By the time of his death in 2015, Mr Subhas Anandan had become a household name in Singapore, earning a reputation for defending notorious criminals, often pro-bono. Notable cases include his defence of Anthony Ler, who hired a teenager to kill his wife in 2001; Took Leng How, a vegetable packer who befriended eight-year-old girl Huang Na, then killed her in 2004; and Leong Siew Chor, who chopped up a woman he killed in the Kallang body parts case.
Between 2010 and 2011, Mr Anandan spoke to the Singapore Academy of Law (SAL) for the Development of The Singapore Legal System, a joint oral history project by SAL’s Legal Heritage Committee and the Oral History Centre, National Archives of Singapore. The interview shed light on little-known aspects of the veteran lawyer’s life, among them his childhood, his motivations for taking up the law and his relationship with his son.
1. BECOMING A CRIMINAL LAWYER
Mr Anandan is often considered a giant in Singapore’s criminal law scene, but he actually started in a very different field: shipping.
But as time went on, I was doing more and more crime and suddenly one day, you got branded as a criminal lawyer; nobody sees you for anything else, which is also bad.
2. A DEEP SENSE OF JUSTICE
While Mr Anandan couldn’t point to the moment that criminal law became his bread and butter, he admitted that he had grown up with a deep sense of justice.
I think when you come from the streets, when you grow up in tough neighbourhoods like in the naval base, where you can see the white discriminating the non-whites there. And you see a lot of unfair things happening; the advantages the rich have against the poor. You see a lot of these things happening and I think it gives you a sort of… That you feel that it’s your duty to rectify these sort of things. That you just cannot look aside and look away and say, “It’s none of my business.” I think it’s my business.
3. TURNING DOWN CASES
But this deep sense of justice didn’t mean that Mr Anandan would take any and every case that presented itself. He estimated that he would reject about one in 10 cases, usually for a few common reasons.
- FIBBING CLIENTS: “Firstly I turn it down because I know the accused is lying to me. Because every time you take instructions from him, it changed. And then you have to cross-examine him … The guy doesn’t even trust his own lawyer to tell the truth, what the hell you want. So I will formally discharge myself.”
- FAMILY MATTERS: “I sometimes don’t act for an accused person simply because I cannot take the nuisance of the family member. One day, from morning to night different people would be calling you to find out. You tell them, they curse.”
- CLIENTS THAT DON’T LISTEN: “There are times that I have discharged myself because the accused do not want to listen to your advice. He doesn’t want to listen to good advice you are giving him. Take the offer that the Attorney-General’s Chamber is making, take it, it’s a good offer. ‘I don’t want to take it. I want to fight,’ (they say).”
4. HIS BELIEF IN THE SYSTEM
Earlier this year, former Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong observed that the criminal Bar might feel that the criminal justice system was stacked against them. But Mr Anandan had no such misgivings. Instead, he voiced his unequivocal belief in the system, saying:
(The system) works lah. I mean, it works, definitely it works. It’s not so sympathetic to people who are charged with criminal offences but it works [laughs].
5. SUBHAS THE FATHER
In April, The Straits Times ran an interview with Mr Sujesh Anandan, who was called to the Bar that month. The feature — and its headline — highlighted the lingering fascination with the elder Mr Anandan and his legacy.
But the interview also showcased the younger Mr Anandan’s desire to be more than just “the son of Subhas Anandan”. His father noticed this early, telling SAL,
...He wants to be known as Sujesh, not as my son. That’s a very good attitude.
Father and son were close, even popping into Zouk for a night of merrymaking.
I interact with him as a friend all the time. We bet with each other, most of the time we interact as a friend [sic]. Like he’d tell me, “Pa, come lah. Come with me, we go to Zouk. See how it is.” I go with him.
Towards the end of the interview, Mr Anandan was asked about how he would like to be remembered. Not missing a beat, he responded, “What would I be remembered for? I suppose remembered for a man who stood for the underdogs. I have always been for the underdog.”
Listen to Mr Subhas Anandan’s interview here. The Development of The Singapore Legal System is a joint oral history project by SAL’s Legal Heritage Committee and the Oral History Centre, National Archives of Singapore.