Most of us know the late David Marshall as Singapore’s first Chief Minister from 1955 to 1956. He was also Singapore’s first ambassador to France.
Marshall also had a reputation, both inside and outside the law community, as the most successful criminal lawyer of his time, hence the phrase “Marshall never loses”. His legacy inspired many generations to pursue a career in law.
Marshall was passionate, charismatic, and highly intelligent.
As a lawyer, he fought fiercely for his clients, and as Chief Minister, he fought fiercely for Singapore’s right to self-rule from the British. He was impatient and had a quick temper, yet he had a zest for life that was unrivalled.
Even in his twilight years Marshall’s energy never abated. Despite his failing eyesight, he continued to defend Singapore’s interests as ambassador to France, Spain, Portugal, and Switzerland for 15 years with his extraordinary wit and charisma.
The Lion-Hearted Lawyer
Although he had a quick temper, Marshall was always known to those around him for his compassion and generosity to others. Kevin Tan’s biography, “Marshall of Singapore”, details the many ways that Marshall’s kindness touched others lives.
Marshall was born into an Orthodox Jewish family descended from Baghdadi Jews in Singapore. A brilliant student, he studied at some of the best schools—Saint Joseph’s Institution, Saint Andrew’s School and Raffles Institution.
Even then, Marshall had a strong sense of justice and would stand up for peers who were targets of racial and anti-Semitic abuse, even if it got him on the wrong side of the school administration.
Marshall went to England to study law at the age of 26, graduating from the University of London in half the usual time as his peers.
He was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple in 1937, commencing an extremely successful career in criminal and later constitutional law.
He defended several murder charges in his four-decade career, and many times succeeded in saving his clients from walking to the gallows.
“I react negatively to the death sentence. And I react vividly. And you know, the last day of a murder trial, I can’t even eat… And when it’s over, and there is an acquittal, it’s like a cold shower. I am re-born.”
— David Marshall on the death sentence, which drove him to fight for his clients’ acquittals
Marshall was extremely generous with his time and services for trade unions and the Jewish community, often doing pro bono work for them. Yet he delivered no less to them than he did to any other client.
“Respect your client irrespective of the fees,” he said in an interview with lawyer Dharmendra Yadhav. “I used to charge $1 for a murder case if he was Malay because he had no money. I used to charge $1 to trade unions; all Malay unions, I charged $1 a year.
“And the $1 is simply because, if you do it for nothing, you are not liable in negligence whereas $1 makes a contract and, if you are negligent, they can sue you.”
Outside of work, Marshall was also generous in his care for others. He had a soft spot for children throughout his life, treating them with kindness and arranging and paying for special shows for their benefit.
When Devan Nair was detained as an activist, Marshall personally visited Mrs Nair and offered her $100 a month to help her family, even when he did not know the Nairs very well.
The Generous Mentor
Marshall’s pupils would recall his particular kindness and generosity to law students. He was impartial in taking students under his wing, never confining himself to the top students but others as well.
Marshall understood very well the challenges that law students faced in learning the practice, and devoted much time and energy to their work and welfare.
One of his pupils, Annie Chin, recalls her rigorous training under Marshall. After graduating, he offered her a position at his firm at a generous S$1,500 a month, when top students at other firms were getting S$900 offers instead.
Another pupil, Charles Tan, recalled how Marshall insisted that he wear a tie to work, as Marshall believed that lawyers should be dressed befitting of their profession. When Tan replied that he was too poor to afford one, Marshall gave him six of his best silk ties the very next day.
Humanity and Liberty
Above all things, Marshall abhorred the death penalty and capital punishment, considering them to be a violation of human dignity and irreverence of human life.
As a criminal lawyer, most of Marshall’s clients were charged with murder and faced the death penalty. So strong was his repulsion towards the death penalty that it served as the driving force for him to have his clients acquitted.
“I react negatively to the death sentence.
And I react vividly,” Marshall once said. “And you know, the last day of a murder trial, I can’t even eat… And when it’s over, and there is an acquittal, it’s like a cold shower. I am re-born.”
Since his younger days, Marshall was strongly influenced by the French Republic’s concepts of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” or Freedom, Equality and the Brotherhood of men.
Regardless of what crimes they had committed, Marshall believed that clients were human beings like us all, who deserved to be treated with humanity and respect.
Marshall lived a life of passion and integrity, fighting unconditionally for the benefit of his fellow humans and his country.
Almost two decades after his passing, Marshall’s humanity, sincerity, and kindness continue to inspire those who knew him.