Davinder Singh: Singapore’s first Sikh parliamentarian

Davinder Singh, first Sikh parliamentarian in Singapore’s post-independence history, leads the republic's largest law firm Drew and Napier

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| Singapore |  19 Aug 2016 | Asia Samachar |
Davinder Singh
Davinder Singh

In 1972, the former head of the United Negro College Fund, Mr Arthur Fletcher, said: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

Adopted as one of the most successful public service marketing slogans of all time, it was geared at driving home the point of the necessity of education. A member of Singapore’s legal fraternity provided an equally compelling perspective on the value of intellectual power when he stated that: “If you want to train your mind, I would advise you to study law.”  Well, when this advice comes from legal eagle Senior Counsel, Mr Davinder Singh, one would pay serious attention to it.

Born in Singapore in 1957, Davinder is the youngest of five children. He grew up in humble surroundings along Race Course Road. He came from a relatively structured household where his father, born in Baluchistan, modern-day Pakistan, was the bread winner. He was strict while his mother, born in Malaysia, was the complete opposite and she loved to dote on her children.

Davinder lived in a neighbourhood of different races and religions. He was, thus, fortunate to be exposed to the different festivals and celebrations in Singapore early on in life. According to him, mingling with everyone without prejudice and judgment helped him learn much about people and life. This played an important role in shaping his outlook. His parents promoted understanding and appreciation of others among their five children – they had an ‘open door’ policy where anyone from the neighbourhood was free to visit. They were generous, as was everyone else in his neighbourhood. This is a memory that Davinder holds dear to his heart till today.

Davinder was a quiet child at home. His demeanor was, however, quite different in school where he was an active and a more outspoken student. He attended Saint Joseph’s Institution and later enrolled into National Junior College. Recalling fondly, he described his schools as places of complete freedom with an all-rounded education. It was also here that he met school mates who are his closest friends till today.

Following college, Davinder felt that it was time to choose his direction in life. He opted for law, for the simple reason that it would consistently and continuously train his mind. He felt that learning law would give him the mental frame to analyse issues differently – a useful skill in everyday life. He went to the National University of Singapore to pursue a degree in Law.

Today, Davinder is the Chief Executive Officer of Drew and Napier LLC, one of the largest law firms in Singapore. Setup in 1889, the firm’s calibre of work is acknowledged internationally at the highest levels of government and industry. He joined the Litigation Department of the firm immediately upon graduation in 1982 and rose through the ranks. He considers himself extremely fortunate to have an unending stream of good work and to be able to work with the best people while serving important clients.

Over the last 33 years, Davinder has litigated cases in almost every area of the law, including landmark cases. Each case is different in its own way and a few have generated some public interest. These included the National Kidney Foundation scandal and the Roy Ngerng defamation case. Davinder finds it difficult to pick a particular case that he found particularly compelling or challenging. Each case impacted his thoughts and emotions uniquely. Davinder also has an active international arbitration practice involving complex commercial disputes and multiple jurisdictions. Among others, he has advised and/or acted in the International Court of Arbitration, Singapore International Arbitration Centre and the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law.

Prominent legal directory Chambers Asia-Pacific said: “The ‘Davinder Factor’ puts this [law] practice in a different league”. He is also described as “a formidable advocate with a long-standing and excellent reputation in the market”, and as “a standout figure in arbitration as well as litigation, his advocacy is smooth as silk.” It is, therefore, unsurprising that he has been regularly acknowledged locally and internally as a top litigator and arbitration counsel.

Most recently, he was recognised as the ‘Disputes Star of the Year – Singapore’ at the inaugural Asialaw AsiaPacific Dispute Resolution Awards 2015. Last year, he received the prestigious ‘Outstanding Contribution to the Legal Profession’ award from Chambers & Partners for his exceptional achievements and significant impact on the regional and international market. Chambers & Partners also named him a standalone Star Individual, a category above Band 1, for five consecutive years. He was also named ‘Disputes Lawyer of the Year’ for Southeast Asia and India at the inaugural The Asian Lawyer Emerging Markets Awards in 2014. He was the only litigator in Singapore to be named External Counsel of the Year by Asian-MENA Counsel in 2012 and 2013.

In spite of these numerous accolades, Davinder remains humble and believes that each award is recognition for his entire team. He feels that his team members are the bedrock behind every case he fights. Without them, the accolades and recognition would not be possible. He also chooses to take such moments to remind his two sons that there is recognition for honest work and, if one works hard and passionately, the opportunities will present themselves.

Joining Politics

In spite of his busy legal career, Davinder answered the call to serve the country. In 1988, he was elected as a Member of Parliament (MP) under the People’s Action Party (PAP) ticket, making him the first Sikh parliamentarian in Singapore’s post-independence history. There were two reasons he took on this challenge.

Firstly, he saw his MP role as an opportunity to widen his horizon and assist the less fortunate. Davinder felt his perspective of life was being shaped by his experience as a professional working in the city every day. He did not wish to lose sight of the fact that there were people who were not as fortunate and who needed help.

“I have known Mr Singh for at least 20 years, since the days when he was a MP serving the residents of Toa Payoh Central branch. We still keep in touch and meet up with other branch members for meals. He is a kind man who is always willing to help the poor and needy. Despite his heavy work schedule, he looked after the residents who queued, sometimes late into the night, to meet him. He earned the trust of the various clan and merchant associations because he was always humble. He never took credit, always praising others for their good work.”
-Mr Chia Ah Sah JP, BBM(L), PBM, PB Vice Chairman Toa Payoh Central Branch

On a more personal level, he decided to join politics because his mother wished it, and he knew it would have made his father proud as well. His family had the highest regard for Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and this was Davinder’s opportunity to  with him. Following Mr Lee’s passing in March 2015, Davinder explained the greatness of the man in a Straits Times interview: “I sat with and talked to this genius who, more than anyone, understood human nature and societies, who had the third eye and could see trends and dangers, which we mere mortals were blind or oblivious to, and who knew with complete confidence what was best for his people and Singapore.”

While Davinder served as MP for the Bishan-Toa Payoh Group Representation Constituency for 18 years and did his utmost to address the concerns of the residents, his political journey was not without challenges. As an MP, he faced the never-ending task of striking a balance between his professional commitments and the needs of his constituency while, at the same time, ensuring that he had ample time for his sons.

When Davinder was elected into Parliament, the idea of a Sikh MP was new to the Sikh community. There was naturally much jubilance within the community on his election. As much as he chooses not to take credit, Davinder played an important role as a link between the Sikh community and the government. In 1996, he was joined in Parliament by Mr Inderjit Singh. Together, they were highly successful in presenting the Sikh community as one that punches well above its weight.

The famous American author, poet and philosopher, Mr Henry David Thoreau, once said: “As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”

In a similar vein, Davinder has unendingly trained his legal mind to emerge as one of the brightest, if not the brightest, legal minds in Singapore, marking his life with exceptional professional accomplishments and selfless service to the nation and community.

Senior Counsel Davinder Singh (right) was named Singapore's "Disputes Star of the Year" at a Hong Kong event. Senior Counsel Cavinder Bull received Drew & Napier's awards. -- PHOTO: ASIALAW ASIA-PACIFIC DISPUTE RESOLUTION AWARDS 2015/ST
Senior Counsel Davinder Singh (right) was named Singapore’s “Disputes Star of the Year” at a Hong Kong event. Senior Counsel Cavinder Bull received Drew & Napier’s awards. — PHOTO: ASIALAW ASIA-PACIFIC DISPUTE RESOLUTION AWARDS 2015/ST

[This article is courtesy of SINGAPORE AT 50: 50 SIKHS AND THEIR CONTRIBUTIONS, a book published by the Young Sikh Association, Singapore (YSA) in conjunction with Singapore’s 50th birthday]

 

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