print this page close this page
Back

In Memory of K S Rajah, Former Judicial Commissioner and Director of Legal Aid Bureau

By Mark Wong, Oral History Specialist

K S Rajah, who had a long and distinguished legal and judicial career, passed away on 17 June 2010 at the age of 80. Rajah was known for his strong sense of social justice and contributions to the development of Singapore law, as seen in his written judgments while serving as Judicial Commissioner of the Supreme Court of Singapore (1991-1995) and his contribution of numerous articles in publications such as the Malayan Law Journal and Singapore Law Gazette. Oral History Centre recorded close to five hours of interviews with Rajah between 1996 and 1997.

Born Kasinather Saunthararajah in the town of Prai, Province Wellesley on 3 March 1930, Rajah was the eldest of 13 children of a clerk working for the Malayan Railway. In his oral history interview more than six decades later, he would reflect that “humble beginnings is a great teacher.” At home, his mother taught the children Tamil as well as hymns and stories of the Hindu religion. When he was old enough for primary school, he enrolled in St Anne’s School and after that, Bukit Mertajam High School. Unfortunately, in 1942, when Rajah was in Standard V, war broke out in the Malayan Peninsula.
When war broke out, we of course retreated with the British, in the sense that we got into the train with whatever we could collect… until our retreat was cut off at Serendah. That was one of the bigger battles that took place, one of the places where the British or the Australians I believe put up some sort of fight. It was the area around Sungai Slim… in Perak, yes. And our retreat was cut off there. We then went and stayed with some family in the rubber estate, all of us there.”

When fighting ceased and the Japanese took over administration of Malaya, the family returned to Bukit Mertajam, where Rajah’s father resumed work at the railways. It was during the Japanese Occupation that Rajah had an early, albeit indirect encounter with the law, when his father was arrested in the course of his railway duty.
“… on one occasion, my father was supposed to have allowed a train to go when they [the Japanese] wanted it to stop. The suspicion was that there was some rice meant for the wrong people in the train, so he was promptly arrested. Being arrested by the Japanese at that time was a very serious business… What I didn’t know then but my father told me after he returned, was that when the Japanese arrested him, the soldier sort of asked him to bend down and threatened to cut his head at the railway station and brought the sword down. But my father didn’t flinch and he said that he was not helping anybody, not involved. Somehow, that seemed to make that Japanese officer hesitate and so anyway, he was kept in the police station. Then, they wrangled and they decided to charge him. The courts were also functioning at that time. He was charged in a district court… In the courts for some offence or other.”

The Japanese Occupation had thrown the teenage Rajah to the harsh reality of life in a society without the rule of just law.
“There was corruption and our main resource was my mother’s jewels, I think. You had to pawn them or sell them to try and get things moving… I remember I did a bit of schooling, I did a bit of raising of goats and cows, and I did a bit of selling of home-made cakes which my mother used to make and we used to go and sell to the passengers in the trains… This was another source of income…[At Malayan Railways] I was a mixture of an office boy-cum-messenger-cum-interpreter kind of thing… You grew up faster than you should because you were already working, you were dealing with adults. Adults tend to get you to do things... They bully you where they can.”

Although life improved after the surrender of the Japanese and liberation of Malaya, the war and occupation had already caused much disruption to the lives of people. For Rajah and his peers:
“… our education suffered because when I went back to school, the education authorities had to take care of all of us who had missed four years of education and also the population that had grown up, the student population. So we were sort of put through school by [being] given double promotions and just pushed up. After three months, you get a promotion and so on. So that in 1947... I sat for my School Certificate… I was 16 or 17… I finished Standard V to School Certificate [in two years]… And of course in those days, once we get School Certificates, it’s like getting your degree today. In a family like mine, there was no question but for me to start work. So you start out work…”

Just as his education was interrupted by the war, Rajah was also a late-comer into the legal profession, trying out different jobs before finally entering the Attorney-General’s Chambers at the age of 33. After receiving his School Certificate in 1947, he taught briefly in a private school in Kuala Lumpur before spending three years as a wireless operator at Penang Telecoms (1947-1950) and, by his own admission, “living from pay day to pay day”. Deciding to seek better prospects elsewhere, he travelled to Singapore where the Ministry of Education was recruiting teachers. Rajah enrolled in the Teachers’ Training College (TTC), juggling courses there while teaching in various primary schools, including Radin Mas, Sembawang and Tiong Bahru Primary School. His hard work earned him a scholarship to the UK where he received further training at a teacher’s college in Cheltenham (1953-1955). On his return to Singapore, he worked as an assistant lecturer at the TTC (1955-1963).

Source: Public Works Department
Lecture blocks of the Teachers’ Training College, 1956

To further improve his qualifications, Rajah also took a correspondence course for the Higher School Certificate (HSC) and in 1957, signed up for a part-time law degree at the University of Malaya, becoming part of the first batch of students at the newly created Department of Law under Professor Lionel A Sheridan.
“I came across it quite by chance and I applied for it. As I told you, I was doing my HSC at the time when I applied for the course. The interesting thing - and I think this is a matter of some interest - is that when Prof Sheridan started the law course, it was a very uncertain feature… It was a department of the Arts faculty and it was not clear whether you would get a degree, it was not clear whether it would be recognised, it was not clear what would happen. I think Prof Sheridan was clever in one respect, in that he wanted to build up a momentum, a force as it were. So, he broke away from the other full time courses and started a part-time course. I think in fact he was killing two birds with one stone because on reflection now, most of the teachers of the Arts or the Law faculty at that time were practising lawyers who would only come in the evening. So it made it [easier for…] part-time tutors to come in too... working people. And of course, if there were a sufficient number of working students doing part-time courses, I have a sneaky feeling that there would be sufficient funds to pay the lecturers. I do not know whether this is what in fact happened but anyway, when he opened the doors to part-time [students]… the hunger for education was such that there were about 150 or so students who applied and the part-time course started with about 100-over students. Of course, about 14 or 15 ultimately graduated at the end of the six years.”

The start of the law course at the University of Malaya was an important milestone in the development of the legal profession of Singapore and Malaya. Prior to 1957, getting a law degree typically meant studying in England which, as Rajah explained, was “not only expensive - it may have required you to resign from your job… [In] 1963, I was one of the very few part time students who got a Second lower, because those days practically everybody passed with a Class III… I was anxious to preserve the years I had spent as a teacher and to carry on, so I applied to the legal service.”

As a rookie, Rajah cut his teeth in the Criminal Division of the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC), and was immediately involved in such high profile cases as the Pulau Senang riots in 1963, when prisoners in the penal colony on the southern island murdered three prison officers. The next year, Rajah acted as Federal Counsel to assist in the Federal Commission of Inquiry into the 1964 Prophet Muhammad’s birthday riots. He remembered his nine years in the Crime Division well:
“it was exciting because at that time the crime side was having a lot of trouble with strikes, trade union offences and vandalism and things like that.… when I first went there, we had a jury system too… a jury trial always is a colourful trial, because you have the people, you have the public… closer to everything and it affects your style of advocacy.”

As a rising deputy public prosecutor, Rajah found the jury system problematic as a jury could be swayed into passing a wrong verdict. Based on his own experiences and because of his strong desire for a more just system, Rajah supported the abolition of the jury in 1969.
“I prosecuted one case… in the second racial riots. This was a case where a group of Chinese had stopped a Malay taxi driver and dragged him out and hit him. I think they killed him. And this police car happened to be passing by and it was a hefty Indian sergeant in the force. Now, this chap just marched right in and caught hold of the fellow who was hitting this taxi driver and arrested him. And he was charged with murder… And the evidence, of course, was clear because here was a police officer who saw the... did the actual arrest on the spot. There was the man and the jury acquitted him…

And this was the case that was uppermost in my mind when I had to give my views. And I had to agree with the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew that members of the jury are not always going by the evidence. And that there may be a case for abolition of the jury because I think I put this down on paper so it must be somewhere in the files. At that time I was in the crime side and I did... You know, when things of this kind came in because I used to read a bit, I would be asked to say my piece and I did.”


Source: Singapore Press Holdings
Former Chief Minister David Marshall speaking against the Criminal Procedure Code (Amendment) Bill in which jury trials would be abolished, 16 December 1969. Marshall famously defended the jury system, while others, like then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and K S Rajah, supported its abolition.

Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts
The Attorney-General Chambers at High Street, newly opened on 6 April 1971. The building formerly housed the Public Works Department, and had just undergone renovations costing $376,400.

In 1972, Rajah was briefly appointed as Official Assignee and Public Trustee, handling the Gemini Chit Fund case, a landmark fraud case involving more than 40,000 investors. This was an extremely trying case for Rajah, who was caught in the middle of the battle of personalities between the Attorney-General Tan Boon Teik and the former Solicitor-General Francis T Seow, who had gone into private practice and was on the defence counsel. Rajah had worked under both men when all three were in the AGC.

Owing to the sudden death of his father and his need to take leave to Kuala Lumpur to perform the customary funeral rites, Rajah was taken off the case and subsequently reassigned to the Legal Aid Bureau. Notwithstanding the sudden transfer, Raja would subsequently become the Bureau’s longest-serving director, staying there for 13 years until 1985.

Source: Singapore Press Holdings
K S Rajah in 1977, when he was director of the Legal Aid Bureau.

The Legal Aid Bureau was set up in 1958 to provide free legal assistance to persons of limited means. Rajah found his time in the bureau to be socially meaningful and personally gratifying.
“This is where I had a little time to participate and offer my services to social problems. And yes, of course you see social problems in the raw and it makes you realise that you should also do something for the society by serving in various social bodies.”

During his directorship, Rajah reorganised the Bureau to make it function more efficiently so as to better serve the public.

 

“I got all the files organised, I made sure that all the subordinates work as a pool and as a team, and all the assistant directors of Legal Aid sign for on behalf of the director of Legal Aid, and that I was the man that they had to consult on, and everything, all the various aspects of the work was put ship-shape. My aim was to reduce the waiting time… The people who applied to Legal Aid had to wait - I think when I went in, some of them had to wait for as long as 30 years. When I left, they waited as much as six months, I think.”

In his personal capacity, Rajah was also involved extensively in social and welfare work, serving as President of the Singapore Paraplegic Association, Vice President of the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association, Secretary of the Hindu Endowments Board and Secretary of the Hindu Centre.

In what would be the pinnacle of his career, Rajah was appointed Judicial Commissioner of the Supreme Court of Singapore from May 1991 to March 1995. He executed his duties with a ceaseless drive to ensure that justice was dealt. Despite (or perhaps because of) the busy nature of the job, Rajah stressed the importance of patience in the role of the judge and in the execution of justice:
“Personally I think the judge must listen; you can’t consider if you don’t listen. And you must be patient… There is one important aspect of justice. A man must feel that he has been heard before he has been thrown out. Now, he may be on the wrong tack, but if you know that he is wrong and chip in very early, and he hasn’t had his two cents’ worth, then he is going to go away feeling that [he] was not heard... And I think that is important because the whole conception of justice rest on the fact that it must be seen to be done. One must feel that it has been done. And this has got a cumulative effect if over the years people feel that there is not much point going because you are going to shut down the first few minutes.”


Source: National Archives of Singapore
Supreme Court, 1992

Rajah went beyond what was expected of him to help potentially disadvantaged parties receive justice.

 

“There are cases where [lawyers] don’t come fully prepared to assist the judge, by giving authorities and citing up the whole thing… The question that I have asked myself and other judges, which has always saddened me when I sat on the bench, is to see a party who has a good case losing out because it has not been presented as well as it should be. And the question is: in such a situation, the innocent, the party should suffer just [because of the incompetence of the lawyer, and so] I had even given cases to [the lawyers], referred textbooks to them and said, ‘Look up this case. I want to hear summations on that.’ Oh, I’ve done that. I’ve done that often - but not always to the satisfaction of the lawyers, because some lawyers think that it’s such a straightforward thing.

In that respect, there was one decision that I gave which I think is supported, where it says in family law, the fact that the parties are agreed does not necessarily mean the judge cannot say that he does not accept the agreement... You see, very often the mothers are torn between having the children and getting money or getting a share of property, so it is easy to twist the arms of the mother by saying, ‘All right, you can have custody, provided you don’t ask so much maintenance or do this or do that.’ Well, some mothers do. Now, the question is do you allow a man to get away with such a thing, especially when you can see… You develop a feel for it. You see the mother crying and agreeing to something when she knows she’s going to have difficulty...

So then I have always refused. I am persistent in questioning the mother. “Why are you accepting this - giving away your children, giving away your house, giving away your maintenance. This does not sound right. After all, you paid for it!” And I have said, “No, I want to hear more!” So I have done things like that.”

His other highlights as Judicial Commissioner included his judgment on a transsexual marriage in 1991, in which Rajah had ruled the marriage to a transsexual void, as the Women’s Charter did not permit marriage between parties of the same sex, and determination of sex was based on one’s birth certificate. He recalled:
“As a result of my sort of looking into the question of law that arose and taking up the case, as it were, on a personal basis, and looking up the law and writing up the judgement, it opened up a whole new field of law.”

His judgment prompted lawmakers to relook the Women’s Charter and in 1996, transsexual marriage was legalised as a result of the identity card being made the prima facie evidence of a person’s sex.
I did quite a few of the cases and where the problems arose, I did try and make it a point to write a judgement… although writing judgements when there is no appeal is really a luxury that we could not indulge in at that time.

Rajah returned to private practice after 1995. In 2002, Rajah was awarded a Public Service Medal at the National Day Awards. Six years later, he was conferred the CC Tan Award by the Law Society of Singapore for exemplary professional conduct. That year, Rajah fought his last case as Senior Counsel, still fighting for the underdogs when he represented minority owners in the Horizon Towers case regarding an en bloc sale. The case went up to the Court of Appeal, which in January 2009, reversed the High Court decision to allow the sale, a triumph for the underdogs and a final feather in the hat for K S Rajah.




To listen to the oral history interview with K S Rajah, please visit National Archives and quote the Accession No 002088 (10 reels).