Tan Sri Cecil Abraham is the senior partner at Cecil Abraham & Partners. His career at the bar spans 50 years. He has over 250 reported decisions of note to his name and is widely regarded by his peers and clients alike as one of Malaysia’s leading counsel, and known to be devastatingly effective in court. His practice covers numerous areas including corporate and commercial; environment; banking and securities; insurance; competition; and arbitration. He is regularly appointed arbitrator in domestic and international arbitration, and is the only Malaysian to be regularly appointed in investment treaty disputes.
What inspired you to pursue a career in law?
I had an option to pursue medicine or law. However, coming from a family that had a close connection with the law, it seemed inevitable that a career in law was the way forward. The field of law has always been of interest as it affords one an opportunity to play a significant role in assisting parties to resolve problems. It is the problem-solving aspect of the practice of law in a logical, methodical and systematic manner that has always appealed to me. At the core of a lawyer’s practice is the fact that one is genuinely seeking to help another, be it in the context of a commercial dispute, a libel claim or an investment treaty claim.
What is it about your role as a litigator that you enjoy the most?
As a trial lawyer, I enjoy preparing to do “battle” in the form of parlaying with opposing counsel at trial and in the cross-examination of witnesses. There is a certain degree of excitement in so far as this part of the litigation process is concerned.
As an appellate counsel, I derive significant enjoyment in preparing to litigate a significant dispute, in terms of analysing a judgment for loopholes, if I act as counsel for an appellant; or in seeking to sustain a judgment if I am representing the respondent. While preparing for a major appeal can be an arduous task, the intellectual thought process that one undergoes in terms of structuring arguments, reviewing the law as well as the material facts and in some instances creating a new precedent, is one of the most enjoyable aspects of being a litigator.
In summation, be it as a trial lawyer or appellate lawyer, arguing game-changing cases that seek to develop the jurisprudence in my jurisdiction has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of legal practice over the past 50 years – the simple reason being that one is contributing to the development of the rule of law and the creation of a sophisticated legal landscape, all tools that are fundamental to the growth of a young nation such as Malaysia.
What challenges did you face when setting up your own firm?
I would say a degree of self-doubt. This was one of the most significant challenges. This is because, as with any new venture, regardless of how successful one has been previously, there is always some degree of trepidation as to whether the establishment of a new firm would be a successful one.
I was fortunate, when we established Cecil Abraham & Partners in 2015, that I had with me a great team. Since inception, all things being equal, the firm has done relatively well. I hope that the future will continue to be a bright one.
What makes your firm stand out from its competitors?
In my view, the firm stands out in that it has the necessary expertise to deal with complex issues and disputes. We understand how best to simplify issues of concern among the lay clients, instructing solicitors and, ultimately, the court or arbitral tribunal that we appear before.
We do not over-pitch or oversell our client’s case and as such, when we argue a case, the court or arbitral tribunal is respectful of the arguments we put forward.
In addition, given our experience, we have the ability to move expeditiously should the need arise in litigating or arbitrating a dispute. We do not have to reinvent the proverbial wheel, having appeared in a significant number of disputes covering a broad spectrum of areas of law.
Ultimately, we trust that our success and experience in handling significant disputes in an unflustered and truly professional manner sets us apart.
How has the market changed since you first started practising?
The market has changed in the following ways.
First, there are significantly more advocates and solicitors practising in Malaysia. This has created greater competition, which is generally good, provided those pursuing a career in law are suitably educated and equipped with the correct skills.
Second, the amendments to the Legal Profession Act 1976, allowing foreign attorneys, compels the local practitioners to innovate and improve themselves in order to compete at regional and global levels.
Third, the pace of practice has increased with the developments in technology and amendments to the court process and procedure. The advent of e-filing, e-case management, e-discovery, email, online research capabilities and AI technology has significantly altered the legal landscape. Perhaps more significantly, the creation of specialist courts and specialist judges has led to practitioners being appointed in their areas of speciality. This has its merits and demerits in that, while it allows one to become skilled in a specific area of the law, it may impair one’s broader and overall development as a standout litigator. Having a narrow focus is not always a great thing, particularly for the younger practitioner in his or her formative years of practice.
Finally, the needs of the instructing solicitors and lay clients have changed. There is a need to be more responsive to client queries. There is also a need to be more attuned to cost and other intangible business, social and economic considerations.
What is the most memorable case you have been a part of?
I was instructed by Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore, to bring a defamation action against The Star newspaper and its editor Chin Vui Khen. This was unusual in that a foreign prime minister was suing a Malaysian newspaper in the Malaysian courts. I was successful in obtaining a favourable decision for the then prime minister of Singapore and the award in damages was one of the highest awards granted by the Malaysian courts at that point in time. The case is also notable for the fact that the Malaysian courts confirmed that freedom of expression under our article 10(1)(a) of the Federal Constitution was subject to the right of Parliament to impose restrictions on such freedom in relation to the law of defamation.
What advice would you give to younger practitioners hoping to one day be in your position?
I would advise younger practitioners to remember the following: above all, be honest with the court and the client; be humble; remember that your integrity as a counsel is key; stand strong in times of adversity; and master the law and marshall your facts well in arguing a case.
Looking back over your career, what has been your proudest achievement to date?
In 1988, a judicial crisis took place in Malaysia, precipitated by the unprecedented suspension of the then Lord President Tun Mohamed Salleh Abas. An initial tribunal was appointed to inquire into his alleged misbehaviour. Five Supreme Court judges were then suspended when they attempted to grant an injunction to suspend the tribunal. I was instructed by the five Supreme Court judges to put together a team to defend them in separate proceedings before another tribunal. I would regard this as a watershed of my career in having the honour of being appointed by these five Supreme Court judges to select a team of some of the country’s leading lights, and ultimately defend them in their quest to clear their names and uphold the integrity of the judiciary during a difficult period in Malaysia’s history.
This aspect of the history, and the challenges faced by the Malaysian judiciary and the legal profession at the time, has to an extent been forgotten. For the younger practitioners today to fully appreciate the benefits they have, they must fully understand the history, challenges and sacrifices made by these five Supreme Court judges and some other judges who stood by them, as well as the practitioners who appeared in the first and second tribunals during the 1988 judicial crisis. It is because of the efforts of these individuals as a collective in 1988 that Malaysia has a robust bar and judiciary.
Cecil Abraham is "Malaysia's leading international arbitrator", remark sources who applaud his experience "sat on numerous investment treaty claims as arbitrator – be it under the ICSID Rules or the UNCITRAL Rules".
Tan Sri Dato’ Cecil Abraham is the senior partner at Cecil Abraham & Partners. His career at the Bar spans 50 years. Within that time, he has appeared in all the High Court divisions, as well as before the Court of Appeal, the Federal Court, the Special Court and the Privy Council on a regular basis. He has over 270 reported decisions of note to his name. He is first and foremost an advocate, and is regarded by peers and clients alike as one of Malaysia’s leading counsel, known to be devastatingly effective in court. He has a strong reputation for dealing with complex disputes where the stakes are high and is known to work hard to achieve a satisfactory result for his clients.
As counsel, he has in recent times argued the leading cases in Malaysia concerning, for example, unjust enrichment, the doctrine of separate legal entities, equitable fraud, the powers of liquidators, the exercise of royal prerogative powers, and the applicable test relating to the setting-aside of an arbitration award under the Arbitration Act 2005, to name but a few.
He holds of the distinction of having acted for the former prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, and several prime ministers of Malaysia.
He is also regularly appointed as an arbitrator in domestic and international commercial arbitrations, having sat in excess of 100 arbitrations, and is the only Malaysian to be regularly appointed as an arbitrator in investment treaty disputes.
Tan Sri Dato’ Cecil Abraham’s practice covers a wide breadth of areas, including corporate and commercial, environmental, banking and securities, insurance, maritime and competition law, as well as international arbitration.
Cecil Abraham is “a big name” in the region thanks to his extensive experience handling contentious proceedings before an array of courts, including appellate tribunals and the Supreme Court.
Tan Sri Cecil Abraham is senior partner at Cecil Abraham & Partners. He has 50 years of legal experience.
He has over 270 reported decisions of note. His peers and clients regard him as one of Malaysia’s leading counsel, known to be devastatingly effective in Court. He has a strong reputation for dealing with complex disputes where the stakes are high and is known to work hard to achieve a satisfactory result for his clients.
Tan Sri Cecil Abraham’s practice covers a wide breadth of areas that includes corporate and commercial, environmental, banking and securities, insurance, shipping, and competition law as well as arbitration. He has in recent times argued the leading cases in Malaysia on unjust enrichment, the doctrine of separate legal entities, defamation and the law of reportage, enforcement of arbitration awards and the exercise of royal prerogative powers, to name but a few.
Tan Sri Cecil Abraham is an advisory member of the International Council of Commercial Arbitration (ICCA) Governing Board and a panel arbitrator of institutions such as ICSID, SIAC, HKIAC and AIAC, to name but a few.
Tan Sri Cecil Abraham graduated with an LLB (Honours) from Queen Mary College, University of London and was called to the English Bar. He was admitted to the Malaysian Bar in February 1970. He is a fellow of Queen Mary College, University of London, the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators UK, the Malaysian Institute of Arbitrators, the Singapore Institute of Arbitrators and the Australian Centre for International Commercial Arbitration. He is a chartered arbitrator and also a Bencher of Middle Temple.
He is regularly appointed as arbitrator in domestic and in international commercial as well as investment treaty arbitrations. He also acts as counsel for investors in several investment treaty disputes.