When the 1MDB scandal made the papers, it seemed like there was no end in sight to this intricate money laundering case that had engulfed our nation.
And then, Equanimity came to light.
The superyacht, purchased with 1MDB funds by mastermind Jho Low, was returned to Malaysia. I read that a lawyer, Sitpah Selvaratnam, was put in charge of its arrest and sale. At this point, all I knew about Sitpah was that she worked with Tommy Thomas before he was appointed Attorney-General.
In the nine months it took Sitpah and her team to arrest and sell Equanimity, I learned that she was a force to be reckoned with. A woman of integrity, intelligence and grit, she proved to me and many young female law students that we can do anything as long as we set our minds to it.
It was a Thursday afternoon when I saw Sitpah sitting in one of our office’s meeting rooms. She was dressed in a black dress, sporting a huge smile on her face as she spoke.
My boss glanced at me, all wide-eyed and awe-struck, and she asked if I’d like to interview Sitpah. With no hesitation at all, I said YES.
We went in to meet her and she graciously agreed to the interview. “GoodNews? That name alone makes me happy!” Sitpah said, with a laugh.
After her meeting was done, she and I sat down in that same room and began our exclusive interview for GoodNews. As we spoke, I could feel my jitters disintegrate. Sitpah exudes humility and authenticity, making everyone around her feel comfortable and at ease.
When she speaks about her career and the landmark cases she has been a part of, all you can hear is this unadulterated form of passion. Her eyes lightened up as she animatedly discussed each aspect with incomparable eloquence.
Wondering if she always had this passion, I asked her why she pursued law and in specific, maritime law. She smiled fondly, reminiscing on her early days.
“That was about 35-40 years ago, in the 80s and to be honest, I chose law by default. I didn’t know what else to do!” she said, chuckling.
Despite her deciding on law by default, it turned out to be one of the best decisions of her life. She quickly realised while at University that law came very easily to her and she thoroughly enjoyed it.
Her interest in maritime law, specifically, stemmed from her days at Cardiff University. She learnt from the renowned Professor Cadwallader, who promulgated the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
“And that’s how my romance with the sea and maritime law began,” Sitpah dreamily said.
The admiralty expert explained how she’s fortunate to be practicing an area of law she’s passionate about. Very few people can say the same.
Equanimity, the million dollar super yacht
Our conversation then centred around her book and what drew her to write it.
“Well, the book is on the arrest of the superyacht, Equanimity and how Malaysia reclaimed what was her’s,” Sitpah said, her tone turning thoughtful.
The arrest and sale of the ship for USD126 million was historic, not just for Malaysia, but for the whole world. These events were rare and unprecedented. Sitpah chose to publish her accounts of the case in April 2021 as it marks exactly two years since the sale of Equanimity, now Tranquility, was completed.
“It was a 9-month experience which turned out to be one of my greatest accomplishments. This case stretched me in so many different ways, in terms of the law and my personal development.”
Sitpah’s family, who watched and supported her through this, insisted that she share her story with the world. And all these factors resulted in Equanimity, the book.
Her handling of the arrest and sale of the superyacht was made even more momentous as she took it up pro bono, not taking any payment for her successful work.
“I was overjoyed about being able to restore integrity and bring our own asset back. I didn’t need to be paid for that.”
She listened intently as I asked my next question about her lived experience working on this historic case, wondering how gruelling the whole process must have been.
Sitpah immediately quipped, “When I first heard about the possibility of arresting her, I was excited! This was a once in a lifetime opportunity and it was falling on my lap.”
When the then Attorney-General, Tommy Thomas, approached her with this case, she recognised instantly that it wasn’t a clear solution.
But Sitpah also knew for certain that they had to do it through the admiralty way as it would fetch the highest price.
She understood that any buyer, who would be spending millions of US Dollars on this superyacht, will be looking for credibility and transparency. Both of which admiralty law distinctly provides for.
“My adrenaline was just pumping! I must tell you though, it was challenging and involved months of very little sleep but I was fuelled by joy. So the whole process didn’t seem at all like ‘work’,” Sitpah said, vividly describing her time on this case.
However, she remembers coming down from the yacht as they completed the arrest and she thought, ‘Okay! We’re done arresting her’ but as soon as they disembarked, Sitpah saw a host of media people with all sorts of microphones and cameras.
“I had a lump in my throat. I definitely felt trepidation but when you’re excited and sincere about what you do – the words just flow. I remember watching myself on television later that night and thinking, ‘Oh, not bad!’” the maritime lawyer said, laughing in spite of herself.
Although she successfully arrested and sold Equanimity, those 9 months were filled with frustration, anxiety and hopelessness, especially since it was so difficult to find a buyer.
The added pressure of people all over, including the media, scrutinising her every move, made Sitpah realise that she and her team couldn’t afford to take a wrong step.
Her tone then brightened as she described how, despite all these negative emotions, this new and unprecedented situation expanded her development in every way possible.
“And that’s why I always tell everyone that there’s a first time for everything. Even then, in my 50s, I was doing all of it for the first time.”
She reminded young lawyers, fresh out of law school and worrying about their first jobs, that these ‘first times’ will never stop. Sitpah, herself, is a testament to that.
Challenges, aspirations and inspirations
In fact, the lawyer’s journey thus far has been filled with tribulations. Before she had made a name for herself, Sitpah would not receive the same kind of attention that was directed towards male lawyers in court.
Maritime law, especially, was a male-dominated world. Sitpah recalls when she used to attend conferences and would try to break into groups in the midst of conversations.
“They would immediately stop talking!” she said, laughing at how ludicrous these situations were.
Sitpah also gave an example of how she would lose cases against male opponents even though she would have the better case, authorities and positions. After which she would always feel terribly dejected. However, all this dwindled as she began to prove herself in court, time and time again. The judges eventually realised that this woman had something to say.
“So, my passion fuelled me during these moments. And if you want it bad enough, you will work at it hard enough,” Sitpah emphasised, with a glint of determination in her eyes.
Young Sitpah persisted, producing quality work and always saying yes to opportunities. That was when biases disappeared and they saw she was an indomitable lawyer.
It did get much easier for Sitpah and she was fortunate to have been standing on the shoulders of strong women before her. And now, young women in law will be able to stand on shoulders like her’s.
The shipping law savant is a great fan of Jacinda Arden and how “she does things the female way, rather than pretending to be a male.” As for her inspirations when she was a young lawyer, Sitpah mentioned the great names of Malaysia’s law scene – Ambiga Sreenevasan, Jeyanthini Kannaperan and many more. Although, there weren’t as many women in law as there are now, it was enough to show her that it can be done.
She also included the names of many male lawyers who encouraged her, Tommy Thomas and Anantham Kasinather, who was her Master in pupillage,
“Of course, my family played a huge role in supporting me too,” Sitpah said, smiling in contentment.
In wrapping up my questions, I felt this surge of inspiration as a law graduate myself. Sitpah’s passion and enthusiasm about justice and the law is inherently contagious.
I felt the need to share what I was feeling with all the young women out there who still balk at the thought of becoming lawyers, doubting their abilities.
Sitpah’s words will always ring in my head when dealing with self-doubt:
“If you have the passion, go for it – there is no limit except the limit you set for yourself. And quite often, it is this internal voice that tells us we can’t do it or that we’re not good enough. Do not ever let that voice dominate because you are good enough!”
Sitpah wanted kids, a family and society, and she found that time expanded, allowing her to have everything she wanted.
“Time enlarges to fill our passion , or work expands to fill our time. The choice is ours.”
This interview with Sitpah is one I will always remember. She is the embodiment of everything that is right with our legal system. And if this conversation was any indication of what her book will be like, I already cannot wait to stay up until the early hours of the morning finishing it.
The highly-anticipated accounts of Sitpah Selvaratnam, in The Arrest of the Superyacht: Equanimity, will be released on the 15th of April, 2021. Make sure to get ahold of this rare insight into the experiences of a world renowned maritime lawyer and how she’s making waves in the Malaysian legal fraternity.
Sitpah and the legal team will also be speaking at a seminar based on her book.
Registrants will be able to purchase the highly sought after book at a special price. The author will also hold a book signing event at the end of the seminar!