Mr Francis Xavier SC
We log onto the video call with Mr Francis Xavier SC and exchange pleasantries. It is a balmy Monday afternoon, and despite his packed schedule, he has managed to carve out time to sit down for an interview with us – albeit a virtual one, given the present COVID-19 restrictions.
He graduated with LLB (Hons) from the Faculty of Law at NUS in 1988, his team having also emerged Runner Up in the International Round of the prestigious Jessup Moot that same year. He has since become the current Regional Head of Dispute Resolution at Rajah & Tann, and was appointed Senior Counsel in 2009.
Given his extensive experience as a litigator, mooter and debater, we decide to start the ball rolling by seeking his advice on mooting and public speaking.
“You need to be yourself when you are up on your feet,” he says, matter-of-factly. “When you start off, you have this idea that you need to be somebody else, that you need to speak, or act, or appear a certain way to look good. Then you realise that in order to be truly effective,you should just let your guard down. Let your personality come through and just allow yourself to be.”
“Stop pretending to be that someone else,” he shares, “because when you stop trying to impress, and simply express yourself, it is the most powerful thing.”
His second tip then revolves around learning to be comfortable with public speaking. He points out a dichotomy we all have between talking to a group of friends and standing up to address a room full of strangers. “It takes a while for that divide to disappear, but you become powerful the day it does.” However, he quickly counters this with a caveat and a most memorable metaphor: “It’s not that you’re no longer nervous. You will be nervous, and that nervousness is great. You learn to align your butterflies in a row and get them to take off.” We smile upon hearing this.
Continuing on, Mr Xavier emphasises learning to “fly away” from scripts and the need to react instantly. “You have to drop the cue cards and notes at some point. The worst offenders are those who read straight off the script. Your advocacy skills, ability to impact and persuasive power evaporates the moment you start reading. You become a prisoner of your notes. Once you stop relying on notes, everything will flow on stage. You will engage the audience,” he assures us.
He rounds off by stressing how mooting was very much a key cog in the wheel of training for trial craft and general public speaking for him, and reiterates his previous metaphor: “Any opportunity to get up on stage is an opportunity to train yourself to align those butterflies for take off.”
Meanwhile, in between questions, his Russian Blue slowly slinks towards us on screen, making for an adorable distraction. As we collectively coo over the cat, he introduces it to us as Mika whilst stroking it.
As he sets Mika down on the floor again, we resume the interview. Having heard from a fellow schoolmate (who had interned with him) about his adrenaline junkie pastimes, we ask him out of curiosity about how it all started.
Mr Xavier obliges us by animatedly launching into a story from his early thirties, where he had just made equity partner and was entirely burnt out– “like both ends of the candle consuming itself ”. Completely drained by work, he decided to go away for thirteen days in between back-to-back trials, but had no idea where he wanted to go. Eventually, on
a memorable Everest base camp trek in those 13 days - the sole objective being to see the summit of Everest.
Despite facing “every conceivable problem”, from fully booked flights to news of Moro rebels at Everest “slaughtering people” and closed-off trails, Mr Xavier remained unfazed. He got lucky and received a call about a cancelled booking for a flight to Nepal just two hours before. Within twenty minutes, he was at the airport, ready to board that flight.“Luckily I was on standby with my packed bags,” he chuckles.
“I decided that I was not going to give up on myself whatever the obstacles-when in the past, my life was full of 'someday' conversations about everything I really wanted to do." As part of the trek, he climbed the peak of Kala Pattar: 18,500 feet. He told us how he had been climbing from 1.00AM to 6.00AM. For a brief interlude of 20 minutes,the clouds parted and he saw a jet stream blow on Everest's snowy mountain peak. Lady Luck must have been smiling on him once more, because after those 20 minutes, the clouds did not part for the next three weeks. After he descended the mountain, he realized the true power of persistence and undeterred passion. Realising his new found love for mountains, he started learning the skills to become a mountaineer. “Wasn’t it strange? Previously I hardly even had time to cut my nails, hardly had time to go to the movies, but now, I was doing trial preparation in the day and going for ice pick training in the evening!”
“I don’t know how it really works, but life has demonstrated to me that life itself is not logic-driven and time does not operate like a pandan cake,” he admits with a smile. “I finally had the courage to
live from the heart.”
Mr Xavier tells us that the secret to life is to follow your heart and not settle. “If you want to take on the Silk Road, don’t settle for Phuket. Doing all the things that my heart yearned for have made me a better lawyer, simply because I don’t complain about the fact that I haven’t done them...... What had held me back from living the most amazing life was between my ears. My pragmatic and over-cautious mind.”
He adds, “If you ask me today, what am I? I would say that being a senior counsel is not the only thing on the list. I would pride myself equally as being a good member of the community - being concerned about the plight of people struggling around me, about being a good friend, a good brother to my siblings. Of course, I pride myself as a senior counsel, but I pride myself beyond that… The thing that gives me the most joy, the most contentment and peace is the fact that I sometimes have the courage to follow my heart when logically it doesn't make sense.”
He then advises us to just try it out, be it going somewhere, learning a new skill, or taking up a new project whilst being true to school or work.
“I meet a lot of people. The first question I ask them is: ‘What do you really want out of your life this month? What do you really want to do today before you go to sleep? What do you really want to see this year?’ A lot of the time, I don’t get an answer. ‘Maybe catch Netflix?’ I ask again - ‘What is the one thing you want to do before you die?’ A lot of them have no clue. Many don't really have an answer.
How do you lead a beautiful, majestic, glorious life worth living, if you have no clue as to what you really want? Sometimes it may be as simple as calling a friend that you really love and haven’t spoken to in months. Sometimes it’s just that. Or perhaps it is canoeing in a remote lake in Botswana, But - you go to bed knowing that you’ve done the one thing you really wanted to do.”
We ask him about how one should go about choosing what to do with their lives, career-or otherwise.
“It is very crucial that you are going somewhere definite, somewhere where your heart is engaged, somewhere you want to go"!
Pressing on, he talks about how we are so out of touch with ourselves nowadays. “As Zig Ziglar put it, you can be the best marksman or markswoman in the world, but how will you hit a bulls eye without planting a target in front of you?”
“Look around you– how many people are truly alive? Some do behave like animated vegetables.” We laugh again. “The fire in their bellies has died, and why? Because what rules them is: what will make more money, what is more practical, what is the more logical choice… Making all those logical choices would make one hollow and dry out your heart. The key is to have a perpetual song in your heart. Money can't buy that. The only way to live life is to follow my one's heart. Get to know one's heart and stay true to it.”
He proceeds to regale us with a couple more tales that tickled us greatly– one involving him climbing an erupting volcano in Krakatoa (yes, whilst it was still erupting), and how he formed a rock band with other lawyers at Rajah and Tann (wittily named “The Illegals”) and learnt to play the drums.
He grins as he recalls a particular charity fundraiser they performed at. “We raised $250,000 for the Assisi Hospice with one song (‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’)...I went around telling the dinner attendees - , ‘If you donate money, I’ll get the Attorney-General to sing!’” And so our incumbent Chief Justice, Sundaresh Menon (then the AG), gamely went on stage to belt out the Bob Dylan classic.
Mr Xavier reverts to a more serious note. “Start with today. What is it that you really want to get done today? What is the one thing that you could get done today, that will mean a lot to you? Don’t live everyday like ‘Oh, Monday, then Tuesday lor, then oh, another Monday, preceded by another Sunday lor…’ What joy is there in that?”
To follow up, we ask him how he would frame this philosophy for young lawyers and students alike.
In reply, he asks, “Of what use are you to anybody if you are running on empty?”
He concedes that when one starts out as a young lawyer, it is tough, having to clock long hours. Nevertheless, he urges young lawyers to find their passion and joy even then, which includes not having the “someday” conversation about life– that one slogs now and 20 years later, life will begin. “Ask yourself: what can I do now to have a joyful life, despite being so busy?”
Mr Xavier carries on to introduce what he calls “nuclear capability”. “This has happened all your life– you’re given an assignment, nothing happens when you try to start, but very close to the due date you panic, something magical and miraculous happens and the job gets done. You swear it will never happen again but it does. You don’t understand how you get it done on that last day. It seems impossible to have done it in such a short time frame but somehow, you did it.
There is a nuclear capability within you that you can only unleash under threat of pain or extreme circumstances.” At this juncture, we are all smiling sheepishly at one another through the screen. He has just painted a scenario that has happened to all of us one too many times.
“You will need to realize that "you can access nuclear capability at will too - when you do what you love. You will get it all done too, if you don’t want to miss something you love.” He thus advises us to fill our schedules with everything we wouldn’t want to miss. “Decide to get everything done and perform the way you perform right before an assignment is due. Aren’t you going to do everything in your power not to miss that memorable date or percussion lesson? And so you are able to access that nuclear capability when you are living life to the fullest."
He tells us to “live a full life, even if you are working very hard”. “What will really make a great day? Maybe all it takes is a phone call. Maybe reading a book. If you didn’t have that movie, or that date, you have the whole day to be a grunt, and when you get to the office, you will be complaining about the number of things you need to get done, how productive do you think you’ll be then? Whereas, if you had that 9.15 pm movie, you'd be doing your work intentionally and fully present while getting your work done to get to that movie!" – I also learnt through life that people are more important than tasks.
Before he takes his leave, he reminds us of the importance of making time and being present for people in life, and ends the interview with a parting question: “Start every day with this question – what will it take to make today a glorious day?"