Influence and Leadership

Cultivating Relations with the Colonial Government

Judicial Activities




Aside from resolving major conflicts and unrest that arose from time to time, Seah Eu Chin also acted in informal legal roles, mediating disputes among Chinese, that later became formalized by his appointments as Grand Juror and Justice of the Peace (JPs). His activities in this area appear to have begun when the courts advised Chinese suitors to refer their cases to Seah Eu Chin during the Recordership (1856-66) of Sir Richard McCausland. 89 Buckley, Anecdotal History, vol. 1, 151. Doubtlessly he would also have mediated disputes among the Chinese, particularly the Teochews, as a community leader. The Chinese at that time tended to approach community elders rather than the law courts to resolve disputes that would have come under legal purview because “it was much in keeping with Chinese tradition of referring disputes to the village elders and not the law courts.” 90 Kevin Tan, “Administration of Justice,” 29. Such a “tradition” developed from the paucity of officials in imperial China: each county had only one magistrate, but thousands of residents. Official government relied on local elites to carry out many functions we associate with the day-to-day business of comprehensive government today, such as conflict resolution and public works. This social institution of informal government predisposed Chinese migrants to look to Chinese elites in their migrant societies, whether appointed by colonial authorities (as in the Kapitan system of the Dutch East Indies) or by informal referral (as with Eu Chin), as community leaders and authorities.

In Singapore, the contact of the average Chinese with the authorities was minimal, and mostly in the persons of police peons who frequently were accused of repression and abuse. The courts referred suitors to JPs (who were all of the merchant elite) because (i) the British understanding of Chinese norms and traditions was inadequate, 91 Or the legal conceptions, especially of marriage and inheritance, were completely different from Chinese custom. See illustrations in R.C. Woods, comp., A Selection of Oriental Cases Decided in the Supreme Court of the Straits Settlements, (Penang, 1869). (ii) Chinese suitors might prefer to have their cases heard before another Chinese, 92 See the extract from an unpublished pamphlet by A.J. Kerr, Annual Reports on the Administration of the Straits Settlements 1855/56, 21: “… the Chinese are not litigious; and whenever differences arise among themselves, they appeal to their self-constituted tribunals rather than the established laws of the land. This, however, is often more from fear than choice – fear of offending some influential member of their own or of the opposite clan, especially if the latter should happen to be the strongest at the time.” and (iii) the British preferred to use intermediaries in dealing with the Chinese population (indirect rule). These intermediaries were always the big merchants because they relied the most on the law to protect their business. Eu Chin’s own will, for example, was carefully drawn up in English by a lawyer. 93 Straits Settlements Law Reports 4, 36. Deficiencies of the system made the British and the mercantile elite work together to improve what they could, though “so long as the system allowed them to carry on trading and making profits, they were satisfied.” 94 Kevin Tan, “Administration of Justice,” 31.

What does a Justice of the Peace do?

Seah Eu Chin and all four of his sons were appointed as JPs. It was a coveted honour, but where did this office come from and what did they actually do?

Justices of the Peace originate in English legal tradition, from medieval times when knights and members of the gentry were commissioned to keep the "King's Peace". They were unpaid volunteers who could hear minor cases and had certain police powers. In colonial Singapore, JPs were prominent men and community leaders who were trusted by the government, and helped to relieve the backlog of cases to be heard before the courts.

There was a pressing need for JPs who had judicial powers because the professional judiciary in Singapore in Seah Eu Chin's time was very small. Until 1855, Singapore and Penang shared one single professional judicial officer (the Recorder), who was based in Penang. The Governor and Resident Councillors (i.e. the members of the Executive) could also act as judges, but they were not trained lawyers. In 1855, an additional Recorder was hired for the Straits Settlements, so that one was based in Penang and the other in Singapore. Only after the Straits Settlements became a separate Crown Colony in 1867, independent of the administration in India, did executive officers cease to do double duty in the judiciary, and a Supreme Court was established, based in Singapore. (Development of court system in Singapore)

JPs continued to be appointed, even to the present day, but with a professionalized judiciary, these are mostly honorary positions, e.g. to recognize community leaders. The modern duties and powers of a JP include acting as a witness of character under several statutes, and solemnization of marriages.

Also documented was his service as a Grand Juror from 1851 onwards. The Grand Jury, in the context of English law then, was originally charged with examining evidence in criminal cases brought before it and to present them for trial by Petit Jury if evidence of the prosecution was considered adequate. In the present day, its role is fulfilled by the public prosecutor. However, the Grand Jury in Singapore took on an extra-judicial role as well, in making Presentments on civic and municipal matters, being the only quasi-official means by which the population could directly appeal to the government on matters such as the upkeep of roads, the conditions of hospitals, of prisons, and so on. 95 Y.K. Lee, “The Grand Jury in Early Singapore (1819-1873),” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 46 no. 2 (1973): 55-150. Seah Eu Chin was summoned for jury duty for the first time on 9 Sep 1851, one of five (three Chinese, one Parsi, and one Arab) “members of the native [sic] community” summoned for the first time; by then, however, the Grand Jury was past its heyday and made Presentments on extrajudicial matters only infrequently. 96 Y.K. Lee, “Grand Jury,” 96. See also Singapore Free Press, 12 Sep 1851, and Straits Times, 16 Sep 1851.

The non-European jurors, especially the Chinese, were criticized in an editorial in the Singapore Free Press,97 Singapore Free Press, 12 Sep 1851. for both their lack of command of the English language, and for alleged secret society links:

“Of the others, consisting of one Arab and three Chinese gentlemen, we believe the former and one of the latter have a competent knowledge of the English language…. Of the two remaining Chinese, one has a very imperfect knowledge of English and the other, one of those balloted for service, none at all. Two of the Chinese are British subjects, and one is a native of China and a subject of that Empire. With reference to this last fact we deem it right to make a few observations. Although the gentleman in question from his position and well-known prudence, will it is to be hoped be able to resist the influences which operate so powerfully on the mass of our Chinese population, yet there are few of the natives of China resident in the Straits, of whom the same could be safely said. They are bound by ties and obligations amongst themselves which are in effect superior in force to any which the law can lay upon them. The system of clanship and hoes [i.e. hui 会] is so pervading and so strong that all other influences are subsidiary. A native of China, called upon to act as a Grand Juryman, would feel himself bound to place his secret by not less powerfully operating obligations as a member of one of these societies, above those imposed by his oath as a Juryman, and thus engaged to favor as much as possible the escape of his fellow members from justice, in the event of any of them being brought before him as criminals. This single consideration ought to be sufficient to prevent natives of China being placed in such offices as long as the notorious and illegal combinations to which we have alluded shall prevail in the Straits Settlements…”

The one singled out for these allegations was likely Seah Eu Chin, because (i) of the three Chinese, one was Tan Kim Seng, who was Straits-born and had a knowledge of English (and would thus be the one with the “competent knowledge”) and (ii) the two balloted for service were Seah Eu Chin and Tan Kim Seng. Therefore, of the “two remaining Chinese” aside from Tan Kim Seng, one was Eu Chin. Since, out of that pair, he was the one balloted for service, he thus was the one alleged to have no knowledge of English. At the time, he had not yet obtained his certificate of naturalization, therefore would still have been considered a Chinese subject, so he is almost certainly the subject of the rest of this editorial too. As the historian Y.K. Lee, who reconstructed the story of the Grand Jury in Singapore, states, “it is a wonder that the Chinese gentleman referred to did not sue the Editor for libel.” 98 Y.K. Lee, “Grand Jury,” 97.

Regardless of such hostility and suspicion in the colonial press, Seah Eu Chin went on to serve in sixteen Grand Juries between 9 Sep 1851 and 16 Oct 1867. The first Grand Jury on which he sat made a Presentment that included “ravages caused by Tigers” causing the abandonment of plantations, probably reflecting the interests of landowners and planters like Eu Chin and the other businessmen Jurors. 99 Y.K. Lee, “Grand Jury,” 100; Singapore Free Press, 26 Sep 1851; and Straits Times, 23 Sep 1851. The Grand Jury during Eu Chin’s time was no longer as active as it once was, and was finally abolished on 17 Nov 1873, by which time both their functions – examining cases to be prosecuted, and making presentments on behalf of the community – were respectively superseded by the new legal system and unofficial representation on the Legislative Council, bringing an end to this “group of men who wanted the status and power of Members of Parliament in a democracy, a state of things which was non-existent in British colonies in the early 19th century.” 100 Y.K. Lee, “Grand Jury,” 130, and appendix 132-150

The end of Eu Chin’s service on the Grand Jury carries on neatly with his appointment as a Justice of the Peace. The system of having influential Chinese appointed as JPs was an unofficial continuation of the Kapitan system, though they now had less actual power, but still had “soft” influence in the community. Seah Eu Chin was made a JP when Sir Harry Ord was Governor, commissioned under the Commission of the Peace Act (Act 16 of 1867) on 13 Sep 1867, 101 “Government notification on the General Commission of the Peace for the Straits Settlements” Straits Settlements Government Gazette (13 Sep 1867): 239, series CO 276, Public Record Office, U.K., and Singapore and Straits Directory 1868. joining Whampoa, See Boon Teong, Tan Kim Ching, and Tan Beng Swee as one of the few Chinese JPs. Of course by then he had been involved in settling disputes for a long time, so the appointment was a means of formalizing that position. It also gave him considerable social prestige to be thus honoured by the British government, and put him on the same social standing as other eminent Chinese like Whampoa. In 1872, he was further honoured by being appointed as an Honorary Police Magistrate, with eleven others of whom four were Chinese (Whampoa, Tan Kim Ching, Tan Beng Swee, and Tan Seng Poh). 102 Singapore and Straits Directory 1872, 10.

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