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Vikram Nair

Become – High Profiles
December 18, 2014

Vikram Nair arrives with easy aplomb and instantly, you take notice. His 6-foot height might be the predominant factor but there is also a commanding presence that turns heads. No wonder, the Rajah & Tann concierge ladies’ eyes light up – he’s a tall drink of water. Vikram acknowledges their presence with a smile.

It’s been six months since his switch from Norton Rose to Rajah & Tann and this move allows Vikram to appear in court more often – something that he is fonder of – commercial litigation. As a lawyer, Vikram’s speech is every bit as eloquent and sharp. His slight British accent (Cambridge days perhaps?) may seem officious but it’s laced with politeness. Since the 2011 general election, Vikram’s MP status has come under a lot of public scrutiny and it doesn’t help that the rise of social media makes one an easy target for netizens. His cautious demeanour is certainly evident as we walk towards meeting room 5.

“Here, try some chocolates – I generally eat healthy but these chocolates are a bit of my weakness,” professes Vikram as the pantry lady puts down a plateful of Rajah & Tann chocolates. “They are really quite good.”

As he proceeds to unwrap a dark one, I realise that the ice has broken.

Conversations with Vikram Nair

Partner, Rajah & Tann and Member of Parliament
Text by Wy-Lene Yap
Photography by Yew Jia Jun

WY-LENE YAP: Have you always wanted to become a lawyer?

VIKRAM NAIR: That’s a tough question. I probably made up my mind to study law, when I was 18. At the time, I was interested in debating but my favourite subject was Economics. It was a tossup between the two – eventually, I figured that law might be a good way to make a living out of debating.

WY-LENE: Why did you make the switch from Norton Rose to Rajah & Tann?

VIKRAM: I wanted to get back into litigation and I couldn’t do that at Norton Rose. It was a better way to get more experience too. Now, I practise commercial litigation and international arbitration.

WY-LENE: How has work been so far?

VIKRAM: It has been a very good six months.

WY-LENE: Do you think that foreign lawyers have a head start in Singapore as compared to local lawyers especially when they already have MNC clients to begin with?

VIKRAM: Not necessarily. Foreign lawyers can work in both (local and international) firms – I think most of them work in international firms and a lot of clients of these international firms are usually from the organization rather than the individual. For example, Norton Rose did have a lot of MNC clients because of our international network. The local firms have an advantage in terms of regulations and when it comes to contentious work. For example, our current regulations do not allow international firms to appear in court.

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WY-LENE: As a partner at Rajah & Tann, is it tough juggling your professional career as well as your Sembawang GRC MP duties?

VIKRAM: Yes, it was challenging at first but after a while, it gets a bit easier to juggle both. Having good people around to help you also makes it a lot more manageable.

WY-LENE: How many hours of sleep do you get?

VIKRAM: I try to get six to seven a night.

I didn’t understand what a politician’s life entailed until I started helping out at Chong Pang, following Mr Shanmugam around.

WY-LENE: Was politics something that you always had in mind?

VIKRAM: I was always interested in politics – largely because of debating and during my university days, it was called the British Parliamentary Debate, where we would argue about current policy issues. I didn’t understand what a politician’s life entailed until I started helping out at Chong Pang, following Mr Shanmugam around. From there, I realised that politicians do a lot more than just debate in parliament. It is a very big responsibility so by the time I took it on; it became more of a duty than something that was going to make my life more enjoyable. [laughs]

WY-LENE: Was there a catalyst that made you join in 2011?

VIKRAM: Well, the party [PAP] asked and I was ready to take the plunge at that time.

WY-LENE: Do you need a certain type of personality to enter politics?

VIKRAM: I would be hard pressed to say that there is one personality type amongst the politicians. There is a wide spectrum and everyone brings something different to the table, which is important as well.

WY-LENE: So you don’t need any altruistic values?

VIKRAM: For my party, we have a slightly different approach – we try to take people who are interested in service, and have done well in their respective fields. Not the people you might traditionally associate with politics such as career politicians who view politics as their be all and end all. We would like to represent a wide range of society who are also in a position to understand strategic issues.

WY-LENE: Has being an MP changed your perception towards citizens’ expectations and their needs?

VIKRAM: Yes and no. I had a fair awareness before I took the plunge. At the meet-the-people sessions, you handle the most difficult cases that give you a better understanding of the bigger problems people face. On the broader level, people’s expectations can range from adequate bus services during peak hours to having good jobs and even cost of living – all these have to be addressed at many different levels: locally, in parliament and as a whole by the government. My perception has evolved, though it hasn’t changed dramatically. I am always learning.

WY-LENE: With the rise of social media, are politicians under scrutiny all the time? And how do you cope with it?

VIKRAM: You need to be very thick-skinned. Be aware that anything you do might end up on Stomp or Facebook and if you can live with that then I guess you are okay. [laughs]

WY-LENE: Great approach.

VIKRAM: You can’t live your life being afraid that anything you do will end up on social media. You just have to be conscious about it.

I don’t think human nature has changed but with social media, it gives you a much broader platform: in the past, if you make a stupid remark at a coffee shop, no one is going to make anything out of it, but if you do the same on Facebook, it may go viral very quickly and before you know it, half the world is condemning you.

WY-LENE: Do you feel that there is a lot of mindless posting going on nowadays?

VIKRAM: I am sure there is some element of thought involved. There are so many incidents of people posting things rationally but have regrets after that due to the backlash. I don’t think human nature has changed but with social media, it gives you a much broader platform: in the past, if you make a stupid remark at a coffee shop, no one is going to make anything out of it, but if you do the same on Facebook, it may go viral very quickly and before you know it, half the world is condemning you.

WY-LENE: Can you share with me with some of the improvements that you have made for your constituency?

VIKRAM: Many different levels actually – the greatest direct impact can be seen on the municipal level. For example, improving bus services – based on the feedback, we have an express bus service to town: 951E.  Initially, it was 2 bus services at peak hours but because of our good working relationship with the local LTA officer, Ms Preiya, who is very pro-active, we managed to increase the frequency to 6 services. We also included double-decker buses, as they were so popular. We have another bus service 901 that goes to the MRT and at almost every house visit; people will raise issues about that. So we have managed to get a new bus and about 31 new trips a day. This is all at the local level and it was possible because on the national level, we have the Bus Service Enhancement Programme. In terms of new developments, I can’t take credit for them but as a GRC, we have a new MRT coming up (Woodlands South), a new mosque, Kampung Admirality, a new Community Club, and a new precinct with HDB flats and Executive Condominiums. These are exciting developments for our residents.

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WY-LENE: So what kind of challenges do you face on a daily basis?

VIKRAM: Residents’ needs are quite broad across-the-board and as an MP, I wear many different hats. In relation to the town council, many people come to me with a lot of local issues –my corridor hasn’t been swept today, neighbour disputes, etc. When I was first elected, there were also other issues like loan sharks and unlicensed money lending but it has improved significantly due to greater enforcement and having legal moneylenders. But issues are always there and problems evolve. Now, it is the interest rates that these legal moneylenders are charging so we are looking into the regulations and legislations to tweak that. On a more macro level, we want to ensure that Singapore continues to grow economically. I am also aware that many companies are uprooting and moving their businesses out of Singapore. It is not an easy process because almost every decision you make has a trade-off.

WY-LENE: Do Singaporeans take things for granted?

VIKRAM: It is human nature to assume that if things go well, it will continue to do so. Singaporeans take for granted that we will always have economic growth and jobs will always be available. In many countries, that is not the default scenario – dealing with double-digit unemployment is the norm.

WY-LENE: What are your thoughts on Singapore celebrating 50 years of independence?

VIKRAM: It’s certainly a journey and for me, a moment of pride to think that Singapore has come this far. We are in many ways punching above our weight, remaining very relevant in the world community. It is only when you take a step back then you realise how difficult this feat is – the easiest thing to happen to Singapore is that we become irrelevant. We don’t have any natural resources and even the advantages we have: as a shipping hub or an aviation hub is not enough to sustain our current economy. We have competition from almost all our regional neighbours and geographically, there is not much of a difference whether you stop in Singapore or one of the ASEAN cities. As for the ports, people are opening up bigger ports – the ports in China outdo us, especially Shanghai. But what is important is how we constantly evolve to find new ways to stay relevant –we are doing that by going into new businesses such as financial services, biotechnology, etc.

The need to stay relevant is existential.

WY-LENE: What are Singapore’s challenges going forward?

VIKRAM: The need to stay relevant is existential. There are also social issues like rising cost of living for example. But I think all these social issues can be dealt with if we have a healthy economy and a strong budget. We probably do a lot more for the low-income groups than many other places and we do that without running a deficit – simply because our financial health is good due to past prudence. In the future, we will face more challenges with an increasing population and to make our social net stronger will require a bigger demand on our finances. So to cope with that, we can either grow the economy and the tax base or increase taxes.

WY-LENE: How can you mobilise young Singaporeans to think about the long-term future instead of criticizing or complaining about the slightest issue?

VIKRAM: I get invited to dialogues at Universities or Polytechnics and the aim is to talk to as many of them. The other MPs do that too. Quite often, they are interested in the future and common topics such as the job market or what sort of degree or diploma is helpful and even starting salaries. I try to discuss with them the broader challenges that Singapore faces and what the next generation of leaders may need to think about. I don’t think that we can prescribe a plan for them because the situation is so dynamic but we definitely need people who can think and understand the situation to make the necessary decisions. I am pretty sure that with the rising levels of education, there will be a good talent pool of leaders amongst them to do the job.