The late Justice Choor Singh, one of Singapore’s most prominent Supreme Court judges passed away on 31 Mar 2009. The Oral History Centre was privileged to have interviewed him in 1991 and 1993 for the Communities of Singapore and Civil Service projects which were held over six sessions.
The son of a security guard, Justice Choor Singh was born in a little village in India called Korte. He came to Singapore in 1917 at the age of 6 and received his early education in Pearl’s Hill Primary School. After completing his ‘O’ levels at Raffles Institution, Justice Choor Singh took on the job as a solicitor’s clerk in Mallal and Namazie.
In 1934, Justice Choor Singh joined the Official Assignee’s Chambers as a clerk. He told the interviewer how he developed an interest in law:
“The Straits Settlement Government started recruiting staff because recession or depression was more or less over…I joined the Straits Settlement Clerical Service first as a temporary clerk on $40 a month and later… I was confirmed as a permanent clerk on $60 per month…I carried on working as a clerk, court clerk to the Official Assignee. My interest in law strengthened, I picked up quite a good amount of general knowledge, legal knowledge. When the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia started, the Official Assignee was appointed Custodian of Enemy Property that is Custodian of Japanese Property and I was transferred to his staff…It was during the Japanese Occupation with having nothing much to do that my intention turned to study law. Well, law books were difficult to find. Anyway I managed to find that. I did some general reading on constitutional law, civil procedure and things like that, going through the law of evidence and things like that. I had to read till the war was over. In 1946…I applied for admission to London University…to sit for the external (law) examinations…
Little did Justice Choor Singh realise then that he was to become the first Indian in Colonial Malaya to be appointed magistrate in 1949. He was called to the English bar in 1955 and subsequently appointed as a Senior District Judge and Head of Subordinate Courts. In 1963, he was appointed as a Supreme Court Judge. One of the memorable cases he shared in his interview was the “Body in the Box” murder which was a catalyst in the abolition of the jury system:
“The jury system was abolished as a result of a case which I tried. It is the famous case of Body in the Box and Alex Josey wrote a book on it... Francis Seow, was prosecuting and S K Lee was defending. I tell you this case. The young boy Tan went to murder one of his own friends. The murder took place in his house; he put the body in the box. He must have cut him up or something...Some school jaga (watchman) discovered it and police were called. So this chap was charged with murder.
So I tried the case…it was a very long trial, it lasted three or four weeks, probably more...I agreed with the Jury to sentence the man to the life imprisonment…Later on we found that there is trouble among the jurors. There was a quarrel among the jury... a Dutch juror was bullying them, and those fellows (other chaps) said why should we listen to this fellow. He wanted them to convict on murder. These fellows because they didn’t like the away he talked; they went for a lower verdict.
The father of the deceased man was a rich contractor, multi-millionaire staying in Tanglin. He went to see Lee Kuan Yew and said, ‘‘what justice is there in your government. Lee Kuan Yew talked to him, I don’t know how he got rid of him. But Lee Kuan Yew sent for me… I told him about the jury. He said, “Well what do you think. Shall I abolish the jury?” I said if I tried the man alone, I would have convicted without any hesitation… Then he (Lee Kuan Yew) took steps. And he held an inquiry, question the jurors”.
After 17 years on the Supreme Court bench and 47 years in public service, Justice Choor Singh retired in Nov 1980. But he remained very active:
“After relaxing for two-three months, I was getting impatient, fed-up with nothing to do. So one of my old staff friends, put in a good word for me to the Chairman of the OCBC Bank, Mr Tan Chin Tuan. He called me up and asked me whether I would like to be his Personal Consultant. That was in March or April 1981. ..I was his consultant to some of his companies and also some other companies in the OCBC group, for example Great Eastern Life, Overseas Assurance and few others. So I spent four and a half years there. After I left the office of OCBC, there was some Commission of Enquiry… about the Law Society….The government decided to amend the Legal Profession Act and improve the disciplinary process of solicitors who had wrong doing charges against them. So I was appointed as one of the chairmen of this Disciplinary Committee”.
Justice Choor Singh also made significant contributions to the Sikh community. He recalled his role as the Chairman of the Sikh Advisory Board where he helped to develop the learning of Punjabi in Singapore:
“I made representation to the government on behalf of the Sikh community that as there were no facilities in government schools for the learning of the Punjabi, the government should allow the use of government buildings on Saturdays mornings for the teaching of Punjabi. This was agreed by the government and the use of two schools in Waterloo Street was allowed. The work of conducting Punjabi classes at these two schools on Saturday mornings from 8 am to 11 am was undertaken by Sri Guru Nanak Satsang Sabha under the supervision of Rosir Singh who was then inspector of English schools. The project was a great success. About 400 Sikh children started learning Punjabi taught by 17 teachers although volunteers doing free service in the Sikh tradition.”
Justice Choor Singh was a founding member of the Singapore Khalsa Association which became a well-recognised sports club. He was also known for his contribution in sourcing donations for constructing the association’s building and establishing permanent premises for the Punjabi school in Balestier Road. Justice Choor Singh shared that:
“The Association is going strong with the Punjabi school being run there. And they have hockey teams, two or three hockey teams. They even play golf now. In the hall on the second level is a multipurpose hall. And it is heavily booked for Sikh marriages. So members are allowed to book a hall for a Sikh marriage. And then they use the premises for nearly two or three days because in connection with the Sikh weddings, there are other ceremonies and rituals…That is a great boon to the Sikh community. So instead of going to some hotels which will cost thousands of dollars, here you only pay a small fee for use of the electricity, water, all the services, gas in the kitchen gas cooking”.
After retirement, Justice Choor Singh also focused his energies on writing and research. He is the author of several books, mainly on Sikhism, including "The Lives of the Sikh Gurus" which is a text book for Sikh students, “Sri Harmandar Sahib- The Golden Temple of the Sikhs” and "Understanding Sikhism" which is acclaimed worldwide as a masterpiece summary of Sikh history and religion.
Information extracted from the Oral History Interview with Justice Choor Singh, Acc No 396 (Civil Service Project) and Acc No 1323 (Communities of Singapore Project).