Face to Face with Christopher Leong, President of LAWASIA
January 25, 2019
Christopher Leong, the president of the Law Association for Asia and the Pacific (LAWASIA), is committed to making a difference in the region’s legal industry. Over his 30-year-long legal career, Leong has worked to safeguard public interest, both in his homeland of Malaysia, and elsewhere. Now tasked with leading LAWASIA, Leong is actively promoting human rights in the Asia-Pacific region.
Christopher Leong comes from a humble background. His father was a teacher and his mother a housewife.
“I was born in the Malaysian city of Ipoh, and I spent my early childhood in Falim, which was about 30 to 40 minutes from Ipoh,” Leong says.
He describes Falim as “the kind of town you would miss if you sneezed while driving pass.”
When he turned four, he moved back to his birthplace with his parents. The three of them squeezed into one bedroom in a two-bedroom, zinc-roofed house shared with his grandmother and two aunts. Leong recalls that period of his life as being “very modest, but simple and happy”.
Later, Leong relocated to the capital of Kuala Lumpur after his father got a new job. He finished his schooling in KL before studying economics and philosophy at Monash University in Australia.
Born into a family that believed in the power of education, Leong continued his academic pursuits.
“My father wanted me to do an MBA in Seattle since my uncle was there, but I didn’t really have any interest in business management,” he says. “A friend of mine suggested law to me. He said it would be a good fit since I was quite active in the student organisation and other bodies while at Monash.”
“I thought about it over a weekend then I asked my father if I could read law. Of course, he was fine with that. Any of four professions, namely medicine, engineering, accountancy or law, he would be fine with,” Leong says.
Now keen to become a lawyer, Leong hopped on a plane to the United Kingdom two weeks before the start of the academic year to look for an opportunity to enroll in a law programme. He searched through the yellow pages to look up universities, and started calling them. On his third day in the UK, he decided to visit the University of Nottingham.
“I took a train and a bus to the university. It was lunchtime when I arrived. I walked around to look for the law faculty and I happened to pass by the dean’s office,” Leong says. He knocked.
“The dean happened to be having lunch in his room at the time. He invited me in and had a chat with me. I told him that I wanted to read law, and then he asked if I was willing to sit for an entrance exam. I said yes,” Leong says.
The dean showed him to a room and left him there for three hours while he took the exam.
“He wasn’t expecting me to answer legal questions as if I was a law student. I think he just wanted to see how my thought processes worked and how I expressed myself. This was one of the things philosophy taught me,” Leong recalls.
A week later, Leong received an offer to study law there. He completed his degree at the University of Nottingham 1988, and was called to the Bar of England and Wales a year later.
Leong then returned to Malaysia and joined Chooi & Company as a legal assistant. He was made partner in 1996, and became managing partner of the firm in 2007. Recently, the firm merged with Cheang & Ariff to form Chooi & Company + Cheang Ariff (CCA), and Leong heads the combined entity together with Dato' Loh Siew Cheang.
A Disputes Specialist
Since the start of his career, Leong has been a litigator. He also acts as counsel in domestic and international arbitrations, both in Malaysia and overseas, and is empanelled as an arbitrator with the Asian International Arbitration Centre in Kuala Lumpur.
Being a disputes lawyer is one of the most exciting roles within the legal profession, according to Leong, as one has to think on one’s feet and respond fast.
“I enjoy oral advocacy and thinking on your feet,” Leong says. “It’s nerve-wracking, but it gives you a buzz and great satisfaction.”
“I’m not office-bound. I enjoy going to court and interacting with other lawyers in court,” he adds. “Preparing for cases often requires long hours, but I enjoy the cut and thrust of litigation.”
In retrospect, Leong thinks there are three highlights in his decades-long legal career.
During his early days in Chooi, the dispute resolution practice was not well developed. With the help of two young lawyers who later became his partners, Lim Tuck Sun and Edmund Bon, Leong developed a corporate litigation practice, as well as a constitutional, administrative law, public interest litigation, and criminal law practice in 1996.
“There were no commercial firms at that time in Malaysia that had this combination - a full-fledged commercial practice as well as an active administrative/public interest litigation and criminal law department,” he recalls.
“It was a new adventure and an exciting challenge for us. We were all young at that time. It’s one of the highlights for us today,” he says.
Two other highlights were participating in two Royal Commissions of Inquiry (RCI) in Malaysia set up to probe into important, controversial matters, and participating as a member of two fact-finding missions for LAWASIA.
“The first RCI was initiated in 2008 to look into the VK Lingam Video Tape incident, which involved alleged improprieties in the judicial appointments process of Malaysian judges that purportedly occurred in 2002, as well as the fixing of cases. That became a huge scandal in Malaysia,” Leong says.
“I appeared as one of the five counsel on behalf of the Bar Council of Malaysia. I was assigned to question Dr Mahathir, the then-prime minister who has recently been re-elected. The objective was to elicit sufficient information and materials to recommend for the establishment of the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) for Malaysia,” he adds.
The JAC was set up in early 2009, a year after the RCI. In Leong’s words, it provides more transparency and objectivity with regards to appointments and promotions of judges without having too much power concentrated in one person.
“The second RCI I participated in was in 2011 to look into the death of Teoh Beng Hock while he was in the custody of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission,” Leong says.
“It was highly controversial because he was a special assistant to an opposition state assemblyperson and he died in custody within 24 hours of being detained for questioning,” he adds. “This created a huge uproar in Malaysia, which resulted in another RCI.”
“Not everyone in commercial legal practice gets a chance to experience a RCI,” Leong says. “The entire process of an RCI is different from a court hearing.”
“The two LAWASIA fact finding missions in which I participated were in 2007 in Pakistan when the government dismissed the then Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Mohamed Chaudhury, and in 2018 with regards the situation in the Republic of Maldives where the bar association was de-registered, lawyers were arrested and suspended, and the Chief Justice and another Supreme Court judge were arrested, and the fundamental rights in their constitution were suspended,” says Leong. “On both occasions, the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession were at stake. Both missions raised safety concerns for members of the missions and were eye openers for us.”
The Hardest Days
On the flip side of highlights are the challenges. Leong says that being the president of the Malaysian Bar is the greatest challenge he has ever faced. He was in the role between 2013 and 2015, and even though he had served on the Bar Council and its various committees for close to 18 years, nothing prepared him for the top job.
“The office required me to look into and advance legal practice and lawyers’ ‘rice bowl’ issues on the one hand, and at the same time balance that with advocating and protecting the rule of law and promoting fundamental civil liberties,” Leong says.
“There were numerous issues that arose, including constitutional issues and controversies. The latter category of matters often required speaking truth to power and protesting abuses by the authorities,” he adds.
Leong had to work with the authorities on issues affecting the administration of justice and society, such as issues concerning the police force. He also had to seek assistance from the government and its agencies.
“For example, we had to get them to agree with reforms we proposed, and at times amendments to the Legal Profession Act that governs lawyers in Malaysia,” he recalls.
Leong notes that while he had to engage, work and cooperate with the government, he refused to be co-opted or be subservient.
“Sometimes it was a delicate balance. It required a combination of quiet diplomacy, personal engagement, public forum advocacy and, as a last resort, bullhorn activism. All of these required putting myself out there all day, every day,” he says.
In 2017, Leong became president of LAWASIA, a regional association of lawyers, judges, jurists and legal organizations that advocates for the interests and concerns of the legal profession in the Asia-Pacific region.
Nearly a decade before that, however, he was the chairman of the organising committee for the LAWASIA annual conference in Kuala Lumpur in 2008. He also took part in the fact-finding mission to Pakistan in late 2007, involving the removal of the then-Chief Justice of Pakistan and many senior judges.
“Those two events in 2007 and 2008 got me interested in the organisation and I’ve been a member ever since,” Leong says.
Now as president, Leong says he has to further the objectives of LAWASIA and to represent the voices of all the law organisations in the numerous jurisdictions in the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) region.
“The council is the policy body and elects the executive committee and the office bearers,” he says. “I’m answerable to the council members.”
“They are comprised of the peak law organisations in the ESCAP region, such as Law Society of Hong Kong and Bar Association of Hong Kong,” he adds. “We currently have 29 council member organizations.”
“LAWASIA aims to advance the course of justice, rule of law and respect for human rights in the region,” Leong says. “At the same time, it promotes regional interaction and discourse amongst the lawyers and law organizations in the region, development of business and corporate law in Asia and the Pacific.”
As a long-term member, Leong is well aware of the inner workings of his organization. And now, steering LAWASIA, he has set three goals for 2019.
“As president, my first goal is to have an equal emphasis on and strike a balance between business law as well as human rights and constitutional law. Sometimes lawyers see them as chalk and cheese, but nowadays the two go hand in hand,” he says.
“For example, in multilateral trade treaties, there will be recognition of human rights and promotion of human rights law, reflected by terms to improve labour conditions, to eradicate human trafficking and to protect the environment,” he explains.
Leong raises the notion of “responsible business” – business, trade and investment with promoting and incorporating human rights. “This is my emphasis for discussion this year as president,” he says.
“We have annual conferences in addition to several niche conferences every year in different jurisdictions,” Leong says. This year, there will be events in Fiji, New Delhi, Seoul, Manila, Hong Kong, Yangon, Colombo, Maldives and China, and possibly Frankfurt and London.
“There will be a niche business law conference in Manila in March. We are also looking into organising a “Foreign Investment and Doing Business in Asia” forum in Frankfurt sometime in the middle of the year as well as in London,” Leong explains.
Another major project of LAWASIA, according to Leong, is to launch the Lawyers’ Toolkit and Guidance Note on Business, Human Rights and the Environment.
“With this toolkit, they get pointers and guidelines as to how lawyers in their everyday work in advising clients and attending to transactions can play a role in getting the business community to have regard for human rights practices,” Leong explains.
He cites examples like providing sufficient minimum wage, medical coverage, employment terms and benefits, as well as respecting the environment and not engaging in a human trafficking and contract for labour.
The third task is to evolve the human rights section into a foundation. Leong says it will be easier to get funding by doing so.
“Very often the advocacy work suffers from a lack of resources, such as finance. Those who care about human rights protection should be able to contribute to a dedicated fund set aside for human rights activities,” he says.
“I do not expect these initiatives to be completed during my tenure, but I hope what is started will continue its way through to the next president,” Leong says of these long-term goals.
Meanwhile, LAWASIA is also working hard to resolve issues facing lawyers and legal practice.
“We look at gender diversity, environmental law, rule of law, administration of justice, judicial independence and so forth,” he says. “We have issued media statements on many occasions. Our latest one is about the violence and threats of violence against lawyers in the Philippines.”
“According to our press release on 21 November 2018, about 34 legal professionals including lawyers, three judges and seven prosecutors have been killed in Philippines in the last two years,” he adds.
Another duty of the organisation is to set up fact-finding and observer missions. Leong said such missions have been set in Pakistan, Fiji, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and the Maldives during times of trouble and instability, especially when it concerns the administration of justice, independence of the judiciary and the legal profession.
Leong highlights the Maldives case. After he set up a fact-finding mission to the country, he was denied entry and detained by the authorities at the Velana International Airport, Maldives. He was detained with three other members of the fact finding team, namely, the then-president of the Law Society of New South Wales, the president-elect of the Bar Association of India and a retired judge of the Court of Appeal of Malaysia.
He also speaks of another goal – reaching as many jurisdictions within LAWASIA’s mandate with the resources available.
“LAWASIA covers a vast area and we are looking to structural reforms to better reach our members. For instance, our headquarters are in Sydney and we are considering looking at regional offices,” Leong says.
“We have law organisations and lawyers from jurisdictions at varying levels of development,” he adds.
“One of our challenges is to meet the requirements and expectations of all these various jurisdictions. In this regard, we have capacity building exercises and events focused on these places, alongside the more usual business law, foreign direct investment events and conferences,” he explains.
Vision for Asia
But above all, the biggest challenge Leong sees for lawyers in the LAWASIA region is the disparity in growth and development of lawyers across the various jurisdictions in the region.
“The lawyers are sometimes left behind without support. Myanmar is an example,” he says. “Not all are able to compete under the same rules. Ease of mobility of lawyers means that lawyers from more developed and advanced jurisdictions can enter the less developed places for work,” he adds.
To Leong, the answer is not to prevent mobility but to recognise that lawyers are a natural resource of a jurisdiction, and that the government must take measures to support, develop and advance this resource.
“After all, we believe that service is an important and growing contributor to economic growth and the GDP of a jurisdiction,” he says.
“At the same time, lawyers should respect the laws of each jurisdiction. Very often we find that lawyers flagrantly ignore or breach laws with regards to practice in a jurisdiction. This does not speak well for their personal values, integrity and principles,” he notes.
Doing the Right Thing
As a veteran lawyer who has experienced a lot in his career, Leong has some advice for those thinking of pursuing a career in the law.
“If your sole purpose in becoming a lawyer is to get rich and become a celebrity, please consider pursuing another path or career,” he says.
He says that it is unfortunate that there are people who feed into the perception of lawyers being sharks and continue to make the legal profession the butt of unkind jokes.
“However, if you wish to pursue the practice of law to make a real difference, not only for yourself but for those in the larger community, then apply yourself completely to the law and you would find that you will be rewarded in tangible and intangible ways,” he says.
Taking up great responsibilities to serve the public and private, Leong lives by two mottos: carpe diem and “no fear, no favour.”
“Carpe diem is Latin for ‘seize the day’. It connotes living each day to the fullest, without care for tomorrow,” he explains.
“I do try to live each day to the best that I can, whether it be in the practice of law, in building a law firm, in promoting the rule of law, advancing human rights and improving the administration of justice. But I also try to do so with a view to a better tomorrow. So perhaps not quite ‘carpe diem’ in its truest sense. I wonder what the Latin phrase would be for ‘seizing the day for tomorrow’?” he says.
*A scanned version of the hard copy journal can be viewed here.