Generation Grit: Law clerk credits teachers for his success

Mr Hairul Hakkim Kuthibutheen lost his father at the age of 14. His mother was saddled with a huge medical bill. Despite his personal struggles, he went on to graduate from law school and is now working as a Justices' Law Clerk.

Growing up was tough for Mr Hairul Hakkim Kuthibutheen, especially after his father fell seriously ill from kidney failure. His mother, a factory worker, was saddled with a huge medical bill. Mr Hairul was then in primary school, handicapped by a poor command of English and burdened by the woes at home. Still, he went on to graduate from law school with flying colours. This is the latest in a series on resilient millennials who never give up.

Mr Hairul Hakkim Kuthibutheen, 27, could barely string a proper sentence in English when he was in kindergarten. Up to Primary 4, he was failing English regularly.

Yet two years ago, at age 25, he graduated from the National University of Singapore (NUS) with a first-class honours degree in law.

Now, he is a law clerk directly under the charge of the Chief Justice, and assists the judiciary by doing research on the law, particularly for appeals before Singapore's apex court: the Court of Appeal.

It is a far cry from the dark days of poverty in his growing-up years.

Mr Hakkim's father died, at age 58, from a brain tumour but had kidney failure among other illnesses. His wife, a factory worker earning about $1,000 a month, was left with a large medical bill to grapple with while raising two children.

When his father died, Mr Hakkim was aged 14 and his sister was 21 and a polytechnic student.

To escape the poverty trap, he pushed himself, aided by a couple of teachers, to excel in his studies.

"I realised I owed it to myself and my family to do my best in school - which was the only way I knew at that time - to pull my family out of our difficulties.

"I felt if we had more money, we could have prevented my dad's death as we could have afforded better treatment or made his last years more dignified. I don't want something like that to happen to my mum."


What I learnt over time was to never let your circumstances define you. I saw many kids with similar financial troubles fall by the wayside, play truant or, worse, commit criminal offences such as theft or taking drugs. I did not want that to happen to me.

MR HAIRUL HAKKIM KUTHIBUTHEEN, 27, now clerking for the Chief Justice.

Mr Hakkim's father held odd jobs such as being a coffee shop and hawker assistant. He suffered kidney failure when his son was seven. Because he did not manage his diabetes properly, it led to other problems and he had to stop work.

He also went blind and had his right leg amputated owing to gangrene. To worsen matters, his heart and lungs were weak and he had a brain tumour. The dialysis treatment alone cost $1,200 a month, Mr Hakkim recalled.

He could not remember what all the medical bills amounted to but the family had to sell their HDB jumbo flat with five bedrooms to downgrade to a three-room flat.

His mother also sold her jewellery, cancelled their insurance policies and borrowed money to pay for their home loan and his father's medical bills.

Mr Hakkim recalled going hungry in school so that he could buy assessment books with his pocket money. He stored his stationery in a used plastic bag instead of a pencil case.

"I remember feeling, as a young and immature kid, very frustrated that I did not have the same resources as my peers," he said.

"What I learnt over time was to never let your circumstances define you. I saw many kids with similar financial troubles fall by the wayside, play truant or worse, commit criminal offences such as theft or taking drugs. I did not want that to happen to me."

When he was in Secondary 3 at Gan Eng Seng School, his form teacher, Mr Jeffrey Phua, noticed his school shoes were old and torn. Mr Phua told The Straits Times he was worried about the boy feeling pitied if he gave him a new pair of shoes. So he decided to give the top three students in his class a new pair of shoes each as he knew Mr Hakkim, whom he described as respectful, diligent and hard-working, would rank among them.

In his early school years, Mr Hakkim faced another obstacle: a poor command of English because his parents spoke Tamil at home.

He recounted that in kindergarten, his English teacher had to seek help from the Tamil teacher as she could not understand what he was saying in Tamil.

But in Primary 4, his English teacher at Blangah Rise Primary, Mrs Chanan Singh, went the extra mile to coach him in the language, and gave him story books to read.

He also attended the heavily subsidised English tuition programme at the Singapore Indian Development Association (Sinda). He redoubled his efforts to master the language and the grades in his other subjects, which were taught in English, also improved.

He said: "Mrs Singh changed my life. I could have gone down the wrong path or remained an average student. Without my teachers who went the extra mile, I don't think I could be where I am today."

He scored eight distinctions in his O Levels and topped his cohort at Gan Eng Seng School. He bagged six distinctions in his A Levels at Anglo-Chinese Junior College and won a bond-free scholarship from OCBC Bank for his law degree.

He gave tuition to earn pocket money, doing it from his secondary school days until he was in university. He had wanted to stop schooling after serving national service to contribute to the family income, but his mother was insistent that he get a university degree.

While waiting to enter NUS, he sold health products, working up to 20 hours a day and earning an average of $3,000 a month to save for his undergraduate expenses.

Mr Hakkim chose to study law as he enjoys public speaking, among other reasons. In law school, he took part in several local and international moot competitions, which are simulated legal disputes. He was victorious in a few of them.

One of his NUS law tutors, Associate Professor Eleanor Wong, described Mr Hakkim as among the faculty's top mooters, adding: "The abiding impression I have of Hairul is his immense determination, his hunger for learning and his absolute inability to ever stop asking how to improve."

Mr Hakkim now supports his mother, 61, and also volunteers with Sinda Youth Club. His mother, however, is insistent on working as a part-time hospital porter to stave off boredom. His sister, 34, is a housewife with three children. The family has cleared all their debts.

"No one has a perfect life and everyone has their share of problems. Poverty has taught me to be resourceful," Mr Hakkim said. "I believe all problems have a solution and we should never give up."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 18, 2018, with the headline 'Law clerk credits teachers for his success'. Print Edition | Subscribe