rotten eggs, no more kunyit, and no more voodoo dolls.

Those were my only encounters with the occult in my legal career thus far. And long may it continue that way. I don’t have any fear or problems with such things because I do not believe in them. I am likelier to be harmed and injured by another human being than I am a ghost or witchcraft.

Will I take on a case that involves, witchcraft, voodoo dolls, and all manners of the occult? Of course I would; so long as the client agrees to the supernatural scale of fees, our special bomoh blessed underwear are available, and our firm shaman conducts the necessary rites of acceptance and witnesses the warrant to act. I’m kidding. We don’t have special bomoh blessed underwear.


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