No social capital

FAR from his public image as an aggressive lawyer, the soft-spoken man, whom you have to strain to hear, comes across as shy in person and intensely private. All he will say about his childhood is that he was the youngest of three children and the only one born in Singapore to immigrants from Tamil Nadu with no formal education.

His father ran a small business, and his mother was a housewife. Home was a series of rented premises, usually shared with others, till they got their first Housing Board flat when he was 16.

He was born in 1959, just before the People's Action Party (PAP) swept into power. His parents had "zero social capital". But they bequeathed him "total faith, which I then adopted without question, that it didn't matter who you are or the colour of your skin, what race you were, all that mattered is that if you study hard, you can do well in life".

"It was a very simple philosophy. They had total faith in the PAP and that education was the passport to success." He attended the now-defunct Newton Boys' School, Raffles Institution and then National University of Singapore's law faculty, graduating with first-class honours.

The PAP had started wooing the rising litigator through its tea sessions. Before he said "yes" to being fielded as a candidate, he wanted to get a taste of constituency work. Former MP Chandra Das remembers him as a "keen, earnest and patient young man, with sharp observation skills", who dutifully attended all grassroots activities. He was fielded in 1988, when he was 29.

At first, the young English- speaking Indian lawyer thrown into Chong Pang in Sembawang GRC - a very Chinese, lower-middle-class constituency - seemed a poor pairing. "But the traditionalism of the constituency meant that there are certain advantages. One, if you work hard, are sincere, didn't throw your weight around and are in a position to help, as I was as a lawyer, many deep and close friendships are immediately formed... And once you have done them a favour, they remember you for life. So that constituency in a way fitted my personality," he says.

"Partly because of my own background, the milieu of the people I met were in the same social situation that I used to be in myself, so I was completely comfortable," he says. He stayed five terms and is now the second longest-serving MP in Cabinet next to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who was elected in 1984.

Asked whether being plain- speaking has been a liability or asset in his political career, he shrugs and says: "People know I mean what I say. Sometimes it has served me well, sometimes it has comes across as harsh. I don't sugarcoat or say something people like to hear. I prefer to be honest and direct. I think there is value to that."

His law career soared. He has represented listed companies, multinationals and the Singapore Government. At 38, he became one of the youngest senior counsel. Juggling legal practice and politics, along with fathering two young children, took its toll. There were regrets and sacrifices along the way, such as "no time to read, smell the flowers or watch the kids grow up". His marriage to Dr Jothie Rajah failed and they divorced after 15 years, due to "mutual incompatibility".

Dr Rajah has since completed a law PhD at Melbourne University and written a book Authoritarian Rule Of Law, which alleges that the rule of law is a subjugating rather than liberalising force in Singapore. Asked about this, all he will say is he has not read the book. "My own views are set out in the speeches I have made on rule of law," he adds with finality.

Big pay cut

MR SHANMUGAM remarried four years ago. His wife is Seetha, 41, a Berkeley-educated, Chicago-trained clinical psychologist - and a fourth-generation Singaporean. "Not a foreign talent," he adds for good measure, in reference to online rumours.

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