Harry Elias


Harry Elias (b. 4 May 1937, Singapore–)1 is among Singapore’s best-known trial lawyers and the founder of one of the country’s leading law firms. He is the driving force behind the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) that has enabled thousands of people to obtain legal representation otherwise beyond their means.2

Early life and education

Elias was born in the mahallah (Jewish quarter) in Singapore in 1937. During the final months of the Japanese Occupation, the Jewish community was taken to the Sime Road Camp, and he lived in the women’s hut with his mother. This was two years after his father and four brothers were rounded up and interned at Changi Prison.3

As a student at St Andrew’s School, Elias was active in rugby, hockey and debating, and demonstrated his eloquence by winning an island-wide oratory contest in 1956.4 He received a Certificate in Education from the Singapore Teachers’ Training College and taught in a primary school for two years.5

In 1960, Elias received the first passport issued by the new State of Singapore, and travelled to London to read law.6 He had saved some money from teaching and received a grant from the Jewish community’s Amber Trust, supplementing his income through teaching mathematics at Whittingehame College in Sussex, 60 miles south of London.7 Elias pursued an “external degree” in law, studying independently but taking the same examinations as other law school students, and received an LLB (Honours) in 1963. He was registered as a barrister of London’s Middle Temple, and could have practised in England, but he chose to return home instead.8

Legal career
Law practice
Elias started work at Shearn Delamore & Company in Kuala Lumpur in 1965.9 Returning to Singapore in 1970, he joined Drew & Napier and became an administrative partner in 1979.10


In 1988, Elias started his own practice, Harry Elias & Partners, which was later renamed Harry Elias Partnership.11 The 1990s saw him win some of his most high-profile cases, including defamation suits launched by various People’s Action Party figures, including then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.12 Today, he holds the position of consultant within the practice.13 Harry Elias Partnership has also used its success to support worthy causes, such as raising money for people with disabilities, and funding scholarships for special needs children.14

Contributions to the legal profession
Elias has been very active in wider legal circles, notably as president of the Law Society of Singapore between 1984 and 1986.15 His most enduring legacy is the establishment of the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS), which assists those unable to afford legal representation. He was inspired to act after reading figures on the number of low-income Singaporeans, and took on the scheme’s first case, securing the dismissal of charges against a woman accused of stealing milk for her baby.16 In an interview, Elias mentioned that Singapore is the only country in the world with a legal aid scheme that provides free legal services by volunteer lawyers, without funding from the state.17 Elias, who was the scheme’s founding chairman, enlisted lawyers and corporate sponsors to contribute time and money.18 The scheme was originally limited to cases of theft but was later extended to defending those charged with capital offences as well.19


As president of the Law Society, Elias took steps to improve the cool relations between bench and bar by initiating social events for advocates and judges, together with then Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin.20 In the early 1990s he also established workshops where young lawyers can practise and improve their courtroom presentation skills.21

Elias served as the chairman of the Inquiry Panel of the Law Society from 1986 to 1993, and was also chairman of the society’s Advocacy Committee. He was a member of the Senate of the Singapore Academy of Law, has been a mediator to the Panel of Mediators of the Singapore Mediation Centre since 1997, and is a member of the Regional Panel of Arbitrators of the Singapore International Arbitration Centre since 2003.22

Honours and recognition
In 1997, Elias became one of the first 12 lawyers to be designated Senior Counsel. In 2000, the Law Society conferred the Legal Eagle Award on him. Five years later he received the society’s CC Tan Award, which recognised members of the Singapore Bar who have demonstrated honesty, fair play, personal integrity and courtesy. In 2013, he was conferred the Public Service Medal (Pingat Bakti Masyarakat).23

Other activities
Elias never forgot the financial assistance from St Andrew’s School which had facilitated his education there, and has been a supportive alumnus for decades.24 From 1995 to 1997, he was an energetic president of the school’s Old Boys’ Association, launching initiatives such as a business network, membership cards and online newsletters.25 He also chaired a fund-raising committee for the school and assisted with the formation of St Andrew’s Village in Potong Pasir.26

A leading member of Singapore’s Jewish community, Elias has served as a trustee of the Singapore Jewish Charities Trust Fund and has long been active with the committee of the Jewish Welfare Board.27

Family
Elias is the 12th and youngest child of merchant Elias Jonah and his wife, known also as Mooha, both of whom emigrated to Singapore from Baghdad. He is married to Thelma Sherbanee and has two children and two stepchildren.28



Author
Duncan Sutherland



References
1. Low, K. T. (Ed.). (2006). Who’s who in Singapore 2006. Singapore: Who’s Who Publishing, p. 130. (Call no.: RSING 920.05957 WHO)
2. Wong, K. H. (2006, January 29). Legal eagle has a soft spot for the needy. The Straits Times, p. 28. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Bieder, J. (2007). The Jews of Singapore. Singapore: Suntree Media, p. 149. (Call no.: RSING 959.57004924 BIE-[HIS])
4. Bieder, J. (2007). The Jews of Singapore. Singapore: Suntree Media, p. 150. (Call no.: RSING 959.57004924 BIE-[HIS])
5. The Legal 500. (2016). Harry Elias. Retrieved 2016, August 17 from The Legal 500 website: http://www.legal500.com/firms/30619-harry-elias-partnership/offices/30312-singapore/lawyers/19032; Bieder, J. (2007). The Jews of Singapore. Singapore: Suntree Media, p. 150. (Call no.: RSING 959.57004924 BIE-[HIS])
6. Bieder, J. (2007). The Jews of Singapore. Singapore: Suntree Media, p. 150. (Call no.: RSING 959.57004924 BIE-[HIS])
7. Low, K. T. (Ed.) (2006). Who’s who in Singapore 2006. Singapore: Who’s Who Publishing, p. 130. (Call no.: RSING 920.05957 WHO); Bieder, J. (2007). The Jews of Singapore. Singapore: Suntree Media, p. 150. (Call no.: RSING 959.57004924 BIE-[HIS])
8. Bieder, J. (2007). The Jews of Singapore. Singapore: Suntree Media, p. 150. (Call no.: RSING 959.57004924 BIE-[HIS]); Low, K. T. (Ed.). (2006). Who’s who in Singapore 2006. Singapore: Who’s Who Publishing, p. 130. (Call no.: RSING 920.05957 WHO)
9. Low, K. T. (Ed.). (2006). Who’s who in Singapore 2006. Singapore: Who’s Who Publishing, p. 131. (Call no.: RSING 920.05957 WHO)
10. Bieder, J. (2007). The Jews of Singapore. Singapore: Suntree Media, p. 150. (Call no.: RSING 959.57004924 BIE-[HIS])
11. Bieder, J. (2007). The Jews of Singapore. Singapore: Suntree Media, p. 150. (Call no.: RSING 959.57004924 BIE-[HIS])
12. Wong, K. H. (2006, January 29). Legal eagle has a soft spot for the needy. The Straits Times, p. 28. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Harry Elias Partnership. (n.d.). Harry Elias. Retrieved 2016, August 17 from Harry Elias Partnership website: http://www.harryelias.com/content/harry-elias
14. Bieder, J. (2007). The Jews of Singapore. Singapore: Suntree Media, pp. 151–152. (Call no.: RSING 959.57004924 BIE-[HIS])
15. Hwang, M. (2005, August). The forum of senior counsel reflects on the late Dr Wee Chong Jin. Law Gazette. Retrieved 2016, August 17 from Law Gazette website: http://www.lawgazette.com.sg/2005-8/Aug05-late%20CJ.htm
16. Wong, K. H. (2006, January 29). Legal eagle has a soft spot for the needy. The Straits Times, p. 28. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Jeyaretnam, P. (2005, October). Class of ’85. Law Gazette. Retrieved 2016, August 17 from Law Gazette website: http://www.lawgazette.com.sg/2005-10/Oct05-president.htm
17. Wong, K. H. (2006, January 29). Legal eagle has a soft spot for the needy. The Straits Times, p. 28. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Harry Elias Partnership. (n.d.). Corporate social responsibility. Retrieved 2016, August 17 from Harry Elias Partnership website: http://www.harryelias.com/corporate-social-responsibility
19. Wong, K. H. (2006, January 29). Legal eagle has a soft spot for the needy. The Straits Times, p. 28. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Hwang, M. (2005, August). The forum of senior counsel reflects on the late Dr Wee Chong Jin. Law Gazette. Retrieved 2016, August 17 from Law Gazette website: http://www.lawgazette.com.sg/2005-8/Aug05-late%20CJ.htm
21. Wong, K. H. (2006, January 29). Legal eagle has a soft spot for the needy. The Straits Times, p. 28. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Harry Elias Partnership. (n.d.). Harry Elias. Retrieved 2016, August 17 from Harry Elias Partnership website: http://www.harryelias.com/content/harry-elias
23. Harry Elias Partnership. (n.d.). Harry Elias. Retrieved 2016, August 17 from Harry Elias Partnership website: http://www.harryelias.com/content/harry-elias
24. Wong, K. H. (2006, January 29). Legal eagle has a soft spot for the needy. The Straits Times, p. 28. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. St Andrew’s Alumni. (n.d.). Our history. Retrieved 2016, August 17 from St Andrew’s Alumni website: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:9e0h_8upj0YJ:www.saints.org.sg/index.php/our-history+&cd=3&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=sg
26. Wong, K. H. (2006, January 29). Legal eagle has a soft spot for the needy. The Straits Times, p. 28. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Bieder, J. (2007). The Jews of Singapore. Singapore: Suntree Media, p. 152. (Call no.: RSING 959.57004924 BIE-[HIS])
28. Bieder, J. (2007). The Jews of Singapore. Singapore: Suntree Media, pp. 149, 152. (Call no.: RSING 959.57004924 BIE-[HIS])



The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

Subject
Personalities
Elias, Harry, 1937-
Law and government>>Civil procedure
Personalities>>Biographies
Lawyers--Singapore--Biography

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