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I meet a lot of new people on a regular basis, both in my profession as a lawyer and in my capacity as a Grassroots volunteer. These introductions usually fall into two categories: those who know about my profession beforehand and those that do not. The latter almost always assume that I was an exceptional student, with impressive academic results throughout my education.
On the contrary, my path to becoming a lawyer was never an assured one …
A Dandelion in the Breeze
It was 1999. I remember holding my PSLE results in my hands, tears welling up. One-hundred and seventy-five points. I was to be assigned to the Normal Academic stream in secondary school. Somehow, the person responsible for the layout of the results slip thought the inclusion of the highest score (285) of the school would be an interesting factoid to spruce up the page, but it only served to worsen my parents’ disappointment.
But the results were to be expected; I was extremely playful in my primary school days. “School” was just another playground to me. Homework was a chore and exams were short-term prison stays. I endured classes just enough to hear the ringing of the bell before rushing home to play even more. I was flitting about like a dandelion and I loved it.
I was also an admittedly petulant child at home, learning at an early age to protest and retort to anyone who was deemed as “mean” to me. This translated into more than a few quarrels with my mother.
She found herself at a loss for words on some of these verbal sparring sessions. “If you’re so good at arguing,” she would say exasperatedly, “why don’t you put in more effort in your studies and be a lawyer instead?” I remember grinning whenever she said that.
But getting better results was easier said than done. My classmates in River Valley Primary School weren’t half bad with their studies, but that wasn’t all I had to contend with. At home, I was constantly compared against my cousins that were around the same age. It didn’t help that I also coincidentally held the lousiest grades amongst all of us.
The shame alone would have surely reduced anyone to despair and a total abandonment of my studies, and I would have done the same if not for my paternal grandmother. She alone was certain that I was the brightest, and that I would become a capable person one day. I did love her for it, but back then I still wondered about the truth of that statement and half assumed that it was only said to comfort me, her favourite granddaughter.
Embarking on the Path
I found myself in Bendemeer Secondary School soon after I received my PSLE results, in one of the Normal Academic classes. I remember feeling unsure about the school on my first day, but I needn’t have worried; Bendemeer would eventually become one of the pivotal stages of my life and my future as a lawyer.
Bendemeer Secondary was modest by all accounts, but it excelled at one thing: the commitment of the teachers to their students. It was here that I met some of the absolute best teachers of my life, who taught me everything from English and Mathematics, to the basics of being a responsible and helpful person in everyday life. My grades began to improve. Whereas I disregarded my studies in primary school, now I found myself in constant pursuit of improvement.
Surpassing my academic expectations was one thing, but something happened in Secondary Two that would usher me towards the path of Law: I joined the school’s English Literature, Drama and Debate Society (“ELDDS”).
The amateur arguments against my poor mother were decent first steps, but now I was offered proper training in debating, along with the opportunity to compete with rival schools in doing what I did best. For the first time in my life, I began to harbour the dream of becoming a lawyer.
But life is never a constant stream of milk and honey. My paternal grandmother, the one who always had faith in my abilities, passed away later that year.
I was devastated. Aside from my parents, she was dearest to me, and now she would never be able to see me graduate from Law school like she said she would. In my anguish, I steeled my resolve and focused all my efforts on reaching my goal, doing the necessary research to plan my education route.
My efforts eventually paid off. I collected my GCE “O” Level results three years later, a much happier occasion than the previous one in primary school. This time, it was good enough to allow me a choice between attending a Junior College or a Polytechnic.
Not wanting to waste my chances, I chose the safest route of the two and accepted an offer to pursue a Diploma in Law & Management in Temasek Polytechnic. Even though it meant an extra year of study compared to a JC, I reasoned that it would allow me to establish a formal foundation in Law. This would eventually become a choice that I am exceedingly proud of making.
The End of the Beginning
Every polytechnic student in their final year is required to apply for an internship programme, and I was no exception. One day, I approached my tutor, Mr Chng Lye Beng and asked for advice on which Law firm I should apply to. “I want to learn from a good mentor,” I said.
“Then apply to M/s Ong Tan & Nair,” he replied. Ong Tan & Nair was a sole-proprietor firm run by Mr Prabhakaran N Nair. My tutor assured me that it was an established firm and an excellent place to learn, although I knew almost nothing about it at that time. I accepted the suggestion regardless and made arrangements to begin my internship shortly afterwards.
Like many of my peers, the internship programme was my very first exposure to a real job. I eventually completed the programme with an exemplary commendation, but like all wide-eyed newbies, I had made my fair share of mistakes by the time I was done. In fact, the most spectacular of blunders occurred right on my first day of work.
That day, Mr Nair assigned me the simple task of typing out a letter that he had drafted. This I did with no problems, except I immediately proceeded to fax the document without first getting his signature on it!
Although that incident certainly didn’t help with first impressions, Mr Nair never focused on my mistakes, but instead took the time to train, improve and impart many important skills to me as the days went by. Not just the necessary legal knowledge to become a capable lawyer, but the qualities that make for a good, ethical one as well. These lessons I took to heart, as I had begun to look upon him not just as a mentor, but a supportive father figure as well.
I continued to work for Mr Nair on a part-time basis even after the end of my internship, during the final semester of my polytechnic education. For the next six months after my graduation, I progressed to becoming his paralegal, until I left to pursue a Law degree in Liverpool. Even so, I remained in constant contact, working for him during my summer vacations to save up for my tuition fees.
Mr Nair eventually joined Derrick Wong & Lim BC LLP, where I did my training contract after my graduation from university. He, together with his fellow partners, proceeded to educate me further in the intricacies of being a full-fledged lawyer, which I subsequently became in a few short years. I have since left the firm and embarked on my next chapter with Mr Michael S Chia, but their lessons continue to enrich my work daily.
It should be clear by now that I was no star student. On the contrary, I had seemed poised to academically fail at one point. But I harbour no regrets over the path I took. Because of my choices in life, I now understand the true value of hard work and the self-confidence needed to achieve one’s goals.
But more than that, my personal journey has allowed me to appreciate the ones that have constantly supported me as I toiled my way towards the dream of becoming a law practitioner. My grandmother, who was the first to truly believe in me. My own mother who first “trained” me in the ways of artful debate. My school teachers. Mr Nair. And so many more besides.
Once in a while, I return to my alma mater to give inspirational talks about how to tread the same path that I took, and what I say is this: if you wish to join the legal profession, all you have to do is to work hard, believe in yourself, and surround yourself with people who believe in you.