From Then Till Now – A Brief History of the Penang Bar
“Penang Lawyer” was made famous by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who is better known as the author and creator of ‘Sherlock Holmes’) in his book “The Hound of the Baskervilles”. It is a particular type of walking stick made of a fine thick piece of wood, and is bulbous-headed and was just such a stick the old-fashioned family practitioner used to carry – exuding dignity, solidity and reassurance. But we, as the real Penang Lawyers, are far from being mere walking sticks … we are proud to lead!
It has been said that the history of the modern Malaysian judiciary began with the acquisition of Penang Island in 1786 by Captain Francis Light. As the island flourished into a strategic trading post with its growing population, Captain Light was compelled to seek the counsel of the Governor-General in India on the legal aspects of governing the people of this settlement. By 1807, a Royal Charter was granted to Penang which provided for the setting up of a Supreme Court. This was followed by the appointment of the first Supreme Court judge designated as the “Recorder”. The Supreme Court of Penang was first housed at Fort Cornwallis and was opened on 31st May, 1808.
The first Superior Court Judge in Malaya originated from Penang when Sir Edmond Stanley assumed office as the First Recorder of the Supreme Court in Penang in 1808. Interestingly, Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, was the first registrar of the Supreme Court of Penang. Later, and with changes made to the judiciary of the Straits Settlements, the designation “Judge” was substituted for “Recorder”.
Hence, the Malaysian legal profession actually originated from Penang at the turn of the 19th Century. This was acknowledged in the Bar Council Pictorial Biography entitled, “Justice Though Law” which was published in conjunction with the Bar Council’s 50th Anniversary.
The legal establishment in Penang was later progressively extended to the Federated Malay States in 1937 and much later to the Unfederated Malay States in 1951.
In the mid-80’s, the Penang Bar had approximately 300 members but now our number have grown to a strong 1,000.
The Penang Bar has always taken great pride in their members achieving many firsts. Perhaps these achievements go to justify our belief that “Penang Bar memang boleh!”
Penang’s Many Firsts
Malaysia’s own first pair of brother and sister to be called to the English Bar are the late Mrs. B. H. Oon and Mr. Lim Khye Seng, both of whom were born and practiced law in Penang. Mrs. B. H. Oon was also the first Chinese lady lawyer to be admitted to the English Bar in 1926 and the first Asian woman admitted to the Straits Settlements and Federated Malay States Bars in 1927. The Advocates & Solicitors Ordinance of 1914 permitted only men to be admitted to the Straits Settlement & Federated Malay States Bars. It had to be amended in 1927 to allow Mrs. B. H. Oon as the first lady to be admitted to the local Bar. She was subsequently awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1953 by Queen Elizabeth and the pingat Tun Fatimah by our Government in recognition of her achievements.
On 4th July, 1974, legal history was again made when Malaysia’s first Primer Minister, the late Tunku Abdul Rahman, became the first Prime Minister (after leaving office) to be admitted to the Bar before the Penang High Court. His admission was presided over by Chang Ming Tat, J and moved by the late Dato’ Eusoffe Abdoolcader. The Tunku in addressing the Bench at his Call descrived the event as “the proudest moment” of his life.
Among the other notable senior lawyers (some of whom were later appointed as Judges) who originated from Penang are:
- Dr. Sir Hussein Hasanally Abdoolcader
- Lim Cheng Ean
- Lim Cheng Poh
- Lim Ewe Hock
- Eusoffe Abdoolcader
- P. G. Lim
- Lim Kean Chye
- Lim Kean Siew
- Karpal Singh
– Cecil Rajendra: the first practicing lawyer to win international acclaim as a poet and writer. In 1997, Amnesty International accorded him the rare honour of carrying one of his poems as the theme for its calendar.
The Penang Bar was the pioneer in legal aid. It gave its support when the idea was mooted. Legal aid for the needy and poor started in merely a shack in Bayan Lepas. It was in full swing under the flagship of the Penang Legal Advisory Centre. The Bar council having observed the success of our project soon adopted it as one of its programmes and made it compulsory for each State to have at least one legal aid centre. Today, Penang has 2 full-time legal aid centres at Green Hall on the island and Kampung Benggali on the mainland and 2 clinics at Permatang Damar Laut and Bukit Tambun.
It is not in our nature to rest on our past laurels. We therefore decided to take legal aid step another step further. Seeing the success of “Meals on Wheels” which provides food for the poor, we decided to embark upon another bold venture – legal aid on wheels. Hence, the birth of our van, which is popularly known as MOBLAC (the acronym for Mobile Legal Aid Centre), which goes to rural areas and pasar malam to further disseminate our outreach programmes and to reach out to the needy and poor.
Our members are also very enthusiastic and zealous in sports, playing both competitively and in friendly matches with various governmental and non-governmental departments. We take pride in our annual Penang-Perak Games where each State takes turns to host the event. We have named challenge trophies in recognition of our popular players who were taken from us early in their loves but who have made their presence felt in the game – Asamaley Hockey Challenge Trophy and Choo Hon Choy Football Trophy.
Distinctiveness of the Penang Bar
In the past, chambering pupils paid courtesy calls on senior members. However, this practice is now limited to committee members. Upon being admitted to the Bar, it is common for the newly admitted members to host a tea reception in the Court premises whereby members of the Judiciary, court staff and fellow Bar members are all invited.
Several Judges who presided at the Penang High Court subsequently rose to the highest judicial officer in the land, e.g. Tan Sri Gunn Chit Tuan who became Chief Justice of Malaya, Tan Sri Wan Adnan who became the Chief Justice of Malaya and subsequently the President of the Court of Appeal, and Tun Dzaiddin who became the Chief Justice of Malaysia.