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The enigma of a human rights champion

kampung boy
By Elaine Ee

Human rights lawyers in Singapore are a rare and precious breed. In a republic where political, press and civil liberties are only just starting to look up, fighting for human rights was, and to some extent still is, a noble but extremely difficult cause. What kind of person then goes down this path and sticks to it?

A person of extreme courage, conviction and compassion.

One of these gems of a lawyer is M. Ravi. Known to the community as the lawyer who fights against the mandatory death penalty and who took on Dr Chee Soon Juan and his sister Chee Siok Chin against the formidable Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, at a time when no lawyer in Singapore would touch the Chees with a ten-foot pole—M. Ravi reveals in his personal memoirs Kampong Boy, his experiences with these cases—and others—and what shaped him as a young man and turned him into the lawyer that he became.

In these easy-to-read, simply written memoirs, we get a honest and touching narrative of the life and thoughts of a man who believes with every fibre of his being in standing up for justice. We learn about his formative years as a law student in Cardiff, where his ideas of rights and freedom grew; of his encounters with JB Jeyaratnam, of the great lengths he goes to in order to fight death penalty cases—sacrificing his time, money and sometimes his well being—as well as of his life with manic depression.

In a frank chapter called ‘Bipolar Politics’, he shares an understanding of bipolarity that takes it beyond the realm of a mental condition and into a spiritual plane, describing the intense awakenings he experiences and the heightened intuition, creativity and energy they bring. This is an enlightened approach and helps the common reader see bipolarity and M. Ravi’s view of it in a deeper light. It also connects with the incredible passion that we see him pour into his work, which goes beyond the borders of rationality—and is what makes M. Ravi such a zealous lawyer.

He also talks frankly about his family and those close to him, and lays bare the alcoholism, abuse and poverty he was exposed to as a child. He writes a lot about his late mother, with whom he had a close and loving relationship, her own struggle with manic depression—and her eventual suicide.

All these incidences, and M. Ravi’s perspective of them, is conveyed plainly, in an informal manner, and often with a touch of humour. This book is a light read and yet holds profound insight and covers serious issues of morality, justice, spirituality and passion.

This is a man who completely devotes himself to the cause. This is a man who will singlehandedly raise international awareness, hold vigils, give talks, work pro bono, travel abroad, lobby governments—to give a forgotten someone a second chance at life. Even amongst lawyers who champion human rights in Singapore, his conviction stands out. Some might even say that he embodies the noblest expression of the legal profession.

Anyone interested in the person M. Ravi and in his more prominent human rights cases should read this book to understand what moves the man and the lawyer, and why he continues to soldier on today.