Singapore Youth Award Finalist - Sujatha Selvakumar

Sujatha Selvakumar

Lawyer
Chairperson, SINDA Youth Club

Legal eagle Sujatha Selvakumar wants to engage and empower youths, and encourage them to dream about their possibilities in life.

Does Sujatha’s story inspire you? Tell us why!

Looking at her impressive resume, it may be difficult to imagine how once, not too long ago, Sujatha Selvakumar felt she was going nowhere in life. Today the confident 34-year-old is a lawyer who has advised clients on matters related to civil commercial disputes, Mental Capacity Act applications and matrimonial matters.

She is also active in community work, as the first female chairperson of the SINDA Youth Club, a legislative assistant, and a council member at the National Youth Council, among other roles.

Yet, Sujatha understands how some young people may feel unmotivated about realising their dreams in life — or even having any in the first place. The University of Manchester graduate nearly did not get called to the Singapore Bar, as Ministry of Law regulations stipulate that overseas graduates had to obtain a second upper-class Bachelor’s degree. She had graduated with second lower-class honours, and so had to work as a legal executive for two years before she could submit her application to be called to the Singapore Bar. She says: “Sometimes, I felt ‘stuck’ as I watched my peers move ahead — but then a family member or mentor would show me that there are options out there. Had I not persisted, I would not have become a lawyer. My family was my rock during this trying time, encouraging me not to be disheartened even though my counterparts were already full-fledged lawyers. I also met several mentors, in particular Mr N Sreenivasan, SC, along the way, who gave me a chance to pursue my interest in litigation and pro-bono work.”

Sujatha hopes that her own struggles serve as inspiration to the youths with whom she now works closely. “Because of my grades, I was deprived of some opportunities, so I feel very strongly about having multiple pathways to making your dreams come true. My experience affected my self-esteem and made me wonder if I could be a good lawyer. It was a painful lesson but and it also made me a stronger and more resilient person.”

Calling her work with young people her “soul food”, Sujatha wants to get to the hearts of young people, mostly aged from 17 to 25. She shares how some youths may not be able to envision possibilities because they lack exposure, don’t have role models or come from broken families. “I want to show them that the youth space is a wonderful safety network where they can be idealistic, experimental and innovative, while learning from their mistakes — which in turn allows them to become better leaders.”

EMPOWERING FROM THE GROUND UP

Sujatha says it is critical to identify issues among the young from an early age, so that discussions can take place earlier and the youth can use their energies more productively to help “enhance our society and community”. “There is a need to create awareness and remove the taboos that come with talking about certain issues, like domestic violence,” she says. To facilitate this, she helps out at legal clinics twice a week at the Community Justice Centre, where she has had 14-year-olds seek advice on bullying. “It is a problem in schools and our youth now experience cyberbullying too, in the form of revenge porn being circulated and so on. It is important for us to go into these spaces.” Sujatha also gives talks in schools on cyberbullying and gangsterism, sharing with her young audience how certain actions of theirs can amount to criminal offences. The talks are organised by The Law Society’s Pro Bono Services.

Sujatha is also passionate about her work as a legislative assistant with the Singapore Parliament as it lets her work on policy issues, though this in itself may not solve the underlying issues. “I can argue for a fine or a low jail term. But it doesn’t address why my clients ended up in this situation in the first place. They may have mental health issues, lack social support, or don’t have money. There is a whole array of things that I, as a lawyer, can’t fix and that’s the part that I increasingly struggle with because no amount of pro bono work I do can solve these problems. These have to be addressed much earlier upstream.”

While she enjoys practising community law, which lets her come into contact with “issues on the ground”, she dreams of one day starting a law firm that also hires social workers and therapists. She says some clients need extended assistance in different areas of their lives for at least six months, even after their cases have long been heard in court.

Besides helping youths, Sujatha also wants to empower women and give the vulnerable in society — like young adults with special needs or the elderly with dementia — better access to justice. Through the course of her community work, she has come across her share of “heart-breaking stories”, from foreign spouses who aren’t well-informed on maintenance support to a suicidal mother who couldn’t cope with taking care of her son with cerebral palsy. There have been times when she has given her clients money out of her own pocket or called on social workers to help them. “You take on an additional layer beyond your duty as an officer of the court. As a lawyer, I’m not obliged to do these — but as a human being, I am.”

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