President of the Malaysian Bar, Ambiga Sreenevasan,

Secretary of the Malaysian Bar, Lim Chee Wee,

Treasurer of the Malaysian Bar, George Varughese,

distinguished speakers and guests,

delegates of the 3rd Young Lawyers Convention,

ladies and gentlemen: a very good evening.

Thank you for supporting this important event and gracing us with your presence.

I would just like to set the tone of this convention by discussing the role of the National Young Lawyers Committee, and secondly, conveying my sentiments about the convention.

The National Young Lawyers Committee (NYLC)

The Bar Council’s National Young Lawyers Committee was formed by a Bar Council resolution on 17 January 1998. It is therefore fitting that we celebrate our 10th anniversary with this convention. We have come very far and grown very strong, in no small measure due to the leadership of my predecessors.

Nevertheless, there continues to be some opposition of the NYLC and its work. In fact, I understand that there have been efforts to undermine, and to boycott participation of this convention. This is extremely disheartening given that the convention is an event of the Malaysian Bar. We are therefore proud that despite these attempts, the convention has attracted more than 150 delegates – a record number – and you are one of them! I especially note that there are ten young lawyers from Penang and one from Negeri Sembilan who have graced us with their presence today.

The appearances of misgivings and doubts regarding the NYLC require an engagement, and a reaction. Permit me firstly, to trace in brief the recent genealogy of the NYLC, a committee which I have been fortunate to lead the past two years.

At the NYLC’s brainstorming meeting on 9-11 June 2006 at Selesa Hills Homes, Bentung attended by leading young lawyers from around Malaysia, a Plan of Action and Vision known as the “Selesa Conclusions” was formulated and adopted by consensus. The Plan states as follows:

1. We reaffirm that the NYLC aims to represent, protect and promote the interests of young lawyers of the Bar and to empower them to contribute to social good.

2. We recognise the following as the core aspirations of the NYLC:

2.1 To profile the NYLC as a platform for young lawyers to voice their views and concerns on issues affecting the Bar such as the administration of the Bar and professional practice, and on issues of public interest such as the administration of and access to justice, and law reform.

2.2 To maintain and nurture good working relationships with other Bar Council committees, various governmental agencies, NGOs, other organisations and the media, and to work together with these committees, agencies and organisations in rallying issues of concern affecting young lawyers and society in general.

2.3 To establish and/or reactivate Young Lawyers Committees (YLCs) at State levels and to provide opportunities for the effective networking and exchange of information, ideas and opinions among young lawyers of different states.

2.4 To collate and study data pertaining to the demographics of practice and working conditions of young lawyers, and to engage employers, the Bar Council and other stakeholders in constructive dialogue with the intention of creating a better and wholesome working environment for young lawyers.

2.5 To assist the education and enhance the continuing professional development of young lawyers in maximising their potential in terms of producing quality legal work, achieving a balanced and fulfilling career, and contributing to the Bar and social good.

After the repeal of section 46A(1)(a) of the Legal Profession Act, 1976, the NYLC made the following decisions:

1. That State Bar YLCs and the NYLC should continue to exist as per the current structure adopted by the Bar Council.

2. That the aim of representing, protecting and promoting the interest of young lawyers within the Bar and to empower them to contribute to social good, and the five core aspirations of the NYLC decided in Selesa Hills Homes on 11 June 2006 is reaffirmed.

3. That a practical working guide in defining the target group of young lawyers is of those under 40 years in age or seven years in practice.

4. That all members of the Bar, irrespective of age or seniority in practice, are invited and to serve on the NYLC.

On 2 December 2006 (at its 10th meeting), the Bar Council adopted the NYLC’s decision outlined above.

Post-repeal, the NYLC noted an increase in the number of young lawyers wanting to take part in our activities. We have encouraged these young lawyers to work at the State YLCs to develop and strengthen the work of the State Bar Committees, particularly in relation to young lawyers.

Unfortunately, the Penang and Negeri Sembilan State Bar Committees decided in early 2007 not to reactivate their YLCs resulting in a gap of co-operation between these State Bars and the Committee. As a result, young lawyers in Penang and Negeri Sembilan lost out with many having to seek an alternative platform to contribute to the work of the Bar. The NYLC has continued to provide some of these members with the opportunity to serve the Bar at the national level.

While some members of the Bar still wish to debate the existence and utility of YLCs and NYLC, it would be useful if the energy channeled into such debate were expended instead on working with the said committees. It should be noted that the YLCs structure of the Bar exists in similar fashion in other leading jurisdictions including Singapore, Australia, United Kingdom, Scotland and the United States of America. Regional and global conglomerate bar associations have recognised the importance of young lawyer platforms. The European Young Bar Association represents over 200,000 young lawyers throughout Europe, LAWASIA has a Young Lawyers Standing Committee and the International Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Committee seeks to “further the interests and objectives of young lawyers around the world”.

Hence, why are some members in the Malaysian Bar still bitterly opposed to the work of the young lawyers? Anecdotal remarks have suggested that there should be no distinction between the “young” and the “old”; and that the young lawyers are “dividing the Bar” post-46A repeal. It is of course the prerogative of anyone to question and reopen contested questions. The intention must surely be to contribute constructively or multiply the social utility in conducting a rehash of the discourse. But it should not form a metaphorical shield to justify insular practices.

To unpack the arguments would require one to ask the following questions. Who are making these remarks? Why are they being made? Is there an underlying context? Why have none of the criticisms been made public? Are the young lawyers perpetuating the purported divide or in actuality uniting the Bar?

Note that in jurisdictions where YLCs are in existence, the baggage of legalised discrimination tailored along our previous section 46A(1)(a) is absent. To conflate the establishment of young lawyers platforms as solely motivated by the 46A(1)(a) prohibition is to confuse the issues. This much is clear.

The reality is probably one of control – the fear of losing control of the Bar to younger members – given that this is an era where problems are being dealt with in new ways. We have a great deal of similar issues being played up in different arenas, and in various behavioural patterns. But the Bar is evolving, and evolving very quickly. We need to keep up.

At another level, some say that for far too long, the Bar has been in an ivory tower, that it is too comfortable, looking down at others and pronouncing statements from afar. Some like it that way. But in this day and age, we cannot command the respect, and expect to lead public opinion without the concomitant recognition that we cannot do it alone. The disconnect is evident – within the Bar and outside of it. And what is the truth? It is that young lawyers on the ground provide the crucial link to close that gap, and energy to promote the Bar’s interests in society.

If the young lawyers committees are perceived as a threat to the power structure built up throughout the history of the Bar then so be it. If young lawyers wish to agitate change or reform for greater inclusiveness in governance then let it be. But arguments about young lawyers dividing the Bar are none other than attempts to curtail the collective voice and aspiration of every member who is interested in genuine progression. It has never been the goal of the young lawyers to challenge inherent comfort zones, but if an inevitable effect of the YLCs and NYLC’s work makes life uncomfortable for some, the final solution cannot be to obliterate the committees.

There is another perspective, one which is slightly more hidden. It is this. When young lawyers are needed to decide on a menu for a Bar dinner or organise a talk or gather friends for an Annual General Meeting, they are called upon. A failure to carry out the task successfully is a failure of the “young lawyers”. When the ills of practice befall some in the profession and clients’ money are unlawfully siphoned, “young lawyers” are blamed. And do we still “talk down” to young lawyers and pupils–in–chambers, but not render humane respect? Yet during the election periods at national and State levels, some wholeheartedly declare support of and seek to protect the interests of young lawyers to ensure they share a fair bargain in practice.

One gets the picture: When young lawyers are needed, they are everything; when they are not, they are said to divide the Bar.

Make no mistake, the YLCs and NYLC have always endeavoured to work with all members of the Bar. But until a few terms ago, ask how many times pre-46A that the current spirit of inclusiveness has been practiced sincerely to have young lawyers in various committees. Ask how young lawyers are treated when they present their views before committees. Ask why some still fear sitting in some of these committees but prefer being part of a cohesive and friendly environment with their peers in the YLCs and NYLC.

To critique the work of the young lawyers committees over the years is encouraged. Activities are open for audit. If the work creates mayhem, then it is time to close the committees. But take a second, or perhaps a third look. Attacking the fact of existence as opposed to questioning the work is oblique. Substance is quite surely more important than form. And ask how little have been spent on our activities from the Bar’s coffers compared to other programmes where specific funds are provided.

At both levels within the Bar, and society, was there an ill-advised initiative undertaken by the committees? Our work has not only strengthened links intra-Bar but contributed to nation-building within society. Un–masking these in practice necessarily meets the arguments of the theorists of “division” and other detractors. The fault, probably, of the committees lie in having taken on too much and trying too many new things – there is probably a need to focus, nevertheless, there is much to do.

As lawyers, we are linked. We are a globalised legal identity destined to uphold the rule of law and united in the struggle for freedom and justice. Yet, there is no compulsion for one to be recognised as “young”. There is a platform if you wish, and everyone has the absolute option to opt-out, to be an apostate, so to speak. If senior members wish to contribute in the committees, all are welcomed, there is no bar. The mantra has been to stand guided by every member of the Bar subject of course that the views adopted do nothing but furthers the Bar’s cause. As a reaffirmation of the position, young lawyers have been working in close and successful cooperation with some State Bar committees, the Bar Council and senior lawyers the past few terms.

The aim of the committees is constructive and its work is meaningful. Young lawyers are by and large shut out, whether by design or accident, from leadership positions at the Bar or frequently, their interests are neglected or overlooked. The committees allow young lawyers the opportunity to become actively involved in some of the Bar’s activities and further enhance the process of assimilation, thereby helping to develop a sense of belonging to the Bar.

One probably has not seen in the years of the Bar so many hard-working, vocal and intelligent young lawyers genuinely interested in the Bar’s activities, and who concertedly wish to contribute towards shaping our future collectively, as opposed to allowing the future shape them. Do not discourage this revivalism. We cannot publicly and continually invite members to contribute and at the same time find reasons to exclude our young members. As the workforce for many initiatives, we have seen strength in numbers of the young lawyers.

If the State Bars are without the YLCs, just as the quorum required for our Annual General Meetings have reduced, we will soon start to see diluted participation, and a return to greater elitism among the upper echelons. It will begin the end. The vaunted monopoly sheltered in the repealed section 46A(1)(a) and sought to be neutralised at the dawn of the movement to repeal the divide will prevail.

Many young lawyers have the potential to become future leaders of the Bar, and to carry on the Bar’s tradition in upholding justice without fear or favour. The committees provide a good environment and a solid medium to expose and train young lawyers towards this end. Let us encourage this progression. It is in this spirit that I sincerely hope more lawyers would support the work of the YLCs and the NYLC.

The Young Lawyers Convention

This year’s convention is themed “Independent, Innovative, and International”. Initiated by our predecessors, the Young Lawyers Convention, which gathers young lawyers from across the Peninsular, is known to forge friendships, boost camaraderie, increase awareness of current issues, improve skills, and create controversy.

The convention represents the final major project of the NYLC for the 2007/2008 term, and a culmination of a 2-year plan to strengthen the work of the NYLC. It is also time for me to step down, and for others to take over, having been part of the young lawyers movement for some time now. It has been a most enriching experience, and joy to serve the Bar.

Having also participated in both the previous conventions in Cherating in 2003 and Pangkor in 2005, I have learnt a great deal and have absolutely no regrets. There are many friends from the previous conventions who are here today. It is immensely satisfying to continue the work (and struggle!) at the Bar with many delegates of the previous conventions who share similar aspirations. It is encouraging to see these delegates continuing to participate actively in the Bar and take strong positions on issues affecting the Bar. This has been one of the great achievements of the previous conventions.

This year’s convention will be no different from the previous ones in terms of activities and goals. The theme is meant to convey three core attributes which need to be inculcated as part of a young lawyer’s value system to meet the challenges of the future. Not surprisingly, delegates will find much in common, cutting across divisions of gender, ethnicity, and religion. A cherished lesson I believe many of us have learnt from our involvement within the Bar is that the agitation for justice and that which is right is blind to the socio-political constructs of gender, ethnicity and religion. We must strive to impress this upon our new members.

A notable difference however from the past conventions has been the record turnout of delegates – more than 150 in number – and the fact that this convention is entirely self–funded. The allocation by the Bar Council to organise this important event is not being used. No funds from our treasury will be utilised save to sponsor 11 young lawyers totalling RM3,135.00, and we are even confident that a modest profit will be made from this convention.

Speaking for myself however, and in the words of a senior lawyer communicated to me recently, “the young lawyers continue to be conscience of the Bar”. I trust this convention will bear testament to this statement.

Before Dipendra Harshad Rai gives an overview of the convention, I would like express my warm and sincere appreciation to those who have worked tirelessly to organise this convention, and in the practice recently set by our President, I would like to introduce them to you:

Dipendra Harshad Rai

Noreen Binti Ahmad Ariff

Syamsuriatina Binti Ishak

Angeline Cheah Yin Leng

Sunil Lopez A/L Ceasar Lopez

Benjamin A/L Sathyanandam

Farez Bin Mohd Ali Jinnah

Desmond Ho Chee Cheong

Audrey Quah Hooi Kean

Kho Yieng San

Lai Chee Hoe

Lee Chooi Peng

Lee Shih

Robin Lim Fang Say

Noor Arianti Binti Osman

Richard Wee Thiam Seng

Seira Sacha Binti Abu Bakar

Simranjit Kaur Gill

Teo Nie Ching

Chandrika Bhaskaran

Lojini Soomaran

The NYLC is only as good as its members. I am extremely grateful to the NYLC members who have stood by shoulder-to-shoulder and worked with me in the Committee throughout these two terms. Particular gratitude must be extended to the NYLC’s Deputy Chairs last term: Richard Wee Thiam Seng, Wong Fook Meng, and Kenny Lai Choe Ken and those of this term: Dipendra Harshad Rai, Desmond Ho Chee Cheong, and Noreen Binti Ahmad Ariff. Without them bearing the brunt of our work, the NYLC would not have achieved everything which we had set out to do. I am proud to mention that we have accomplished more than 99% of that we had planned these two years.

The NYLC would also like to acknowledge the kind support of our corporate sponsors, Yayasan Tun Suffian which sponsored ten delegates and Raja Aziz Addruse who sponsored three delegates.

I am sure you will benefit from this convention, and I wish you all an enjoyable, rewarding and enlightening time together.

Your presence today means very much to the Malaysian Bar. You are invaluable to the Bar.

It is indeed my pleasure and an honour to welcome you, one and all. Welcome!

This speech was published by the Malaysian Bar, archived here. The 3rd Young Lawyers Convention programme can be accessed here.