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At 87, lawyer P. Suppiah is still fighting the good fight

Singapore's oldest practising lawyer, Mr P. Suppiah, in front of the former Supreme Court building. His love of all sports has helped keep him fit and healthy over the years. Once a force in the football arena, he has now turned to golf for a workout
Singapore's oldest practising lawyer, Mr P. Suppiah, in front of the former Supreme Court building. His love of all sports has helped keep him fit and healthy over the years. Once a force in the football arena, he has now turned to golf for a workout.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Age doesn't stop defence counsel P. Suppiah from taking on hard, gruelling cases in the courtroom

An astrologer once told Mr P. Suppiah he would not live beyond 72.

Now 87, Singapore's oldest practising lawyer has outlived the astrologer. He also continues to trawl the courts, defending clients while remaining an active golfer.

He has even made time to learn more Japanese.

Last week, he was at a High Court pre-trial conference to defend a 20-year-old alleged capital drug trafficker - the latest in a long array of criminal and civil cases that he has taken on since he was called to the Singapore Bar in 1960.

In January, he defended K. Malayaperumal, the first defendant in a high-profile civil suit brought by Senior Counsel Philip Jeyaretnam in his capacity as an executor of the estate of Dr Freda Paul, a former paediatrician at Singapore General Hospital.

The case saw Mr Jeyaretnam taking the witness stand in the High Court and Mr Suppiah cross-examining him as defence counsel.

LONGEVITY

The secret of long life is to take pride in your talent, which forces you to live up to it. That requires personal discipline in regular workouts and good food to maintain your pace. Then everything else falls into place.

LAWYER P. SUPPIAH, on how he has been able to live a long and purposeful life.

The trial involves the distribution of assets following the death of Dr Paul in August last year at the age of 87. She never married, and her sole asset was a house in Haig Road, which was sold in 2009 for $15.4 million, of which $5 million ended up with her maid, a construction worker and an engineer.

Judicial Commissioner Debbie Ong reserved judgment in the case, and the outcome is pending.

In 1963, Mr Suppiah represented three of the 59 detainees involved in the Pulau Senang prison riots, during which three staff, including the superintendent, were killed. Eventually, 18 prisoners were executed, while others were jailed or acquitted after a 64-day trial for murder and rioting.

In 1993, Mr Suppiah defended Dutch woman Marial Krol, 60, charged with capital drug trafficking. He got her acquitted after a 29-day High Court trial, in a case that drew keen interest in Holland.

Some 60 of the cases he undertook over the years have been included in published law reports.

Married with two children, Mr Suppiah ascribes his sustained health to a lifelong affinity and passion for sports in general and football in particular. He also credits his wife, Juliana, a retired nurse and self-taught nutritionist, with prescribing the right meals. They have three grandchildren.

Speaking to The Straits Times, he said: "I was fortunate to have a little talent in football. The secret of long life is to take pride in your talent, which forces you to live up to it. That requires personal discipline in regular workouts and good food to maintain your pace. Then everything else falls into place."

"I have always enjoyed playing football, which started when I was six and lasted till I was 30," said the one-time coach of the Malaysian Armed Forces team, which lost an epic 1966 Malaya Cup final to Selangor by a single penalty goal.

Among other roles, he served as vice-president of the then Singapore Amateur Football Association in 1963-64, and sat on its coach, selection and referee committees.

He has also penned a book of reflections, Chopsticks & Bananas, published in 2015.

Born here in 1930, he grew up in the Farrer Park area. He studied law in London and was called to the English Bar in 1959.

In 1942, just after the Japanese occupied Singapore, he attended the Japanese trade school near the old Kallang Airport, and graduated with a Japanese-scripted trade certificate in aviation engineering in September 1943.

He shared one vivid memory related to the Japanese Occupation.

"I remember, just after the war, when my mother took me to the market, she met this woman who had lived in our neighbourhood in the Scotts Road area in the war years.

"The woman said, 'You are lucky, you still have your son. I lost all my sons - killed by the Japanese.'

"They hugged each other and wept. That is something I have never forgotten to this day."

Mr Suppiah, who runs his own law firm with lawyer K. Elengovan, 59, said he would have preferred to be a doctor if he had had his way.

"I did law because my education was interrupted by the Japanese invaders during the war, and I had no time to do science subjects because I wanted to obtain the Senior Cambridge Certificate as quickly as possible," he said.

"In medicine, you have the satisfaction of seeing results in your patients but, in law, if the judge is not convinced, that is the end."

Mr Suppiah, who is also a practising lawyer in Malaysia, drives over regularly from Johor, where he now lives, listening to Japanese-language tapes along the way to relearn the language that he first picked up during the war.

Has old age affected his memory?

With a grin, he said: "A woman's phone number, I can remember."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 17, 2017, with the headline 'At 87, lawyer is still fighting the good fight'. Print Edition | Subscribe