Establishing Order … and Law in Singapore
The British East India Company 1819–1824 (Part 2)
This is a much revised and truncated version of a much longer chapter written in connection with the Law Society’s Administration of Justice in Singapore 1819–1942 project for which the Society was awarded National Heritage Board Research Grant, HR035 for 2020–2022.
This is the second of a two-part article that examines how justice was administered in the earliest days of British presence on the island. Read part one here.
Establishing a “Court”
The Rooma Bechara (Council House or Court)1‘Rumah Bicara’ in its modern Malay spelling.
On 26 June 1819, Raffles and Farquhar signed a further agreement with Sultan Hussain and Temenggong Abdul Rahman on arrangements to be made for the Government of Singapore.2‘Arrangements Made for the Government of Singapore, in June 1819’, Buckley (n 10) at 58–59. Responsibility for governing the island was conferred on a triumvirate consisting of the Sultan, the Temenggong and the Resident with those persons residing within the British port but “not within the campongs of the Sultan and Tumungong” would be under the “control of the Resident”.3Article 1, ibid. Four of the seven articles dealt specifically with the administration of justice:
All cases which may occur, requiring Council in his Settlement, they shall, in the first instance, be conferred and deliberated upon by the three aforesaid, and, when they shall have been decided upon, they shall be made known to the inhabitants, either by beat of gong or by proclamation.
Every Monday morning, at 10 o’clock, the Sultan, the Tumungong, and the Resident shall meet at the Rooma Bechara; but should either of the two former be incapable of attending, they may send a Deputy there.
Every Captain, or head of a caste, and all Panghulus of campongs and villages, shall attend at the Room Bechara, and make a report or statement of such occurrences as may have taken place in the Settlement; and represent any grievance or complaint that they may have to bring before the Council for its considerations on each Monday.
If the Captains, or heads of castes, or the Panghulus of campongs, do not act justly towards their constituents, they are permitted to come and state their grievances themselves to the Resident at the Rooma Bechara, who is hereby authorized to examine and decide thereon.
There are no records of the cases that were brought before the Bechara (Court) but we know that the Bechara met at the Residency – a cluster of wood and attap “bungalows and outhouses” which Farquhar erected and kept for his accommodation as Resident, and which were also used as a Treasury, public office, court house and church.4Farquhar to Hull, 22 Mar 1823, Straits Settlements Records, L13, at 283–287. This cluster of buildings was located at what is now the junction of High Street and St Andrew’s Road, where the former Supreme Court Building stands.5See HF Pearson, ‘Singapore from the Sea, June 1823: Notes on a Recently Discovered Sketch attributed to Lt Phillip Jackson’ (1953) 26(1) Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 43–55, at 54. The former Supreme Court building is now part of the National Gallery of Singapore. This site used to lay a short distance from the seafront as the Padang – then known as The Esplanade – was only half its current width. See Kevin YL Tan, ‘A History of the Padang’ (2022) 18(1) Biblioasia 24–31. Farquhar’s Residency buildings were eventually abandoned. In 1827, Lieutenant Jackson reported that the old Residency area was ‘still covered with the decayed attap buildings belonging to Colonel Farquhar’, see Pearson, at 55.
The Resident also appointed “Captains” or “Chiefs” – prominent and respected community leaders – for each of the various ethnic groups and entrusted them with the preservation of peace and settlement of minor disputes.6See Chan Gaik Ngoh, ‘The Kapitan Cina System in the Straits Settlements’ (1982) 25 Malaya in History 74; and Wong Choon San, A Gallery of Chinese Kapitans (Singapore: Ministry of Culture, 1963); and Mona Lohanda, The Kapitan China of Batavia, 1837–1942, PhD Dissertation (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1994). In 1820, there was a Captain for the Chinese (who was assisted by two deputies); one Captain each for the Bugis, Malay and Chulia populations. If the disputants are unhappy with the decisions of their respective captains, they could appeal the impugned decision at the Rooma Bechara.7Farquhar to Raffles, 5 May 1820, Straits Settlements Records, L10, at 368–373.
Establishing a Police Force
As the settlement grew, it became ever more difficult to control the population and to maintain law and order. In addition to robberies, theft and assaults, the settlement was also encountering problems with opium use and addiction, especially among the Chinese, and with gambling and rising debt and debt-collection. The British East India Company had made absolutely no provision for establishing a police force on the island and was reluctant to do so as it was uncertain that the British were able to defend their settlement against competing Dutch claims.8See Nadia H Wright, William Farquhar and Singapore: Stepping Out from Raffles’ Shadow (Penang: Entrepot, 217) at 120.
Although Farquhar laid down “such general rules” for a Police department as he “deemed under the existing circumstances of the Settlement best adapted to afford security to property and for the preservation of good order amongst the different classes of Inhabitants”9Farquhar to Hull, 23 Jan 1823, Straits Settlements Records, L13, at 51–56. in June 1819, he had no funds to establish such a force. Less than a year later, in May 1820, he developed an ingenious scheme that would regulate the indiscriminate sale of opium and arrack10An alcoholic drink distilled from the fermented sap of coconut flowers or sugarcane; sometimes known as ‘toddy’. and raise sufficient funds to establish a police force. Farquhar estimated that it would only require Sp$300 to run the small police department, less than half the estimated revenues.
Farquhar placed the Police department be placed under the Resident’s jurisdiction and recommended that his son-in-law, Francis James Bernard (1796–1843)11On Bernard, see Nadia H Wright, ‘The Career of Francis James Bernard: Nepotism and Patronage in Early Singapore’ (2016) 89(2) Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 25–44. be appointed Superintendent of Police. Bernard, who had a “thorough knowledge of the Malay and other native languages” on account of “his long residence in Eastern countries”’ was considered especially “well qualified for filling such a situation, with advantage to the public service.”12Ibid. Three months later, Raffles replied, agreeing to the sale of licences and to the appointment of an officer of the police at Sp$100 per month, and with a Sp$50 allowance for native staff. The selection of appropriate staff was left to Farquhar who retained Bernard in his post. Bernard’s staff consisted of the Radin Mohomed, the Malay writer, one gaoler, one jemadar or serjeant, and eight peada or peons.13Wright (n 31) at 29. They operated out of Bernard’s seafront residence close to where the Victoria Theatre and Memorial Hall are today located. Bernard then erected a wood and attap hut in the Temenggong’s compound in 1820 which served as a police station. Later, in 1823, it moved to the sturdier stone godown which had been built by Captain Cathcart Methven.14Hikayat Abdullah (n 40) at 159.
Within a year of the Police department being established, the European merchants were concerned that there were insufficient numbers of policemen in the settlement. A meeting of the principal European and other merchants was held on 20 Mar 1821 at the Police Office, and it was unanimously resolved that a fund be created to provide funds to increase the strength of the Police Establishment and that a Committee of three European and three Native merchants be formed to “take into consideration all points connected with the police.”15‘Letter from the Resident of Singapore’, 14 Nov 1821, Straits Settlements Records, L5, at 544–545. This additional Fund was known as the Night Watch Fund and paid for 1 jemadar and 9 peada, in addition to the those already paid for and employed by the Government.16‘Statement of the Strength of the Police’ 13 Sep 1821, Straits Settlements Records, L5, at 549.
In the first-ever annual Police Report, Bernard listed 49 crimes that were committed since the establishment of the police force and emphasised that since the auxiliary Night Watch was established, only two or three petty crimes had been committed.17Bernard to Farquhar, 10 July 1821, Straits Settlements Records, L5, at 217–229. Interestingly, Bernard’s report did not record any murders or assault cases for the year. The police department functioned in this manner until October 1822 when Raffles returned to Singapore and reorganised its entire system of justice and police.
Raffles’ 1823 Reforms
Raffles’ final and longest sojourn to Singapore occurred between October 1822 and June 1823. When he left in February 1819, he left Farquhar a general set of instructions on administering the settlement but with hardly any funds to meet these instructions. After an absence of over three-and-a-half years, Raffles arrived, determined to mould Singapore into the British settlement of his vision. He was determined to “set things right” and in the process, created a new land grant system a Magistracy and Court of Requests, reformed the police and sacked his erstwhile right-hand man, Farquhar.18See generally, Wurtzburg (n 18), 606–656; and Buckley (n 10), 71–152.
Raffles Regulations 1823
While detailed regulations or codes of law may not have been necessary in 1819, it was obvious to Raffles that this was now necessary, especially since Singapore’s population had swelled to 10,683 persons.19Saw Swee-Hock, The Population of Singapore, 2 ed (Singapore: ISEAS, 2007) at 10. Raffles’ power to make rules and regulations for Singapore stemmed from the general powers of the Governor of Bengal under the Regulating Act of 1773, which empowered the Governor General and Council of Fort William in Bengal to “make and issue such Rules, Ordinances, and Regulations, for the good Order and civil Government” of Fort William “and other Factories and Places subordinate, or to be subordinate thereto”.2013 Geo III, c 63, s 36. This was a delegated power which the Governor enjoyed by virtue of an English Act of Parliament. Any rule, regulation or ordinance duly promulgated would only be valid if it is duly registered and published in the Supreme Court of Judicature in Bengal with the Court’s “Consent and Approbation” which is made until at least 20 days after they are openly published and publicly proclaimed.21Ibid.
Raffles thus devoted all his time and energies – between the terrible headaches that constantly afflicted him – to “remodelling and layout out” the new city, “and in establishing institutions and laws for its future constitution”.22Raffles to unknown, 10 Dec 1822, reproduced in Sophia Raffles (n 59) at 532. The “constitution” of which he spoke came in the form of six Regulations which he drafted and promulgated between December 1822 and August 1823.23See ‘Raffles Singapore Regulations – 1823’, collated and reprinted in (1968) 10 Malaya Law Review 251–291. The first draft of his first set of Regulations – the create a Registry of Lands in Singapore – was published in January 1823. The topics and rules covered by these Regulations are as follows:
Regulation 1 – Establishment of Land Registry
Regulation 2 – Port Regulations
Regulation 3 – Establishment of Magistracy
Regulation 4 – Prohibition of Gaming Houses and Gambling
Regulation 5 – Prevention of Slave Trade at Singapore
Regulation 6 – Further Provisions on Magistracy and Administration of Justice
By June 1823, just as he prepared to leave Singapore for good, all of Raffles’ reforms and Regulations had been approved by the Governor General in Council in Bengal, and, being duly registered, had the force of law in the settlement.24Raffles to unknown, 12 Jun 1823, reproduced in Sophia Raffles (n 59) at 548.
Establishing the Magistracy
Regulations 4 and 5 created substantive criminal offences. Of great significance are Regulations 3 and 6 (and its appendices), which should be understood together. Through these two Regulations, Raffles established a Magistracy and the formal establishment of a police force which would operate on British principles but adapted to local circumstances. Under Regulation 3, three notable merchants (from a list of names of those “considered competent to act as Magistrates”) would be selected to act as Magistrates for the duration of each quarter (three months).25Regulation 3, section 1. The Magistrates’ authority shall be the same as that of Justice of the Peace in England. The Magistrates were to take turns as sitting magistrate for the week or month and the three Magistrates shall meet together at least once in three months in “the nature of quarter-sessions, for the hearing and deciding of cases which may exceed the authority of a single Magistrate, and doing all such things as are usually done at quarter-sessions in England”.26Regulation 3, section 2. The jurisdiction of the Magistracy extended “over all descriptions of persons resorting under the British flag” except for the military establishment and “in all cases where the followers” of the Sultan and Temenggong were concerned.27Regulation 3, section 4. Insofar as the local population was concerned, Raffles continued the system of “segmented justice” in appointing native “Captains” or “Headmen” and empowering them to adjudicate and settle “all disputes which may happen among the people of their respective classes, an appeal lying to the Magistrates where the amount of property concerned may exceed Sp$10.00”.28Regulation 3, section 9.
Fully cognisant of the fact that this Magistracy was not a full-fledged Court of Judicature and was in any case staffed and managed by lay magistrates with no legal training, Raffles limited its civil jurisdiction to disputes not exceeding Sp$100.00. Crimes involving British subjects would not be tried by the Magistrates but instead remitted for trial by a competent jurisdiction like Penang or Bengal.29Regulation 3, ‘Administration of Justice’, s 3. Magistrates were also empowered to reject cases that “involve intricate questions of law”.30Ibid, s 5. Finally, Regulation 3 provided for the promulgation of local laws and regulations by the Resident, in consultation with and on the advice of the Magistrates. In the event the Resident and Magistrates disagree on the law to be passed, resort is had to the Governor-General in Council in Bengal. The regulations so enacted should in no way be “inconsistent with any known British law or usage.”31Ibid, s 7.
Regulation 6 makes additional provisions for the Magistracy and the administration of justice. Instead of having three Magistrates appointed each quarter, all 12 Magistrates for the year are appointed at once, with three of them taking turns to act in each quarter. Two different courts were created under this Regulation – the Resident’s Court and the Magistrate’s Court. The Magistrate’s Court (presided over by two Magistrates) was to try all cases coming within its jurisdiction as prescribed under Regulation 3 while the Resident’s Court (presided over by the Resident and two Magistrates) would handle “all causes which are beyond the jurisdiction of the Magistrates” as well as all cases “referred to that court by the Magistrates”.32Regulation 6.
The Resident’s Court was to meet once a week, on Mondays at 9 o’clock in the morning, while the Magistrate’s Court would meet twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays at 10 o’clock in the morning. Detailed rules on the administration and procedures for these courts were set out in the Regulation’s appendices where we see for what might well be the first rules of court proceedings for the island. The rules also provide for jury trial in civil cases (where the amount claim is at least Sp$1000.00 and either party demands it); and in criminal cases (where the punishment is death, banishment, removal from the Settlement, imprisonment for more than 12 months, or a fine of over Sp$500.00). Under Raffles’ Regulations, the jury for civil cases comprises five respectable Europeans, or of four Europeans and three respectable natives. In criminal cases, the composition of the jury of five members depends on the descent of the accused. If the accused is a European, then the jury would comprise five Europeans and if the accused is a “native”, then five members of “the same nation and religion with the accused.” On the law applicable in resolving disputes, Raffles wrote:
13. Another, and more serious question, has however arisen, namely, What law is to be administered? Is it to be English or Malay, or both? And how far are the laws of China, or Hindustan, and of each particular state in the Eastern Seas, to be recognized? …
15. It is, I believe, generally admitted, that in colonies formed entirely by Englishmen, they naturally carry the laws of their country with them, subject only to such local modifications as the constitution of the colony may require; but nine-tenths of the population of Singapore will most probably consist of Chinese and Malays, and the restrictions of the legislature may for many years operate against any considerable extension in the number of Englishmen …
18. The view which I have been induced to take of the subject, inclines me to think that, under the peculiar circumstances of the establishment of the Settlement, the manner in which nearly the whole of the population has accumulated under the protection of our flag, and the real character and interests of the people who are likely to resort to it, we cannot do better than apply the general principles of British law to all, equally and alike, without distinction of tribe or nation, under such modifications only as local circumstances and peculiarities, and a due consideration for the weakness and prejudices of the native part of the population, may from time to time suggest.33Raffles to Holt Mackenzie (n 63) at 280–281.
In his Proclamation of 6 June 1823, Raffles gave notice that his Regulations were now in force and that the following “absolute rights” would be enjoyed by individuals under “the constitution of England”:34Raffles, ‘Proclamation’ 6 Jun 1823, ibid, at 287.
- The right of personal security; which consists in a person’s legal uninterrupted enjoyment of his life, his limbs, his body, his health, and his reputation.
- The right of personal liberty, which consists in the power of locomotion, of changing situation, or removing one’s person to whatever place one’s own inclination may direct, without imprisonment or restraint, unless by due course of law.
- The right of property; which consists in the use, enjoyment, and disposal of all acquisitions, without any control or diminution save only by laws of the land.
Limiting Native Authority
During Raffles’ stay in Singapore, he was approached by the Sultan and Temenggong, who complained to him that their allowances were insufficient. Raffles saw an opportunity to further secure the EIC’s position in Singapore and asked them to consider carefully how much they would need each month before meeting again. It was determined that the Sultan and Temenggong would require Sp$1500.00 per month and Sp$800.00 per month respectively.35Munshi Abdullah offers a colourful contemporaneous account of this particular conversation in Hikayat (n 40) at 163–164. An agreement was signed between Raffles and the Malay rulers in June 1823 under which these sums would be paid over to the Sultan and Temenggong, but in exchange, they would “forego all right and claim to the monopoly of Kranjee and Baloo wood36‘Krajee’ or ‘Keranji’, refers to the species dailium leguminosae, a topical heavy hardwood much sought after for building and furniture construction. In the 19th century, it was often used by Chinese boat makers for ships masts and rudders. ‘Baloo’ is more popularly known today as ‘Balau’ (shorea materialis), a massive tree that yields tropical tightly-grained hardwood that resembles teak. See IH Burkhill, A Dictionary of Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula (1936) (Kuala Lumpur: Ministry of Agriculture Malaysia, 2002) at 810–811; and 2052–2055. within Singapore, and the islets immediately adjacent, as well as all claims to presents and customs upon Chinese junks and Chinese generally coming and going”.37‘Memorandum by Sir Stamford Raffles’, June 1823, reproduced in Braddell (n 5) at 151–152. With the latter injunction, the Malay rulers could no longer insist on captains of visiting them with gifts and thus indirectly imposing a levy on trading vessels in what was otherwise a free port.
Raffles also took this opportunity to marginalise the Malay rulers from the general administration of justice by exempting them from “further personal attendance” at the Resident’s Court, while preserving their entitlement to attend “when they think proper to attend”. Raffles had also arranged for the Temenggong, his family and followers, to move out of the Temenggong’s compound on the north bank of the Singapore River – which Raffles wanted for government and civil buildings – to Telok Blangah (which was beyond the British port limits), and offered financial assistance for the Temenggong to relocate, built himself a suitable palace, and a mosque beside it. And finally, Raffles pressed home his advantage by getting the Malay rulers to agree to the following conditions:
6th. In all cases, regarding the ceremonies of religion, and marriages, and the rules of inheritance, the laws and customs of the Malays will be respected, where they shall not be contrary to reason, justice, or humanity. In all other cases the laws of the British authority will be enforced with due consideration to the usages and habits of the people.
7th. The British Government do not interfere at present in the local arrangement of the countries and islands subject to their Highnesses’ authority, beyond Singapore and its adjacent islets, further than to afford them general protection as heretofore.
It is unclear if the Sultan and Temenggong fully understood the legal import of these clauses in the Memorandum. On their strict legal meaning, these clauses extended the Company’s jurisdiction over the entire Singapore island rather than confine it to the limits of jurisdiction established in June 1819, and made English law the law of the land except in matters of religious ceremony, marriages and inheritance involving the Malay population.38See MB Hooker, ‘Introductory Note’ to Raffles’ Singapore Regulations – 1823 (1968) 10 Malaya Law Review 248–251, at 249.
Such, of course, was Raffles’ intention, but he was on thin legal ice. The sovereignty of Singapore had not yet been given over to the EIC and his 1819 treaties merely gave the EIC a licence to establish a trading post or “factory” on the island. It could thus not be considered a dependency of Bencoolen, which meant that any rules or regulations promulgated by Raffles was necessary illegal. It would be another five years before Singapore was finally ceded over to the British and thus placed on a proper legal footing for the administration of British law on the island.
|↑1||‘Rumah Bicara’ in its modern Malay spelling.|
|↑2||‘Arrangements Made for the Government of Singapore, in June 1819’, Buckley (n 10) at 58–59.|
|↑3||Article 1, ibid.|
|↑4||Farquhar to Hull, 22 Mar 1823, Straits Settlements Records, L13, at 283–287.|
|↑5||See HF Pearson, ‘Singapore from the Sea, June 1823: Notes on a Recently Discovered Sketch attributed to Lt Phillip Jackson’ (1953) 26(1) Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 43–55, at 54. The former Supreme Court building is now part of the National Gallery of Singapore. This site used to lay a short distance from the seafront as the Padang – then known as The Esplanade – was only half its current width. See Kevin YL Tan, ‘A History of the Padang’ (2022) 18(1) Biblioasia 24–31. Farquhar’s Residency buildings were eventually abandoned. In 1827, Lieutenant Jackson reported that the old Residency area was ‘still covered with the decayed attap buildings belonging to Colonel Farquhar’, see Pearson, at 55.|
|↑6||See Chan Gaik Ngoh, ‘The Kapitan Cina System in the Straits Settlements’ (1982) 25 Malaya in History 74; and Wong Choon San, A Gallery of Chinese Kapitans (Singapore: Ministry of Culture, 1963); and Mona Lohanda, The Kapitan China of Batavia, 1837–1942, PhD Dissertation (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1994).|
|↑7||Farquhar to Raffles, 5 May 1820, Straits Settlements Records, L10, at 368–373.|
|↑8||See Nadia H Wright, William Farquhar and Singapore: Stepping Out from Raffles’ Shadow (Penang: Entrepot, 217) at 120.|
|↑9||Farquhar to Hull, 23 Jan 1823, Straits Settlements Records, L13, at 51–56.|
|↑10||An alcoholic drink distilled from the fermented sap of coconut flowers or sugarcane; sometimes known as ‘toddy’.|
|↑11||On Bernard, see Nadia H Wright, ‘The Career of Francis James Bernard: Nepotism and Patronage in Early Singapore’ (2016) 89(2) Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 25–44.|
|↑13||Wright (n 31) at 29.|
|↑14||Hikayat Abdullah (n 40) at 159.|
|↑15||‘Letter from the Resident of Singapore’, 14 Nov 1821, Straits Settlements Records, L5, at 544–545.|
|↑16||‘Statement of the Strength of the Police’ 13 Sep 1821, Straits Settlements Records, L5, at 549.|
|↑17||Bernard to Farquhar, 10 July 1821, Straits Settlements Records, L5, at 217–229.|
|↑18||See generally, Wurtzburg (n 18), 606–656; and Buckley (n 10), 71–152.|
|↑19||Saw Swee-Hock, The Population of Singapore, 2 ed (Singapore: ISEAS, 2007) at 10.|
|↑20||13 Geo III, c 63, s 36.|
|↑22||Raffles to unknown, 10 Dec 1822, reproduced in Sophia Raffles (n 59) at 532.|
|↑23||See ‘Raffles Singapore Regulations – 1823’, collated and reprinted in (1968) 10 Malaya Law Review 251–291.|
|↑24||Raffles to unknown, 12 Jun 1823, reproduced in Sophia Raffles (n 59) at 548.|
|↑25||Regulation 3, section 1.|
|↑26||Regulation 3, section 2.|
|↑27||Regulation 3, section 4.|
|↑28||Regulation 3, section 9.|
|↑29||Regulation 3, ‘Administration of Justice’, s 3.|
|↑30||Ibid, s 5.|
|↑31||Ibid, s 7.|
|↑33||Raffles to Holt Mackenzie (n 63) at 280–281.|
|↑34||Raffles, ‘Proclamation’ 6 Jun 1823, ibid, at 287.|
|↑35||Munshi Abdullah offers a colourful contemporaneous account of this particular conversation in Hikayat (n 40) at 163–164.|
|↑36||‘Krajee’ or ‘Keranji’, refers to the species dailium leguminosae, a topical heavy hardwood much sought after for building and furniture construction. In the 19th century, it was often used by Chinese boat makers for ships masts and rudders. ‘Baloo’ is more popularly known today as ‘Balau’ (shorea materialis), a massive tree that yields tropical tightly-grained hardwood that resembles teak. See IH Burkhill, A Dictionary of Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula (1936) (Kuala Lumpur: Ministry of Agriculture Malaysia, 2002) at 810–811; and 2052–2055.|
|↑37||‘Memorandum by Sir Stamford Raffles’, June 1823, reproduced in Braddell (n 5) at 151–152.|
|↑38||See MB Hooker, ‘Introductory Note’ to Raffles’ Singapore Regulations – 1823 (1968) 10 Malaya Law Review 248–251, at 249.|