Law Veteran’s Scholarship Seeks to Expand Mindsets about Success

rsz_1susan_de_silva_chandra_mohan_k_nair_photoWhat does it mean to be successful in life? Many may equate success with high earnings or stellar professional achievements. 

Chandra Mohan K Nair ’76, Partner at law firm Tan Rajah & Cheah, and his wife Susan de Silva ’83, a former lawyer who is now a Life & Executive Coach, think of success in a much broader way.

They believe that people are truly successful when they engage all dimensions of their humanity, beyond the intellectual and physical, to include the emotional dimension and the human need for purpose and meaning in life.

They see the emotional and purpose aspects of human beings as powerful, largely untapped resources that are capable of igniting creativity, positive disruption and ultimately more well-being in the world. As such, they would like to encourage aspiring lawyers to think about what is important to them in all their dimensions as human beings.

To this end, Susan and Chandra have established a scholarship which recognises, cherishes and celebrates NUS Law undergraduates’ personal qualities as much as their scholastic achievements.

The Chandra Mohan K Nair Scholarship will be given to deserving candidates who exemplify exceptional human qualities that Chandra is widely respected and recognised for. These include being honourable; service to the community especially in relation to the legal profession and NUS; acting with personal courage and integrity; and idealism.

They hope this Scholarship will seed a shift in mindsets to rethink the traditional definition of success where people are rewarded mainly for their intellectual and physical achievements. We speak to them to find out the genesis of the Scholarship, and why this concept of the ‘whole human being’ is crucial for society to progress.

Q:  Susan, why did you choose to set up this Scholarship at this point in time? 

S: We’ve been getting the feeling that the traditional measure of ‘success’ does not serve us fully as human beings. Society tends to focus on our accomplishments in the intellectual, financial, and physical aspects of life. 

However, we tend to overlook our other human dimensions, such as emotional needs, and the need for meaning and purpose in life. This is possibly because they are deemed not essential for productivity and output, which are traditional measures of a company’s or a nation’s wealth. Yet to thrive as human beings, we need to invest in all five dimensions. And when we thrive as human beings in life and at work, the bottom line thrives too. 

By seeding this Scholarship, we are grateful and thrilled to be able to contribute in some way towards expanding what society values as success.

In 2016, the Law Society of Singapore conferred on Chandra the CC Tan Award, an accolade presented to lawyers who embody the noble traits of the Law Society’s first president, Mr Tan Chye Cheng. It was this award that inspired us to set up this Scholarship. 

Q: A lawyer’s success is often defined by their track record of wins. Why do you think it is important for a lawyer to draw from his or her humanity as well? 

S: I believe that laws are part of a man-made system, ever evolving and meant to serve an inherent human right, that of human dignity. Human dignity ought to be served, by the people who create, interpret and apply the laws, whether that is in the way in which companies are organised, employees are employed, or people who break the law are held accountable. 

Unless we are connected with our own humanity, we risk forgetting what human dignity means, thus sacrificing our values as individuals and as a society.

Q: What are the exceptional human qualities you wish to see in deserving candidates? 

S: The Scholarship candidates will embody the qualities of being honourable and idealistic, demonstrate personal courage and integrity, and serve the community.

We hope to see students who do the right thing by their values, even if it is scary or unpopular; someone who is honest with the small things as much as with the big things, especially when no one is watching. Other qualities we’d like to see in recipients are humility, compassion, optimism, and curiosity.

Q: Was there an incident where your husband exemplified exceptional human qualities? 

S: In 2015, Chandra took on the case of Kho Jabing, who was due to be executed (for murder) by the end of the week. He had the very difficult task of appealing against the death sentence at the eleventh hour after the normal channels had been exhausted. 

He took on the daunting case pro bono because he knew that he would regret it if he did not try his utmost  to save this man’s life. It took a toll on him mentally, emotionally, and physically.  

Chandra did manage to persuade the courts to hold off the imminent execution. So the defendant was granted a few more months to live while the case was in process. We saw how precious every single day meant for his family. However, the court ultimately upheld the death sentence. We wept when we got the news. 

Chandra was acutely tested in all respects. He was, of course, honourable in his arguments and conduct in court. He had to muster the courage demanded of him. He had to hold fast to idealism even when the odds were against him and his client. 

Q: Chandra, you received the CC Tan Award in 2016. What lessons did you learn from Mr CC Tan?

C: I joined Mr Tan’s law firm, Tan Rajah & Cheah, in January 1977, the year I was called to the Bar. In his quiet way, Mr Tan taught me to carry out one’s duties diligently with the client’s interests uppermost in my mind. 

I also learnt that it was important to be a part of the larger legal fraternity, including the judiciary, legal service, and law faculty. I once asked Mr Tan whether I could join the Law Society’s subcommittee. He poignantly replied: “Chandra, why do you need to even ask me for permission? It is your duty to do so!”

When I did legal work for the Singapore Sports Council, Mr Tan told me to treat it as pro bono work because it was a government body promoting sports and sportsmanship in Singapore. 

These and many other incidents, left an indelible mark on me. I was inspired to do voluntary work for the Law Society, voluntary organisations, and deserving non-governmental and sports organisations. I have done so for almost 43 years and counting.

Q: In your thank you speech for the CC Tan Award, you acknowledged your mother for the strong moral upbringing you received while growing up in modest circumstances. How did her influence shape you to become the person and lawyer you are today? 

C: My parents brought us up well, with love and affection. Eleven of us stayed in a public housing flat. The little we had we shared with our family and poor neighbours. Money was hard to come by but not love, joy, freedom, and the appreciation of people and nature.

My mother, who came to Singapore from India at 28 years old, was completely deaf. Frugal in her ways, she never had any luxuries. Whatever little money she had, she spent almost all of it on our family.

A wonderfully cheerful and caring mother, she wanted her children to get a decent education and mix with other races in Singapore. She encouraged my siblings and I to read widely, and to participate and do our best in various activities, so that we could open our young minds and educate ourselves as global citizens.

She never punished or scolded me. But she was a self-appointed ‘psychologist’ of sorts, telling me to improve through reasoned arguments and not to repeat my mistakes. Far ahead of her time, she was a truly democratic and liberal person. She imbued in me a commitment to justice and telling the truth, and to embrace being optimistic and idealistic. 

Her first love, besides her family, was reading. She had primary one or two education in India but loved poetry and had knowledge and a firm grasp of complex political theories and systems. I used to teach her English and she would lip-read to me. After several repetitions, she would understand. This taught me the art of being a patient listener. Her influence on my life has been profound, shaping me into the person and lawyer I am today.