Sunday, 7 August 2016

Lawyers behaving badly.

A 22-year-old lady was allegedly molested in the train at Toa Payoh MRT station by a 24-year-old student from China who was accused of brushing his forearm against her breast.

It is not the case that is unusual. It is what she was asked at cross-examination by defence lawyer Mr Wong before Judge Shawn Ho that raised eyebrows.

Here is a full extract in today’s papers:-

“Mr Wong: Witness, I'm sorry to trouble you again. Can you stand up a bit? Stand up. Okay, thank you. Sit down.

Judge Ho: What was that for?

Mr Wong: Sorry.

Judge Ho: What was that for?

Mr Wong: Your Honour, I want to see... how attractive when (she) stands up, you know...

Victim: Is this necessary? I feel very offended.

Mr Wong: Well, I mean, I think it's important because I'm going to ask you even more insulting questions later on.”

Intermission 1#. If you didn’t catch that, let me rewind it here: “I'm going to ask you even more insulting questions later on.” Here is where the DPP Kong jumped in.

“(DPP) Kong Kuek Foo: Your Honour we'll take objection to any insulting questions at the outset.

Mr Wong: Provided it's insulting and scandalous (and not relevant), then you can object under the law...

DPP Kong: Your Honour, the courtroom is not a place for insulting questions. I don't need to learn the law to know that, my learned friend.

Mr Wong: Provided, Your Honour, the question is really insulting and does not go into the relevance of the case itself, then of course Your Honour can object. I'm going to ask a question that is why I want the (victim) to stand up and to show... how attractive and how, I mean, because she said that she wore a full top T-shirt, blue T-shirt... I want to see what's the size of...

DPP Kong: Your Honour, if I may just interject at this juncture? Is it the defence's case that only attractive women will get molested in the train?

Mr Wong: Well, it's always that there must be a temptation, there must be something attractive for a person to do such a thing. So if you get an old lady, you think people want to molest her?”

Intermission 2#: Gobsmacked! between the eyes there! Here’s the obtuse logic again: “Well, it's always that there must be a temptation, there must be something attractive for a person to do such a thing. So if you get an old lady, you think people want to molest her?”

If you are still with me, or still want to be with me, let’s bring the cross examination to its deserving end.

“Mr Wong: So that is important and I want to show that if she is wearing a very low cut (top) with a very voluptuous breast protruding out, (of a) half cut (top), then of course... the higher the tendency that people might commit such an offence. So I'm trying to put my case that, you know, looking at the day (how) she was dressed and... her breast size and all these things... whether there is temptation for anybody or the accused to do such a thing.”

Intermission 3#. “…a very voluptuous breast protruding out, then of course…the higher the tendency that people might commit such an offence.” Did this really happen in a cross-examination? Here's where the judge stepped in.

“Judge Ho: Stop there, Mr Wong.

Mr Wong: Yes.

Judge Ho: Stop there.

Mr Wong: So...

Judge Ho: Stop there.

Mr Wong: Okay, I'll ask other things.

Judge Ho (to the victim): Ms (...) I'm sorry I have to ask you to wait outside (the court). In fact, I would ask you to go for your lunch.

Victim: Okay.”

End of extract. Sorry for the three intermissions…here comes the commentary.

Judge Ho had to stop the proceedings because the victim was visibly shaken. She even said that she felt very offended. Further, Judge Ho cited four reasons on why he is of the view that "Mr Wong's conduct was lamentable.”

First, he made her re-live the “odious experience” by asking her to stand up and be gawked at once more. The Judge said, “Distress was evoked, with the victim trying to hold back her tears in court…But the damage had been done. Her heart was wrung. During the afternoon session, the victim was visibly affected."

Second, the Defence counsel intended his cross-examination to be insulting by issuing, with misguided bravado, an incredulous forewarning of it and thereby “ignored the victim's distress with the impolitic nature of his remarks.”

Thirdly, his actions may deter others from stepping forward to testify in a case of such sensitivity and endured trauma by the victim.


I'll leave the last reason as my conclusion below.

Lesson? One, and Mr Wong intended it fully when he said at the trial that “I'm going to ask you even more insulting questions later on.” He did not mince those words.

This is no doubt a minefield subject and I would expect one to tread with extreme caution and light feet of deference and respect. But Mr Wong went in blaringly loud with two guns blazing and he managed, quite singlehandedly, to set off all the landmines with his “insulting” flat-footedness.

This reminded me of the limbo-rock song, “How low can you go?” And Mr Wong grinded the floor with his offensive, crass cross examination of the young victim. He made her out to be a victim who had asked for it by the flaunting combination of her dressing, breast size and good looks. It was as if the hunted is now the hunter – so to speak.

Incredulously, he attempted to justify the sexist defence of “I can’t help it, she’s just too attractive” by giving it a veneer of relevance, understanding and plausibility, even acceptability.

(Or worse, to insinuate with complete disregard that with that kind of appearance, "who would be tempted?") Both ways cut incredibly deep.

Now, as a fellow lawyer, the last thing I want is to be self-righteous or preachy or sanctimonious about it. But as flawed as I am, I want to be, at the very least, self-checking, self-filtering and self-conscious or self-conscience'd.

And in all my conduct, I strive with draining strength to keep three things in mind - common decency, common sense and common humanity.

It is said that "regardfulness is the minimum expression of decency." "Sending my regards" applies to everyone I meet. Mutual respect, regardless of the circumstances, is therefore always my default position - tough I know.

And common sense speaks for itself. I guess the world is what it is today (with Trump, Panama-leak, ISIS and the likes) because what is common is no longer common and it is supplanted by a pervading uncommon sense of insensibility.

Lastly, common humanity. Whatever labels we wear on ourselves, be it wealth, royal titles, coveted status, intelligence, fame and power, we are first and foremost, flawed human beings struggling to reconcile our budding conscience within with the moral conflicts without.

Everyone of us faces different circumstances and temptations of varying persuasions, but what we share is a common response, a common responsibility from within.

Bottom-line is that we can choose, and as long as we can choose, we can choose to do right, to live up, to show up, to face the music, to stand for something, and to show that we care. These are not romantic notions we find in fairy tales, but they are at the core of our common humanity, a genetic hardwiring of our freedom to choose.

And as promised, here is how I shall conclude with the Judge's own words, the fourth reason that is:-

"Finally, members of the Bar need to observe high standards of professional conduct and a proper sense of responsibility in the conduct of cases; if this is not done, the whole profession will suffer in the public's estimation.

Put simply, the defence counsel's conduct is completely unacceptable and deserves disapprobation. His conduct is plainly not in keeping with - and fell far short of - the best traditions of the Singapore Bar."

I guess basic decency and "a proper sense of responsibility" transcend all professions, all labels, and all circumstances. Cheerz.

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