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Sunday April 28, 2013

Life of a legal lion in Sarawak

Adventurous soul:
Dashing young Peter
Mooney in Edinburgh
before leaving for
Sarawak. This, and other
photos of his life,
including many of
indigenous culture, add
much to his memoir, A
Servant Of Sarawak. Adventurous soul: Dashing young Peter Mooney in Edinburgh before leaving for Sarawak. This, and other photos of his life, including many of indigenous culture, add much to his memoir, A Servant Of Sarawak.

A Servant Of Sarawak
Author: Peter Mooney
Publisher: Monsoon Books, 272 pages

A senior lawyer finds much to appreciate in the memoirs of a stalwart of Sarawak’s early legal system.

LAST month, Datuk Peter Mooney was awarded the Malaysian Bar Lifetime Achievement Award. It couldn’t have been given to a better man, for Mooney’s service to the legal profession, which has spanned decades, has been a dedication to the law’s virtues and to its integrity.

In fact, Mooney is no mere practitioner but a counsel statesman. His conduct of court cases and advisory work bears the hallmarks of courtesy and grace found solely in those for whom law is a genuine vocation rather than a trade or business.

As a crown prosecutor in colonial Sarawak, Mooney performed his duties with both wisdom and discretion, and his razor-like sharpness as a skilled cross examiner is legendary. His encounter with the formidable Lee Kuan Yew in a Customs prosecution case, recounted in this autobiographical work, is a case study in sagacious judgement and the clinical demolition of a prevaricating defendant.

This book begins by charting Mooney’s journey from Donegal, Ireland, to Glasgow, Scotland, where he tasted war as a member of the Royal Scots Regiment, (the oldest regiment in the British Army) – and it was a journey fraught with drama and poignancy. The narrative of young Mooney’s Virgilian studies amidst the clamour of German Luftwaffe bombings of Glasgow vividly recalls that of a French scholar who said to his class at the College de France shortly after the German occupation of Paris: “Gentlemen, as we meet here today we are in a free country, the republic of letters, a country which has no national boundaries, where there is nether Frenchman nor German, which knows no prejudice nor intolerance, where one thing alone is valued, truth in all its manifold aspects. I propose to study with you this year the works of great poet and thinker, Goethe.” (The Greek Way by Edith Hamilton, 1930).

Peter Mooney's memoir, A Servant Of Sarawak. Peter Mooney's memoir, A Servant Of Sarawak.

Mooney’s university education was steeped in the Classics, through which he imbibed the Greco-Roman world, alongside the study of Greek, Latin, French, Mathematics and English. After the war he returned to post-graduate studies and completed a Master of Arts in History. From there, his appetite whetted in readings of Constitutional history, he proceeded to the study of law. Historical studies’ loss was the legal world’s inestimable gain. Securing Firsts in Jurisprudence, Evidence and Procedure, Forensic Medicine and Scots Law, and gaining admission to the Faculty of Advocates, his path to the legal profession was set.

As an erudite repository of historical and literary knowledge, Mooney has long-enriched his companions with the depth and breadth of his allusions and analysis, making the dry bones of law a living treasure. His decision to leave the Bar in Edinburgh and move to Sarawak (then a British colony) was not easy, but he readily adapted to Sarawak’s circumstances and, more significantly, to her people. Here he lived out his calling, bestowing his manifold gifts upon the community that he chose to serve and of which he later wrote: “I had become familiar and at home in Sarawak. I had no home elsewhere.”

One of Mooney’s outstanding achievements was his ardent endeavour to give recognition to indigenous native rights – a rare ambition in those colonial times. As famously depicted in E.M. Forster’s Passage To India and George Orwell’s Burmese Days, members of the colonial establishment haughtily disdained involvement with the lives and cultures of the natives and were inclined to ostracize those who did take up native causes. Mooney’s attitude was an exception. His empathy for indigenous people comes across in this memoir and his narrative of their customs and rituals is a worthy addition to ethnographical descriptions.

During his World War II service with the British Army in Burma, Mooney fought in the 1944 battle for Kohima Pass, one of the turning points in the Burma Campaign and a conflict in which 5,000 British soldiers perished and Japanese casualties numbered 7,000. A monument was erected at the site, upon which the following is inscribed: “When you go home / Tell them of us and say / They gave their tomorrow / That you might have your today.” *

A pupil of Mooney’s, the former Chief Justice of Singapore the Honourable Justice Chan Sek Keong paraphrased that eulogy, saying of Mooney, “He fought that we might have our today”.

At the launch of Servant Of Sarawak Mooney himself declared: “J’y suis, j’y reste.” (Here I am, here I stay.) Anyone who reads and appreciates this book would be so grateful that you did stay, Peter Mooney.

Malaysian laywer Philip Koh Tong Ngee is senior partner of of Mah-Kamariyah & Philip Koh, Advocates & Solicitors.

*The words are attributed to English Classicist John Maxwell Edmonds (1875-1958) and are thought to have been inspired by the Greek poet Simonides (c. 556-468BCE) who wrote similar sentiments after the Battle of Thermopylae in 480BCE.

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