S. Sagadeva

In our world that is full of troubles and turmoil, and in our profession that is infested with worries and stress, Sagadeva stood out as a portrait of serenity.

One can hardly picture Sagadeva without his famous pipe, and staring into the distance. That distinguished-looking figure of a man often appeared deep in contemplation. He would have been a very rich man if he had allowed everyone around him to give him a penny for each of his thoughts.

My learned friend Mr Jegatheeson for the Johore Bar has shared with us a brief history of Saga’s life and career, which I will not repeat. But allow me, on behalf of the Malaysian Bar, to recall a few things about the man that Sagadeva was.

Saga was an absolutely unassuming person who often did not speak very much, not out of ineloquence, but because of his wisdom in being slow to judge others, and in realizing that quick and frequent offers of boisterous advice based on one’s own limited experience and learning could often disrupt more than assist others.

Saga once shared with me this old Indian prayer: “Grant that I may not criticize my neighbour until I have walked a mile in his moccasins.” That is an example of Saga’s wisdom, and of his experience in life.

It is true that, because he was at times a man of few words, some who did not know Saga well enough might have felt that he was aloof or unfriendly. But that impression would have been quickly corrected if one got to know him better.

When he did speak, Saga spoke softly & without hurry. He carried the kind of confidence with him that could only have been possessed by one who maintained a healthy sense of balance in life. He gave the impression to his listeners that, beneath his quiet disposition, he knew more than they could ever discover. He knew more than he would let known.

And who can forget Sagadeva’s peculiar smile? Though not quite as mysterious as Mona Lisa’s, it was sort of slight but expectant, it was like a bud about to flower, foretelling of beautiful things to come.

Sagadeva is an example to us in many ways, the most important of which, in my view, is in the way in which he had led his life and conducted his law practice in an honest manner throughout. And that is by no means easy to do. In the practice of law, as in many other fields, there are always profitable temptations luring one to deviate from doing what is right and proper. There are many ways of compromising a little and profiteering a lot. Bernard Shaw once playfully declared that he could resist everything except temptations. Fortunately, Saga had successfully & consistently resisted all opportunities to stray even a little from the right path. That, I submit, is Saga’s biggest legacy to the legal fraternity.

Saga was a good advocate. His style was not high-sounding, colourful or verbose. Rather, his style was simple, straightforward, practical, and yet learned. No, he was not among the most famous counsel at the Malaysian Bar. Nor did he belong to the group of high income-earning lawyers. If fame and fortune were the yardsticks for success, then I cannot say that he was successful. But fleeting fame and fortune are poor criteria for conferring enduring honour and respect. And it is on this more important pedestal of honour and respect that Saga enjoys deserved success.

Sagadeva led the Johore Bar, as its chairman, for 2 years. He served as a member of the Bar Council for many more. I had the privilege and pleasure of working with him in the Johore Bar Committee in the early and mid nineties, along with colleagues like Arthur Lee, Kuthubul Zaman, the late R.A. Kumar, Ee Peng, Mohd Yamin, Yap Siong Ching, Tay Bee Choo, and others. Saga was loved by all. I can personally testify to his nurturing leadership.

Saga loved reading, and on very serious stuff at that. I think he read more on non-law subjects than law books. He was philosophical about life, and he had a searching mind. He could get into a deep philosophical discussion with anyone who was interested. There were not that many takers. To him, life was not about making as much money as one could, or getting as much recognition as possible. He preferred a slower pace, taking in the moments in life rather than rushing through every minute of it.

Saga had his fun-loving side as well. He certainly loved a few drinks with friends, both in JB & in Singapore where he had lived. When asked the reason for his affinity to beer, he would wittily reply:

“Beer, beer, beer! So amber & so pure!

Not half as sweet as a woman’s lips, But ah, a site more sincere!”

Lest Saga is posthumously accused of being sexist, let me hasten to point out that the above quip is not gender-biased. Just substitute the words “woman’s lips” with “man’s lips”, and it will make equally perfect sense.

When Saga let his hair down, both the quantity of his speech and his sense of humour invariably improved. For a period of time, Saga and I were in a small group of karaoke goers, which included Fadzillah, Yap, Bee Choo, Tho, and occasionally Nijar and Sze Ping. I remember the good times we had. Saga would always request an old Chinese song of the 1960s, “???” (Bu Liao Qing), to be sung. My learned friend Mr Jegatheeson joined us once or twice, but he was made to drift in and out of the room, simply because Jega’s tolerance of alcohol was much greater than our tolerance of his vocal chord.

Saga’s life was not always a bed of roses. In fact there was a period in his life when he was sleeping on a bed of thorns. That was when his elder son, the late Vikram, came down with leukemia in his teens. Saga and his family did everything they could. When it became apparent that, despite valiant efforts and strong fighting spirit, the illness would get the better of Vikram, Saga was devastated, even though he tried not to show too much of it.

In late August 1994, Vikram succumbed to that cruel illness. The loss and pain that Saga and his family experienced were unimaginable. Those of us who have not suffered the loss of a child cannot truly fathom the depth of such emotional pain. As friends, we were all hard-pressed for words that might provide some solace to Saga. I wrote and sent him a poem, bearing the title “When Words Fail”. As a piece of poetry I am sure it was not any good, which is why I have kept my day job ever since. But it did help me strike a closer friendship with Saga, as he subsequently opened up a little and discussed with me a bit of what he had gone through.

Some friends observed that Saga had changed after that tragedy, and that he had become more subdued, more detached. Who could blame him? The important thing was that he quickly gathered the strength to fully carry on in life in as responsible and as honourable a way as he had done before. That was the strength and conviction of the man.

Last Sunday, when thinking about what I am to say today, I conjured up a silhouetted image of Sagadeva with his pipe, smiling at us from way above. And I asked myself, what could I say that he might approve of?

Then it dawned on me that the best way we can remember and honour Saga is to do our best to put into practice what he had taught us; and that is: to live and celebrate life in a vibrant but balanced manner, and to lead our lives and conduct our work, whether as lawyers, judges or otherwise, in as honest and upright a manner as we can. That, I am sure, will finally cause Saga to discard his pipe for a little while, and turn his usually thrifty smile into a broad and hearty one.

Whether as widow, children, relatives, colleagues, or friends, the loss we have felt in Saga’s departure is lasting and forever. But we can also take comfort in the knowledge that the invaluable things that we have gained from Saga, for which we will always be grateful, are likewise lasting and eternal.

To Mrs Kim Sagadeva, Lahiri and Dalini, the Malaysian Bar and all of us here would like to convey to you what I am sure you already know, which is that in Sagadeva there stood a good, honest human being, an excellent officer of the courts, and a gentleman of distinction. You ought to be, and I am sure you are, very proud of him.

I humbly move that the notes of today’s proceedings be preserved in the archives of this Honourable Court, & a transcribed copy thereof be furnished to Mrs Sagadeva & family.

Yeo Yang Poh

3 December 2008

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