A favourite lawyer question is, How did you come to the law?
If it is not true for everyone else, it is at least true for me. With that single question I have had the pleasure of listening to countless stories of a new practitioner’s journey to the bar. The bar is the shorthand for the community of lawyers.
I have listened to those whose ambitions for law hatched in their formative years anything from five and up; whose parents sparked, encouraged, nurtured, demanded or forced the ambition on them; who possessed qualities and attitudes so appropriate for the practice of law they took to it like a politician to graft; who were inspired by movies, books, and popular and sober entertainment; who felt justice so acutely in their breast they would not yield to any other profession.
I lacked all that except the bit about parents that sparked, steered and encouraged. I never had burning childhood ambitions for law. I wish I did. I wished I had a burning ambition for something. But I lacked the required qualities and attitude. Justice? All I knew then was the comic book superhero group called, Justice League (of America, or Europe, or whatever incarnation) by DC Comics. There were legal sitcoms like L.A. Law, Perry Mason and Matlock, but those entertained me more than they inspired.
Although I knew my father was a lawyer, I didn’t know exactly what he did. From the tv and movies I thought he went to court all the time. Turns out he didn’t. The few times he brought me to the office when I was a child did not impress me. All he did was write or read something, or talk on the phone. Occasionally he would go out of his room or someone would come in for a chat. Everyone there was an adult, which probably accounted for him not playing lego with me on the floor. And all of them would remark how much I had grown since they last saw me and how fast time flies. I used to think they were so tiresome in repeating that but these days I catch myself saying that of others, all the time.
So my childhood impressions of legal practice left me a touch cold.
When it came to choosing my undergraduate degree after college, law was not first on my list. It was somewhere on it, but it wasn’t what got my pulse racing. None of the Asian Parents Preferred Professions of medicine (I couldn’t see myself rooting around another person’s body), econ and accounts (I didn’t like accounts and thought econs was bollocks), engineering (I wasn’t a science guy), and law (last choice), appealed to me. They all felt too cliched. I wanted to be different. I wanted to be like the poet Lord Byron; ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’, having adventures that stirred both breast and loins, step aside for a moment to conjure a few immortal lines and then back to further adventures.
The discussion with my parents when I was filling up my UCAS application, the system which we applied through to apply to a British university, was a different sort of adventure; as significant as it was mundane.
“So what course are you going to apply for?” asked my father.
At around fourteen and until my early twenties I was addicted to reading classic literature published by Penguin. All those light brown and black covers with classical pictures on them. Loved it. Most of my days were spent reading and trying to mimic (horribly, of course) the writers I loved. I wrote short stories, essays and plays by hand, by typewriter, by automatic typewriter and then on computer. Never thought I could complete a novel, so I never bothered.
In college I took English Literature as an A-level subject. That blew my mind in all kinds of ways. That course opened up another dimension to not just reading but life. I learned how to read a book, feel a passage and string a memorable sentence. The course imbued me with refinement in how I read literature.
I no longer chased through the pages. I slowed down my reading. In doing so I had time and opportunity to better appreciate the construction of a sentence and consider its various shades of meanings. With time, I had space to explore the how, the why and savour the emotional texture of the interactions and narratives. For that I cannot thank enough my teachers, Ms Charlene Rajendran, who together with Thor Kar Hoong, inspired my love for literature. I am still far from proficient at reading literature and the fault for that is entirely mine.
“I was thinking of English literature.”
“What can you do with that? Teach, ah?” my mother shot back.
“I don’t know. I read how some of them end up doing other things. I don’t have to teach. I can still do other things.”
“Yes, but in Malaysia, you are not going to get hired for anything else. You should choose something else. Something professional. You don’t get paid much for teaching.”
“Mmmm, what else did you have in mind?” said my father, defusing the tension.
“Well… I was thinking of mathematics.”
I was not saying this to be difficult and frustrate my parents. If there was another thing I enjoyed at the time after reading and writing, strangely enough, was solving maths problems. It was consistently one of my best and favourite subjects. That was entirely thanks to my tuition teacher, Mr Nadarajah, Mr Nada. He was a former maths teacher in school. When I was sent to him I hated maths. After my first session with him, I was hooked. I wanted to do maths problems all day.
He was very nice and patient with me. He explained how maths worked. Best of all, he showed me shortcuts. I took delight in mastering them because it helped me blaze through problems far quicker compared to the conventional method taught in school. I spent nights working on problems just for the pleasure of it. Well, that was then. These days, multiplication and division are as far as I go.
“What?! That’s not professional! What can you do with that degree? Teach, ah?!” my mother said, with a little more alarm then was called for. “Why don’t you do law?” Never one to beat about the bush, she tears right into it. “Dad is a lawyer. He’s got his own firm. You have an advantage already. You don’t have to worry about a job after you graduate. You have dad to learn from directly. And you can start working as a lawyer immediately.”
I knew by then it was best to keep the other option I was toying with, a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Puppet Arts at the University of Connecticut, to myself.
“Law? Hmmm…. okaylah.” I replied weakly. I didn’t have any reply to the logic of her argument. It made sense. It was rational, reasonable and realistic. It was a Preferred Choice of the Traditional Chinese Mum. This was an argument I wasn’t going to win.
“What about law?” my father asked as if to make it seem as if we just stumbled on the subject instead. I began to feel there was an agreed course of engagement my parents agreed upon before our conversation. There was a tug and release kind of feel to the conversation.
“Well, I thought about it. It sounds pretty boring compared to English Literature. It’s reading a bunch of laws and cases. At least there I’m reading and analyzing great novels and characters and plots.”
“Well, law is not necessarily boring. There are great stories in law too. And law sometimes comes out of these stories. Someone is always suing or hurting someone else. There’s always drama in that. I think once you get into it, you will find it an absorbing endeavour. I think you are limiting yourself in doing English Literature. With law, you can help others directly. You can file a case for them.”
“I guess. How about if I did like a double degree like law and maths?”
“Is there such a course like that?”
“Well, there is one university that has that.”
“Oh? Which university is it?”
“Hull University. Nowhere else has it.”
“Why? What about it?”
“Hull… is … not known for its law.”
It was times like these I wished my father wasn’t so accomplished on the scholastic and sporting front. He was a commandant’s award winner at the royal military college for his year (1964). That’s the prize for best all round scholar – strong in academia and sports. He scored straight A’s for his HSC exams (the A-level equivalent). On the back of that he was accepted into Queen’s College, Cambridge. He graduated with a bachelors of and a masters in law, the latter whilst completing his Bar. He was a Johor state scholar. My mother was no slouch either; she was a Pahang state scholar, one of two or three for her year. She studied sociology in London.
I, the product of these two fine and hardworking minds, accomplished none of those things because my grades sat some distance from what I imagine theirs were. I was aware that out of the three of us, at least two of us knew what we were talking about and I was not one of those two. So it was best if I deferred to their better judgment.
“If you are going to go for law, you should just do law and go to a good law school,” said my mother.
“I guess. But no other university offers that course.”
“If you are going to study law, perhaps it is best you focus on that first. If you want to do maths later, you can take it up if you want,” said my father. In doing so, he demonstrated great foresight because he knew after three years of university the last thing I wanted to do was study some more. But of course, as fate would have it, that’s precisely what I ended up doing later; studying and sweating for the Certificate of Legal Practice exam after my law degree.
“Fine. Fine. Just law then.”
“Have you given some thought to where you want to go for law?”
“Yeah! I want to go to Lancester.”
“What?! Why Lancester? Lancester is not known for law,” said my mother.
“It’s near the Lake District. I can go there every weekend to hike!”
“Ahem. Fahri, of course university is meant to be fun but there needs to be some focus as well. Don’t forget, you are there for a law degree. And Lancester is also …. not known for law.”
I knew from the way the winds were blowing it was best to face my sail accordingly. I steered my ship’s prow towards a University which had a law faculty in the top ten, top fifteen’ish. I think we could apply for five universities under the UCAS system. I don’t recall all of them now but it was something like Nottingham, School of Oriential and Asian Studies, LSE, and probably Manchester.
The only one I was sure of was Bristol because that’s where I ended up. I liked that it was midway between a full on campus like Nottingham and a metropolis campus like LSE. Bristol felt more a like large town than a city. People still greeted you warmly in the streets. Morning, luv.
I later discovered why my father was amenable with Bristol University. In my time, the University of Bristol was fifth or sixth on the list of top law schools in England. Also, his late younger brother, Ismail Kamaludin, studied there for his political science degree; and he knew Justice Lal Chand Vohrah and Raja Aziz Addruse studied law in Bristol too.
Bristol possessed sufficient pedigree to satisfy my father; and my subject of study pleased my mother.
And so it was that I commenced my acquaintanceship with the law at Bristol University.