Singapore's oldest practising lawyer P. Suppiah dies at age 89

In 1963, Mr P. Suppiah defended three of the 59 inmates involved in the Pulau Senang prison riots, during which three staff were killed. He last appeared in court in April when he defended a drug offender on a charge reduced from the original capital
In 1963, Mr P. Suppiah defended three of the 59 inmates involved in the Pulau Senang prison riots, during which three staff were killed. He last appeared in court in April when he defended a drug offender on a charge reduced from the original capital offence. ST FILE PHOTO

Singapore's oldest practising lawyer P. Suppiah has died, aged 89.

His family told The Straits Times that he died of cancer on Aug 3 and a remembrance service held last week was attended by lawyers, friends and relatives.

He last appeared in court in April when he defended a drug offender on a charge reduced from the original capital offence.

Called to the Singapore Bar in 1960, the London-trained barrister spent his entire career in law and was a keen sportsman, playing football in his early life and golf as he got older.

Around 60 of his cases have been included in published law reports, including a prominent 1963 trial when he defended three of the 59 detainees involved in the Pulau Senang prison riots, during which three staff were killed.

In leading the tributes, Law Society president Gregory Vijayendran said: "P. Suppiah, Singapore's oldest practising lawyer, has sadly left us. Yet the memory of his person and personality will linger long in the legal profession.

"His longevity in life and law was especially exemplified by his never-say-die spirit in conducting criminal defence. Practising well past conventional retirement age, he was an exemplar in work-life balance even before the phrase came into vogue."

Senior Counsel Vijayendran added Mr Suppiah "was living proof that the practice of law is a marathon not a sprint", adding: "Lawyers in Singapore will draw inspiration from his life to run our own marathon well."

Mr Suppiah was cited as one of the role models for active ageing by the Council for Third Age on its website, which hailed him for pursuing his passion in life.

"I am a self-made man guided by self-made rules," he wrote in his memoir, published four years ago. "Football helped me learn a lot about people and life in general."

 

He credited the wide range of books he read and his travels as the cornerstones of his education, along with football which saw him enjoy a 24-year playing career. He also coached the Malaysian Armed Forces team, which lost an epic 1966 Malaya Cup final to Selangor by a penalty.

He later switched to golf and was a regular at the Singapore Island Country Club (SICC) where he served as its vice-president in 2013 at the age of 83.

"He was one of the very few 'officer and a gentleman' types - apart from my father - I have had the privilege to meet, have lunch and talk of many issues with," said fellow SICC member Colin Schooling. "I addressed him as 'bapu' (which means 'spiritual father' in Hindi), as I really considered him my father, too. He was a man of principle, with the guts to stand by (his beliefs)."

Mr Schooling, whose son Joseph won an Olympic swimming gold medal, recalled how Mr Suppiah spoke on "very sensitive subjects with a lot of guts and substance", at SICC general meetings.

"He also took responsibility for a decision he felt accountable for and resigned as a member of the general committee at the SICC," he added. "These are traits of a leader with substance. May he rest in peace."

Mr Suppiah once told The Straits Times that the "secret of long life is to take pride in your talent, however small, which forces you to live up to it". He added: "That requires personal discipline in regular workouts and good food to maintain your pace and everything else falls into place."

He ran his own firm together with lawyer K. Elengovan, 62, who has worked with him since 1993.

You'll never find such a man again, said Mr Elengovan of Mr Suppiah's legacy.

Mr Suppiah is survived by his wife Juliana, a daughter and a son, and three grandchildren.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 12, 2019, with the headline 'S'pore's oldest practising lawyer dies at age 89'. Print Edition | Subscribe