Fri, Dec 17, 2010
How Hari became Hri

By Patrick Jonas

IT IS common to come across Indian names spelt in strange ways in Singapore.

In 2006, when it was announced that Mr Hri Kumar Nair was elected MP of Bishan-Toa Payoh, what struck me was the spelling of his first name. Since then, I had been wanting to find out how the young MP lost an "a" from Hari.

Naturally, it was one of my first questions. He laughed.

"It is a silly story which will not happen today," was his reply.

For all of 12 years, his name was spelt Hari. Even his school records had that spelling. That was how it was spelt in the duplicate copy of his birth certificate given to his parents after his birth.

But when it was time to get his Identity Card, the officer in charge produced the original birth certificate. In it Mr Nair's first name was spelt as Hri.

He was upset and so was his father. The official's position was that they were not authorised to change the spelling. Someone had made a typing error.

The only option then was to give the name an alias - Hri Kumar alias Hari Kumar - but the young Hari would have none of it.

He thought only criminals had aliases. He had been influenced by newspaper reports which often carried stories of criminals who had aliases. He told his dad he would stick to Hri and so it stayed.

He says he had the opportunity to change his name back to Hari after he grew up by deed poll.

"But by then everyone knew me by Hri and if I changed I would have a different set of questions to answer, so I decided to stick to Hri," says Mr Nair, who is also a successful litigation lawyer and director of legal firm Drew & Napier.

Mr Nair, 44, grew up in Toa Payoh in a point block HDB apartment. It shaped his involvement in community activities.

Back then, he recalls, there was no residents' associations like today. So the 96 families in his block decided to form an association of their own.

One of their concerns was security - even the young Hari was a victim when his cycle got stolen. They appointed a security guard and children in the block got together to raise funds by collecting and selling old newspapers.

Mr Nair was part of this group and he also used to organise annual sports and games for youths and family get-togethers. As he moved into his late teens, he became a member of the residents' committee.

That was only the beginning. In later years, he volunteered his services to groups helping under-privileged children.

These days he juggles his work as a lawyer with his MP duties. And that is not too easy.

"I just do my best, but it is difficult. Something has to give, and it is usually my family and personal life," says the very approachable Mr Nair.

Most people, he says, associate an MP's job as mostly being part of the meet-the-people sessions but that is only a fraction of the total time the role requires. He says most of his constituents are reasonable and not too demanding.

"They have issues, they raise it and they are very fair about it. Of course some people are demanding and a smaller portion unreasonable but by and large most people are understanding and if they have a grievance it is a genuine grievance. They are not unfair," he says of his constituents.

What struck him during his numerous meetings with them is that it is very difficult to convey messages effectively to the ground.

"Even when there are a lot of news reports or media stories on any new regulation, policy or programme, many still do not understand or have incorrect information on the same," he says of the challenges he faces.

On an average, he spends about half an hour every morning replying to or dealing with e-mail messages from his constituents.

"I try to respond to all messages within 24 hours. If I have a court hearing, I am out of the office the whole day. I am back by 5.30pm and deal with other matters which I have not dealt with via Black-Berry in the course of the day. I set off for the constituency by 7.30pm and I'm back home by 10pm. Dinner, and then work until whenever I finish," is how he describes an average day of his.

That leaves him pressed for time with his wife Dylis and young daughter Sarah.

So when he gets time during a weekend, he does some cooking - "simple stuff like meats and pasta", which he finds therapeutic.

Sarah is 31/2 and goes to play school. Dylis works flexi hours at Ernst and Young, where she is a partner and business consultant.

Her working hours means she can spend more time with Sarah and help her in her non-school activities like swimming lessons.

Mr Nair met his wife a year after he joined Drew & Napier in 1991. She worked there briefly as a business executive. The couple tied the knot in 1998.

The two go on holidays every year, usually during court vacations. But one year they missed a trip.

Mr Nair's parents - who have passed away - had migrated to Singapore just before World War II from Chengamanad, a small village on the outskirts of Cochin in Kerala. A few years ago he organised a trip for all the family members to visit the ancestral village. It was to be his first visit to Kerala.

But days before the trip, came news that Dylis was expecting and the doctor's advice was to avoid travel. The rest of the family, he says, had a good time.

Talking about his parents brought a tinge of sadness to his eyes. Dad was an attendant in the Singapore General Hospital and his mother a housewife, but they managed to raise nine children. Mr Nair is the youngest.

"I don't think I ever went hungry, ever been unhappy. There was a time dad worked two jobs. I recall only vaguely once when mum had to pawn her jewellery to meet some expense but we were never in danger at any time. I am not sure how they managed with nine kids. Now I have one daughter and you worry," says Mr Nair of the struggles his parents went through.

But that has kept the family close. The eight of them - one of Mr Nair's brothers drowned some 30 years ago trying to save a woman in distress - meet a few times every year. Usually it is for Deepavali, Christmas, New Year and their parents' death anniversary.

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