Sunday 18 October 2015

PM Lee Hsien Loong shares memories of his parents at law firm Lee & Lee's 60th Anniversary Celebrations

PM recounts legal legacy of the founders of Lee & Lee
These ranged from helping the underdogs to growing the firm into a leading one
By Rachel Chang, Assistant Political Editor, The Straits Times, 17 Oct 2015

As a young lawyer at Laycock & Ong, Mr Lee Kuan Yew spent a lot of time representing trade unions in wage negotiations and disputes, often pro bono.

It displeased his British boss, resulting in Mr Lee playing a major role in the formation of law firm Lee & Lee, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the firm's 60th anniversary dinner.

Faced with pressure to stop taking on such cases, which his superiors called "all the vogue" but not "purely legal", Mr Lee left in 1955 and started Lee & Lee with his wife, Kwa Geok Choo, and brother Dennis Lee Kim Yew.

PM Lee's recounting of the firm's origins was made at the celebratory dinner at Raffles Town Club on Thursday, when he also reminisced about his childhood moments at its modest premises above some shophouses in Malacca Street. His speech was posted online yesterday.

In the firm's early days, Mr Lee Kuan Yew took on all sorts of cases to make a living, including "divorces, chap jee kee runners, routine debt collection", said PM Lee.

He remained active in the unions and politics, and after he became Prime Minister, he tapped the firm's partners for political talent. Mr Eddie Barker became Minister for Law and drafted the Separation documents, including the Proclamation of Independence; later on, Mr Chua Sian Chin, who joined Lee & Lee in 1959, became Health Minister at the age of 34, making him the youngest Cabinet minister in independent Singapore's history.

Lee & Lee's chief clerk, Mr S. Ramasamy, was an MP for Redhill, while its current ranks include MP Christopher de Souza, noted PM Lee.

With Mr Lee Kuan Yew focused on politics, the growth of the law firm was steered by Madam Kwa and Mr Dennis Lee.

Madam Kwa, who PM Lee said regarded her husband and children as her first priority, did mostly solicitors' work, developing the firm's conveyancing practice and the trust and probate practice.

She retired from the partnership in 1987 and died in 2010.

PM Lee noted that she had been known to advise younger women lawyers not to do litigation work "because that would make them argumentative and (it would be) more difficult to find husbands".

"I am reporting this to you as hearsay evidence, but on good authority, but of course I would never venture to offer any such advice to anybody," PM Lee quipped.

Mr Dennis Lee, an active litigator known for travelling to court by trishaw, made it a point to groom younger lawyers, said PM Lee. His pupils would be made to sit in his room for the entire period of their tutelage - an imposition on him, but an exceptional learning opportunity for them, PM Lee added.

Mr Dennis Lee retired as senior partner in 1995 and died in 2003.

"My parents and Dennis Lee would have been very proud to see what Lee & Lee has become today," said PM Lee.

"The firm was an important part of their lives and represents their legacies as lawyers in different ways - helping the unions and underdogs, nurturing young lawyers, developing capabilities in the firm from scratch and growing it into a leading law firm."

Lee & Lee is today a full-service law firm with more than 200 staff and over 100 lawyers.

Yesterday on his Facebook page, PM Lee gave a shout-out to another set of Lees: Lee & Lee shared its first office at 10B Malacca Street with businessman Lee Kip Lee, father of local composer Dick Lee. Mr Lee Kip Lee, now 93, attended the dinner with his three sons, Dick, Peter and John.

Said PM Lee: "I have also known Dick Lee and knew that we were both Lees together, but I did not know that we had the Lee & Lee connection.''

I knew that Dick Lee and I shared the same surname, but I didn’t know until yesterday that we had another connection –...
Posted by Lee Hsien Loong on Thursday, October 15, 2015

The law firm Mr Lee Kuan Yew tapped for political talent
Eddie Barker and Chua Sian Chin were two Cabinet members drawn from Lee and Lee, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recounted at the firm's 60th anniversary celebrations this week. Below is an excerpt from his speech.
The Straits Times, 17 Oct 2015

In the early days, my parents and Dennis Lee worked hard to get Lee and Lee off the ground and pay the bills. My father had started off at Laycock & Ong. He spent a lot of his time representing trade unions, working often pro bono - so much time that John Laycock wrote him a letter, expressing his displeasure but in typical British understated style. They were unhappy but they put it in a polite way.

The letter was displayed at the "Remembering Lee Kuan Yew" exhibition held at the National Museum earlier this year. But in case you didn't make the exhibition or didn't see the letter, let me read it out to you because when you draft many letters, it is useful to know how to do these things.

"Dear Harry,

Ong and myself have been discussing the question of members of our firm appearing in these lengthy arbitrations or commissions on wages etc. which are now all the vogue. We have been suffering from these heavily during the past few months. Coupled with the absences of so many of our qualified lawyers during March, they have left us with a backlog of purely legal work in the way of our ordinary business which cannot easily be overtaken. We have come to the conclusion that we must not take any more of these wage disputes. They can never be short, we fear, because they are always preceded by long negotiations; and we can see clearly that it is likely there will be more, perhaps many more, in the near future.

If any special case arises, the same might be specially considered by us; in that case, please let us have full information before you accept any work.

Yours Sincerely,
John Laycock"

This is quite a classy letter and probably played a part in the foundation of Lee and Lee!

So my father moved next door - John Laycock was probably at 11 or 12 Malacca Street - set up at 10-B Malacca Street, Lee and Lee, and took on all sorts of cases to make a living. Divorces, chap jee kee runners, routine debt collection, and he continued to be active in the unions and politics.

After he became prime minister in 1959, he tapped Lee and Lee for talent, and persuaded some of the partners to join him in politics. Eddie Barker became minister for law and drafted the Separation documents, including the Proclamation of Independence. Chua Sian Chin, who joined Lee and Lee in 1959, became a partner in 1965. And he would enter politics and become the minister for health at the age of 34, making him the youngest Cabinet minister in independent Singapore's history.

Then there was S. Ramasamy, who I think was the chief clerk at Lee and Lee, and he became legislative assemblyman for Redhill constituency. Later on after we became independent, and after Separation, he served as Member of Parliament for two terms, also for Redhill constituency. And so 60 years on, Christopher de Souza is continuing the tradition!

As my father became increasingly involved in politics, he left Lee and Lee's affairs to my mother and Dennis.

My mother regarded her husband and children as her first priority but she did her work. Every day she came home for lunch from the office so as to see her children. She would take a nap and then go back to work. When I had chicken pox - I must have been aged four or five years old - she nursed me at home, with her work files at my bedside.

On days when business was slow, she would wait for new call-in clients at the office, because in those days there were no mobile phones, and she took along her knitting to office because she loved to knit. In the evenings, she would bring home files to do and the files would come as big bundles in the open cane baskets which some of you may remember. She would stack them up and do them one by one, mostly conveyancing documents, and I would be fascinated with the documents - not with what was written inside, but what was pasted inside - because the conveyance documents and title deeds would have revenue stamps for what seemed to me like fabulous denominations; we had $500 stamps, $1,000 stamps, and also old faces because these were transactions from properties which were 30 or 40 years old, from previous reigns.

I used to collect stamps - these were 10-cent stamps, 50-cent stamps - and you would be very lucky to find a $5 postage stamp, and here were $500 stamps.

My mother would look at me and say these are not postage stamps but revenue stamps; you don't put them on envelopes!

My mother decided to do mostly solicitors' work. When Kim Li (Mrs Lee's niece) joined the firm, my mother advised her, and in fact told her "umpteen times", that "women should not do litigation because that would make them argumentative, and more difficult to find husbands!"

And I understand my mother gave the same advice to other ladies in the firm, including Kim Li's daughter, Joanna, who entered law school in 2005. I am reporting this to you as hearsay evidence, but on good authority, but of course I would never venture to offer any such advice to anybody.

My mother developed the Conveyancing Practice and the Trust and Probate Practice at Lee and Lee. Many of the clients she acted for became her friends, and remain to this day clients of the firm. She retired from partnership in 1987, nearly 30 years ago, but she stayed on as a consultant for many years after that.

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