As we come close to the firm’s centenary, Asian-mena Counsel’s Patrick Dransfield interviewed Nagarajah Muttiah, the managing partner of Shook Lin & Bok (Malaysia) and put to him a series of questions on behalf of the In-House Community.
ASIAN-MENA COUNSEL: As Shook Lin & Bok comes close to its 100th anniversary, do you think that Yong Shook Lin, the firm’s founding partner, would approve of the work and the values of the present firm in Malaysia?
Nagarajah Muttiah: The firm has grown from strength to strength since its inception as a sole proprietorship. Although much has changed over the years — our office shifted three times before we finally settled; we were part of the evolution from aerogram to email and from switchboard operators to iPhones — the firm still maintains the values and ethics that formed the very core of Shook Lin & Bok. And for that reason, we managed to keep close bonds with clients who have been with us for decades long. As the nation’s economic landscape changed, the firm’s practice areas expanded from simple conveyancing and litigation in our early years to today’s full-service offerings handled by 17 specialist departments. The expansion is to cater for more sophisticated industry needs. We also continued to fuel the aspirations of young lawyers, many of whom eventually led distinguished legal careers and made outstanding contributions to the industry and society. I believe that Yong would be pleased to know that we have kept his principles and values alive through the years.
AMC: What is the history of Shook Lin & Bok Singapore?
NM: The firm started as a sole proprietorship in 1918 and was renamed as Messrs Shook Lin & Bok, as it is presently known, when Tan Teow Bok joined our founder, Yong Shook Lin, in 1938. In 1952, Yong Pung How, the son of our firm’s founder joined the firm as a lawyer and subsequently took over the helm as the managing partner in 1956 after his father’s passing. During the early 1960s, the firm got involved in a lot of work for the banking and financial community, both in Malaysia and Singapore. So the younger Yong decided to set up a Singapore office as part of a strategic effort to create a pan-Asian law firm post Malaysia’s independence in 1957. After all, quoting Yong Pung How: “Singapore was meant to be the New York and Kuala Lumpur the Washington,” during that time. The firm has an established camaraderie with our Singaporean counterpart ever since whilst remaining distinct and independent enterprises.
AMC: At the beginning of your career, how was the in-house community at that time? How has the in-house legal community developed? Are there special challenges facing Malaysian in-house counsel?
NM: The in-house community in Malaysia when I just started practising was very modest, and that may be a fair reflection considering the smaller number of lawyers at the time. The community morphed in tandem with the country’s economy from the late 1980s onwards, prompting the firm to simultaneously develop and diversify our practice areas to cater for the increasing sophistication of our clients. We began to strengthen our dispute resolution practice in addition to polishing our well established corporate, commercial and conveyancing practices. This initiative corresponded to the needs of the in-house legal community as the economic slowdown in the 80s and 90s gave rise to an increase in banking and corporate recovery litigation.
Today, the in-house community in Malaysia is more multifarious, cosmopolitan and dynamic than ever before. Modern organisations tend to prefer keeping a leaner team of in-house counsels who are expected to also play the role of strategic advisers — to manage commercial and legal risks and are required to meet business expectations; expertise of which are beyond the scope of a traditional in-house counsel. One of the greatest challenges faced by Malaysian in-house counsels in recent times would be regulatory compliance, given the increasing volume and complexity of legislations and regulations, and I presume that to be the case across the board for most, if not all, in-house legal counsels within the region.
AMC: In what ways does Shook Lin & Bok attempt to provide an integrated service for clients and how do you link up with other law firms, both regionally and internationally?
NM: Shook Lin & Bok provides clients with a fully integrated service offering whereby our litigation and non-litigation teams collaborate seamlessly to help clients pre-empt, manage and resolve matters. For instance, our banking and finance practice encompasses a broad spectrum of expertise which adopts a holistic approach to its advisory role, with its team of lawyers skilled in the dual disciplines of conventional finance and Islamic finance. The fully integrated nature of our banking and finance practice involves strong alliance between the corporate, banking and finance, banking and finance litigation, as well as the loan and debt restructuring departments in seeing our clients through all weathers.
We maintain close ties with our Singaporean counterpart and continue to build solid relationships with regional and international law firms through active professional and social engagements. The cordiality of relations and mutual understanding between the firm and our peers has been a boon in this rapidly globalised world we live in.
Speaking of active professional and social engagements, Shook Lin & Bok is proud to have three Malaysian Bar Council presidents, a Singapore Chief Justice and a good number of highly regarded legal practitioners as part of our rich heritage. Clients have long leveraged on our integrity and professionalism to achieve intended business results and bring amicable resolution to disputes. We have held on to these values resolutely and I think the firm has enjoyed healthy organic growth over the years because of this. However, players within the Asean region are still adjusting to the deregulation of trade barriers to legal services. This has posed a myriad of unique challenges such as the understanding of Asean’s complex legal systems, which includes common law, civil law, socialist law and sharia law.
AMC: Your own expertise relates to maritime and insurance. Do you still maintain your practice? Is the legal industry keeping pace with the recent technological developments of the insurance industry?
NM: Yes, I am still very much involved in the practice of maritime and insurance law on both the civil litigation and arbitration fronts. The legal industry in Malaysia is actively learning and exploring the multitude of technologies and technological innovations that could serve as an enabler for us to sync more efficiently with other industries, including the insurance industry. I would say that the local insurance industry takes a bolder stance in adopting technological innovations in its processes while the legal industry is incrementally assimilating technology into our work. We are growing in tandem, with legal tech being more conscientiously regulated because of the nature of our work to “uphold an enduring and stable system of rules around which society can structure its interactions”, as quoted from the speech of Singapore’s Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon at the opening of the legal year 2017.
It is now imperative for the legal industry to stay abreast and be acutely aware of the role technology plays in all industries, from process implementation to the delivery of products and services. This knowledge is essential for legal advisers to ensure all regulatory and commercial requirements are met and stakeholders’ interests protected. As a firm, we are always tuned in on technology developments around us and have dedicated a technology, multimedia and telecommunications law department to complement our existing services and to better cater for the changing industry needs.
AMC: Malaysia is the world’s biggest centre for Islamic finance. What do you see regarding the opportunities and challenges in this area and is this a priority for the firm?
NM: Malaysia has come a long way since Islamic finance was introduced in the country back in the 1970s. The first Islamic bank was instituted through the enactment of the Islamic Banking Act 1983, and we have since stood witness to a blossoming Islamic finance industry with the liberalisation of the Islamic financial system. Shook Lin & Bok’s heritage is closely intertwined with the nation’s banking industry with many of our partners, past and present, having contributed to the development and advancement of the banking industry over the years through professional involvement in regulatory bodies, corporate organisations, educational institutions and think-tanks relating to both conventional and Islamic banking.
Islamic finance still has tremendous potential for growth regionally and internationally. As Islamic finance is rapidly taking prominence in the global financial market, conventional financial institutions face heightened competition. This has spurred a challenge for firms to keep up with the innovative product offerings and tectonic structural changes in the finance sphere, alongside the new commercial and legal concerns that manifest thereof. Nevertheless, Malaysia’s experience in building a thriving domestic Islamic financial industry creates excellent opportunities for the firm to showcase our expertise in the dual disciplines of Islamic finance and conventional finance. The capability to take a holistic approach in handling litigious and non-litigious banking and finance matters allowed us to further leverage on our Islamic finance knowledge and experience, making it one of the firm’s organic priorities.
AMC: How should a major new client engage with Shook Lin & Bok to ensure the best results? Is the firm offering any special arrangements beyond the usual?
NM: We engage with our current and new clients alike with integrity and respect. The advancement in technology has allowed clients to engage us through various modes of communication, be it online or offline. It really depends on our clients’ preferred mode of engagement and what works best for them.
As we have a highly diversified portfolio handled by 17 specialist departments, the firm is able to provide holistic services through cross-departmental collaborations. For instance, our teams from the banking and finance department, debt and loan restructuring department, banking and finance litigation department and general and civil litigation department were mobilised to act and advise a client on a complex high-stakes matter involving a settlement arrangement with multiple corporate debtors. As a unique proposition, our specialist departments work in collaborative environments where our clients reap the full benefits of engaging professional legal services.
AMC: Our belief is that successful training should produce lawyers who can be at the top of their game, where knowledge of the law and a profound grasp of professional ethics and integrity, as well as the necessary commercial acumen to be your own boss, are embedded in the DNA. What is Shook Lin & Bok’s approach to training?
NM: Shook Lin & Bok has always been an advocate for continuous professional development, so the notion stated is pretty reflective of our position on training for lawyers. The firm provides our lawyers ample platforms to upskill through the frequent organisation of internal dialogues and seminars apart from opportunities to participate in conferences and workshops, both locally and internationally.
Work-life balance has been a buzzword for millennials joining the workforce, and the same is the case for the newer generation in the firm. The firm takes into serious account the welfare of our people and strives to provide them with the necessary support to attain what they have set out to achieve. Of course, the legal profession tends to project a more solemn outlook compared to the tech industry, for instance, but our collaborative culture and open-door approach have been key to sustaining the balance that our younger generation seeks.
AMC: What is your hinterland (ie, what are your interests outside of the firm)? How do you control your time so that you can pursue them?
NM: Well, the black and white theme seems to be consistent throughout my vocation and avocation. I have a passion in photography, black and white photography to be exact. I have always been fascinated by the intricacy of architectural structures and the history behind them. Photographs in black and white give them a classic and timeless quality. Many a times, the focus of the photograph becomes clearer without the distraction of colours. It is an interest that I have kept for years yet still find myself very much intrigued by the monochromatic outlook. The best part is this hobby doesn’t take up much time, especially when beautiful shots can be created spontaneously with just a click of the shutter. All that matters is our perspective.
Nagarajah Muttiah is the firm’s current managing partner and heads the general and civil litigation department, the international and domestic arbitration department, and the shipping and insurance department. He was called to the English Bar in 1979 and was subsequently called to the Malaysian Bar in 1980.
Muttiah authored the Malaysian chapter to the second edition of William Tetley’s Maritime Liens and Claims. Amongst other notable achievements and affiliations, he is the immediate past president and is now a committee member of the Malaysian Maritime Law Association. He has presented a number of papers over the years as a member of the International Bar Association and the International Pacific Bar Association.
Known for his work in the insurance industry, Muttiah and his team of lawyers regularly handle complex insurance and reinsurance disputes. Recently, he and his team led negotiations on behalf of a leading Malaysian insurer with a leading reinsurer from the Middle East and the Labuan Offshore Financial Services Authority of Malaysia (LOFSA), which finally culminated in a landmark out-of-court settlement agreement between the parties premised on commutation clauses found in the motor quota share treaties.
Muttiah is an active practitioner in the areas of international and domestic arbitration and has previously acted as an arbitrator. He is also a familiar personality in all levels of the Malaysian court, including the Court of Appeal and the Federal Court, and frequently appears as counsel for intricate or complex cases.