Singapore’s Bipolar Human Rights Lawyer Faces Disbarment

Singapore’s Law Society is to decide today, Aug. 28, whether to disbar M. Ravi, Singapore’s most prominent human rights lawyer, who has defended a long string of defendants facing the death penalty, critics of the government and human rights activists.

The Law Society is holding a disciplinary hearing against Ravi regarding his conduct in several different instances last February. The case could be considered a political ploy to get rid of a thorn in the side of a government that is viewed across much of the planet as unnecessarily dictatorial. But Ravi is bipolar, subject to violent mood swings, and there have been several times when his conduct in public can only be described as erratic and bizarre.

An email request to Ravi for an interview went unanswered. While he could be subject to disbarment, Kenneth Jeyaretnam, head of Singapore's opposition Reform Party, told Asia Sentinel that Ravi is expected to be named to head a multiple representation slate in the Ang Mo Kio constituency, a residential district in central Singapore now represented by Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister. The ruling People's Action Party has called for a general election on Sept. 11, a year early.

Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada has written to the Law Society of Singapore in Ravi’s behalf. The organization responded that Lawyer’s Rights Watch didn’t know the facts of the case.

The February incidents impelled the Law Society to order Ravi to stop practicing law after his consulting psychiatrist diagnosed him as being hypomanic, a mood state generally less severe than full mania, and medically unfit to practice because of his behavior. There have been periodic episodes including one in 2012 when he invited supporters to a tirade against the Law Society at Singapore’s Hong Lim Park, where, heavily made up, barefoot and wearing a black t-shirt, he danced, prayed, occasionally knelt and prostrated himself on a small stage, embraced a tree and made numerous accusations peppered with expletives during a two-hour “party” at Hong Lim Park on Sunday afternoon. At one point he threw a flower garland in the air and attempted to slice it with a fake silver sword.

At the same time, he remains Singapore’s most distinguished human rights lawyer -- if not, it seems at times the only one – an internationally known and respected figure, representing the opposition politician Chee Soon Juan and the Singapore Democratic Party as well as the Chinese religious group Falun Gong. Ravi has actively led the anti-death penalty campaign. In 2005 he authored Hung at Dawn, a book on Vignes Mourthi, who was entrapped by undercover narcotics police, and Shanmugam Murugesu, a father of twins and former water sports champion. Both were drug traffickers sentenced to hang.

He is also involved in clinical legal education across Southeast Asia and participates actively in civil society initiatives on the ASEAN Human Rights mechanism. He has been invited as a speaker at various regional and international human rights conferences and forums around the world. He was counsel for UK journalist Alan Shadrake, who was arrested and jailed for his book on the unfairness of executions, Once a Jolly Hangman.

“We have had the opportunity to work with M. Ravi in a number of instances,” said Shantha Rau Barriga, Director of the Disability Rights Division, and Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. “To his credit, he has been regularly willing to take up cases in Singapore where human rights concerns are central, such as cases involving the death penalty, freedom of expression and speech, and LGBT rights. M. Ravi has provided quality legal counsel no matter how controversial the case or the issues and causes involved, and in doing so has helped make Singapore a better, more humane place.”

Ravi argues that his psychiatrist has declared fit to continue his work, and he has agreed to several measures to ensure clients are not affected if or when he has such relapses, including not practicing alone but with other lawyers in a practice and having regular psychiatric appointments.

The issue is complicated further by the fact that plans to contest the Ang Mo Kio seat --in a multiple representation district along with Roy Ngerng, who last year alleged in his blog, The Heart Truths, that there were irregularities in Singapore’s vaunted Central Provident Fund. Ngerng was kicked out of his job at a government hospital and sued for defamation by Lee Hsien Loong. Already bankrupt, Ngerng is waiting to see how much money the court will award to Lee.

Thus the Law Society, if it disbars Ravi, faces the potential of charges that it is acting in order to diminish his chances of election – which in turn could be expected to make him a martyr to the voters. If he wins, he has pledged to raise the issue of human rights violations in Singapore.