Singapore

How a lawyer saved his client from the gallows

Criminal lawyer M.N. Swami recalls in his new book how he got client's murder charge reduced

His client had brutally stabbed to death a middle-aged woman while robbing her in her home.

It seemed an impossible task for criminal lawyer M.N. Swami to save his client, Koh Goh Chua, who was facing a murder charge and possibly the gallows.

In fact, he was so unsure about being able to help the accused that he tried to persuade him to engage another lawyer.

Eventually, Mr Swami stayed on, fought the case and got the charge reduced to a lesser one, which saved Koh from the death penalty.

He was sentenced to a jail term of 10 years instead. But after his release, he committed another robbery, this time with a firearm, and was convicted yet again.

This was one of the many cases handled by Mr Swami in his 50 years as a lawyer that will be featured in his book, About Kings, Killers & Justice, which will be released this Sunday.

Speaking to The New Paper in his office, Mr Swami, 80, said he felt compelled to publish a book after his 11-year-old grandson persistently asked to hear tales of his days in the courtroom.

"I thought perhaps it would be a good chance to share my experience and thoughts with the younger generation of lawyers, and that it would also be interesting to document my days," he said.

The writing process took him about two years, and he even enlisted the help of the late former president S R Nathan to vet the copy.

"Mr Nathan and I were very close. So a few months back, I asked if he would look through my book, and he did, even scribbling very insightful comments and suggestions on my draft," he said with a smile.

(Above) Mr Nathan's handwritten suggestions. 

SAVED

Mr Swami's book is littered with cases of saving clients from the death penalty.

In Koh's case, for example, Mr Swami noticed an important forensic detail as he was reviewing the evidence - that the victim had died from inflammation resulting from the stab wound, not the injury itself.

Mr Swami jumped at this detail, and his client's charge was eventually reduced to that of culpable homicide.

On Nov 11, 1967, Koh was sentenced to 10 years' jail with caning, but he returned to crime upon his release.

The Straits Times reported in 1976 that Koh was sentenced to life imprisonment with 20 strokes of the cane for armed robbery.

"He didn't approach me a second time, but even if he had, I don't know if I would have taken up the case. I was obviously disappointed in him," he said.

In his book, Mr Swami described how he would have become a teacher had his application to the Teacher's Training College not been rejected in the mid-1950s.

After that rejection, he worked as an interpreter in the Coroner's Court and was later inspired to join the Bar by Singapore's first chief minister David Marshall, whom he described as a flamboyant and eloquent lawyer.

He was called to the Bar in England before returning to Singapore to start his own practice, opening offices in Singapore, and Johor Baru and Kluang in Johor, Malaysia.

He also writes about his stint as Nepal's first honorary consul-general to Singapore, a post he held for more than 15 years.

He chose to retire as a lawyer earlier this year, citing his age and the difficulty in keeping up with technology.

He also recently stepped down from his honorary consul-general post.

"I wanted to go out on a high and after 50 years, I think it's time. No regrets," he said, adding that he hopes to spend more time with his wife, Dr Saroja Swami, 77, three grown-up children and four grandchildren.

His book launch will be held at Ang Mo Kio-Thye Hua Kwan Hospital on Sunday at 4pm and all proceeds from the launch will be donated to the Thye Hua Kwan Nursing Home.

The book sells for $17 for a softcover copy or $25 for a hardcover copy.


I thought...it would be a good chance to share my experience and thoughts with the younger generation of lawyers.

- Criminal lawyer M.N. Swami on writing his book, About Kings, Killers & Justice

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