Justices of the Peace: An Institution at Risk of Being Forgotten


As a colony of the British, Malaya inherited the tradition of appointing Justices of the Peace (JPs) from among its prominent individuals and community leaders. Despite the title’s honorary nature, JPs were bestowed with significant public roles, from mediators in charge of the maintenance of peace, to sitting as lay magistrates in minor cases. In Penang JPs consisted not only of wealthy and well-respected public figures, but also personalities who have contributed immensely to the state. Nevertheless, with no new JPs having been appointed since 1990, their historical status and functions risk being ignored.

Roots in Britain

The origins of the institution of JPs can be traced back to 1195, to England under Richard the Lionheart (Richard I, 1157- 1199) when he appointed several knights to preserve the peace. These knights were known as Custodes Pacis (Keepers of the Peace). In 1325 the office of the conservators of peace was statutorily created and later, formally assigned the title of Justices of the Peace by 1361.1

Cheah Chen Eok.

Back then, JPs were empowered to punish offenders in minor offences. It was not until the reign of King Edward III (1312-1377) that various legislations were passed to define and regulate their functions. In the course of time, JPs were conferred with broad powers dealing summarily with offences, followed by the apprehension of criminals and inquisitorial investigations in the course of collecting evidence.2 Today, English JPs preside as stipendiary magistrates in the magistrates’ courts of England and Wales.

In Malaya JPs were convetionally appointed from among district officers and assistant district officers to mitigate the shortage of magistrates.3 This was unsurprising given the fact that district officers and their assistants were deemed most suitable in dealing with the grassroots problems of their assigned districts or kampungs. Later, prominent Malayans who played an active role in public and social affairs were appointed. As familiar faces who were more in tune with the local social climate, local JPs were seen to be in a better position to bridge the gap between the community and the public administration. In Penang local JPs were not only closely connected to the authorities; their position of influence enabled them to be entrusted as custodians of peace by the colonial government.

Notable Penang JPs of the past

Among the earliest JPs in Penang was Foo Tye Sin. A businessman and Hakka community leader, his background is worth noting. Being a founding member of the Penang Chinese Town Hall and the Khean Guan Insurance Company, then the first Chinese-owned insurance company in South-East Asia, Foo was prominent among the Chinese in the region.4 He also enjoyed a close relationship with the government as the personal friend of Major-General Sir Archibald E.H. Anson, the then Lieutenant-Governor of Penang. Unsurprisingly, in 1868 Foo was appointed to sit on the Commission of Inquiry to investigate the causes of the Penang Riots of In 1872 he was later made a JP.5

Another magnate, Cheah Chen Eok, became a JP in 1901. A municipal commissioner in 1888 and a member of the Chinese Advisory Board from 1890 to 1910, Cheah made the bulk of his fortune through revenue farming. An active associate of many clubs, Cheah was the president of the Penang Literary Association, a trustee of the Penang Free School and a board member of the Poh Choo Seah.6 Cheah was a generous donor to the Hokkien Cemeteries in Batu Gantong and Pulau Tikus, and to the Penang Widows and Orphans War Fund. Cheah was most noted for his contribution of $35,000 towards the erection of the iconic clock tower in Esplande to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897.7

Lim Hua Chiam is another fascinating JP worth highlighting. For one, Hua Chiam was the first Chinese to get into the printing and publication business in the state8 – from the Penang Sin Poe in 1894 to The Straits Echo in 1903. More interestingly, Hua Chiam was a councillor of the Kian Teik Tong, the most powerful brotherhood society in Penang, and was appointed to the Chinese Advisory Board in 1890 to deal with the problem of Chinese secret societies. In 1900 Hua Chiam led the Chinese Town Hall and was also elected a Fellow of the Society of Arts. In recognition of his social contributions, he was at the proposal of Sir Henry Wood appointed a JP in 1905 by Sir John Anderson, then governor of the Straits Settlements.9 It is also worth highlighting that his son, Lim Seng Hooi, also became a prominent JP.

Like his father, Seng Hooi played a noble role in the state’s public life especially in times of crisis. He was known for his engagement of European doctors, Dr Robertson and Dr Locke, to attend to the poor during the Bubonic Plague of 1894.10 In 1918 he supplied free medical aid to victims of the Spanish Influenza epidemic and started a relief fund to provide assistance in the form of milk, blankets and medical aid.11 His appointment as JP in 1919 further enhanced his bargaining power with the government. During the rice crisis in the early 1920s, Seng Hooi successfully alleviated the plight of frustrated Penangites by negotiating for a price reduction – from $1.26 to 75 cents per gantang – with the government. 12

Foo Tye Sin. He was made a Justice of the Peace in 1872.

The bulk of Penang JPs consisted of wealthy and influential Chinese who had made a mark in colonial life. The first Muslim to receive the title was Nina Merican Noordin, the son of Mohamed Merican Noordin, a famous Penang merchant who lived in the early nineteenth century. Having inherited his father’s business, Nina served in numerous public capacities, from serving as one of the grand jurors to presiding as an honorary magistrate and later, as municipal commissioner.13 More important was his appointment as arbitrator to resolve the issues that caused the clashes between the secret societies during the Penang Riots of 1867.14 He also served on the Commission of Inquiry into the causes of the riot, and was made a JP shortly thereafter. Another Noordin accorded the same honour was Nina’s brother, Mashoruddin Merican Noordin (better known as M.M. Noordin), who once owned Babington Estate and Suffolk House.

Penang was also the first state to have a woman JP – Mdm Chan Sok Hiang @ Mrs Cheah Inn Kiong. Born in Singapore to Dr Chan Kun Shing, then medical assistant to Dr Lim Boon Keng, Mdm Chan represented the women of Penang in the Advisory Council after the war and later, in the Settlement Council.15 Mdm Chan also served as president of the Penang Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and the Penang Anti-Tuberculosis Committee.16 Under her leadership, Penang YWCA emerged as a platform offering support to tuberculosis cases, assisting in clinical work in schools, conducting house visits and doing case investigations, even arranging for patients to be transported to hospitals.17 She was made a JP in 1948 and was similarly awarded an MBE for her outstanding public services in women’s welfare. Later, Perak’s only woman councillor, Che Puteh Mariah bt Ibrahim Rashid, became the second woman JP of the Federation of Malaya in 1950.18

The Declining Role of Malaysian JPs

Once empowered by the Code of Criminal Procedure 1926, JPs worked at the prevention of the escape of arrested persons, injuries in public places, and in certain occasions, riots. They similarly enjoyed the powers to affect an arrest in their appointed areas and to bear witness to a search under warrant. The same statute also imposed a public obligation to guide the work of JPs.19 While JPs remained as the “friendly cadi” to those in need of free legal advice,20 it was not until after the war that deliberations for JPs to formally preside as magistrates in easing congestion in the courts took place.21 Even then, JPs continued their services in the Board of Licensing Justices, Film Appeal Board and, more significantly, the Prison Board as visiting justices with the power to try cases of prison misdemeanour.22

Subsequently, the Subordinate Courts Act of 1948 spelled that JPs enjoy the powers, duties and functions not exceeding that of a second class magistrate.23 In facilitating their functions of maintaining peace, JPs were also empowered in pursuant to additional enactments like the Betting Ordinance of 1953, Common Gaming Houses Ordinance of 1953 and later, the Merchant Shipping Ordinance of 1962. In Penang, the Association of Justices of the Peace was established in July 1962,24 with the intent of preserving the identity of JPs as agents of peace and their special position in society. Initiated by Aziz Ibrahim, then state assemblyman for Gelugor and former settlement councillor, the Association successfully negotiated for the issuing of special identity cards and badges for a JP’s car and a distinct coat followed by the appointment of JPs to the Juvenile Court, the preservation of their historical role as visiting justices to the Penang Prison and their continual service in society whenever requested.25

Nevertheless, the gradual appointment of more legally qualified magistrates coupled with the non-appointment of JPs as second class magistrates soon attributed to the declining role of JPs. Although JPs still perform minor services like the authentication of promissory notes and powers of attorney under the Moneylenders Act 1961 and Powers of Attorney Act 1949, few have been appointed in recent years. Inevitably, the non-appointment of new JPs in the light of their declining role threatens the relevance of JPs today.

JPs in the Neighbouring Commonwealth

Despite the declining office of Malaysian JPs, JPs in parts of the Commonwealth, mainly in Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, still retain a significant role in assisting the government of the day. As in the past, their roles are representative of the community fabric, and JPs remain as independent individuals when compared to civil servants or government officials.

In Hong Kong, for instance, JPs are required to participate in the critical mechanism for monitoring prisons, custodial institutions and detention centres. Their monitoring task seeks to ensure that such facilities are effectively managed and that no inmate is unfairly treated or deprived of their rights.26 Appointed under the Justices of Peace Ordinance, Hong Kong JPs also undertake regular inspections in psychiatric hospitals, children homes and selected NGOs like the Po Leung Kuk.27 The unannounced nature of such visits indirectly promotes an independent monitoring system. In 2016 Hong Kong JPs conducted 720 visits to 110 institutions, and 105 complaints were referred for investigations or follow-up actions, and all were resolved through improvement measures or explanations given to the complainants.28

In Singapore, while JPs perform magisterial roles as conferred by various statutes such as the Merchant Shipping Act, Official Secrets Act and Prisons Act, they too are obliged to discharge magisterial responsibilities. This depicts the importance of the JP legacy as lay magistrates. For one, they assist the State Courts in various family or neighbourly matters once a month in mediation. They hold an office that spans a five-year term, and Singapore JPs also act as marriage solemnisers in the Registry of Marriage. Given the significance of their service, Singapore has quite a number of JPs appointed annually – a total of 178 in 2015, out of which 33 are women.29

JPs in Australia, in their turn, serve different roles in different jurisdictions. There are no national JPs, and each state has its own legislation in regulating the appointment, powers and functions of JPs. Nonetheless, the tasks of Australian JPs are generally administrative in nature, from witnessing affidavits, wills and statutory declarations to the signing of search warrants, drug warrants, and divorce and guardianship documents. In Western Australia however, JPs preside in the Magistrates Court and are regularly called upon by the police to sign search warrants and authorise the issuing of summonses.30 In light of the increasing importance of JPs in hearing bail applications, interim violence, restraining orders and dealing with simple traffic offences, nearly 3,000 JPs were registered in Western Australia alone in 2014.31

JPs in New Zealand participate in administrative roles of a similar nature. Notwithstanding their life-long appointment, they discharge their judicial duties by hearing minor and summary offences in district courts while presiding over preliminary hearings for certain offences, bail applications, requests for remands and adjournments.32 In fact, the number of specially trained JPs who annually sit in the district courts stands at 400! In short, the legacy of JPs in neighbouring Commonwealth countries remains very much alive, and despite their antiquated roots, the relevance of their roles is enshrined in both the administration of justice and governance in the modern era. In such light, is the office of Malaysian JPs underused?

A New Future?

In current times, when mediation has proven crucial in reducing the backlog of cases in the lower courts, Malaysian JPs may see a revival of their traditional roles. The Practice Direction on Mediation 2010 altered the legal landscape by ordering disputes to be settled via mediation at the pre-trial stage or at any stage even after a trial has commenced.33 Accordingly, the number of cases pending in courts has been reduced by 40-50% in 2017, and without having to undergo a full trial.34 As eminent persons appointed by the state, JPs remain ideal figures to act as mediators. In light of the recent Practice Direction no.4/2016 on court annexed mediation, JPs are now presented with a unique opportunity to participate in mediation, where work is aplenty.35

1 S. Ramaswamy. “Justices of the Peace: Powers and Duties.” International Law Books Services, 2001, p.2.

2 S. Ramaswamy. “Justices of the Peace: Powers and Duties.” International Law Books Services, 2001, p.2-8.

3 Ibid, p. 9.

4 Wong Yee Tuan. “Foo Tye Sin.” Biographical Dictionary of Mercantile Personalities in Penang. Ed. Loh Wei Leng et al. Penang, Kuala Lumpur: Think City & MBRAS, 2013, pp.74-75.

5 Ibid.

6Tan Kim Hong and Hung Bee Ling. “Cheah Chen Eok.” Biographical Dictionary of Mercantile Personalities in Penang. Ed. Loh Wei Leng et al. Penang, Kuala Lumpur: Think City & MBRAS, 2013, pp.47-49.

7 Ibid.

8 Wong Yee Tuan. “Lim Hua Chiam.” Biographical Dictionary of Mercantile Personalities in Penang. Ed. Loh Wei Leng et al. Penang, Kuala Lumpur: Think City & MBRAS, 2013, pp.118-119.

9 Ibid.

10 Lee Kam Hing and Chow Mun Seong. Biographical Dictionary of Mercantile Personalities in Penang. Ed. Loh Wei Leng et al. Penang, Kuala Lumpur: Think City & MBRAS, 2013, pp.114-115.

11 Ibid.

12Wong Yee Tuan and Hung Bee Ling. “Lim Seng Hooi." Biographical Dictionary of Mercantile Personalities in Penang. Ed. Loh Wei Leng et al. Penang, Kuala Lumpur: Think City & MBRAS, 2013, pp.121-122.

13 Mahani Musa, “Noordin, Nina Merican." Biographical Dictionary of Mercantile Personalities in Penang. Ed. Loh Wei Leng et al. Penang, Kuala Lumpur: Think City & MBRAS, 2013, pp.138.

14 Mahani Musa, “Noordin, Nina Merican." Biographical Dictionary of Mercantile Personalities in Penang. Ed. Loh Wei Leng et al. Penang, Kuala Lumpur: Think City & MBRAS, 2013, pp.138.

15 "Penang woman is made JP." The Singapore Free Press. 11 June 1948, p.5.

16 Minutes of Meeting, Penang Settlement Council for 1949, Federal Secretariat 13700/1949, p.19.

17 Penang YWCA 100th Anniversary Special Centenary Edition, 1909-2009.

18 "Fed's first woman J.P." The Straits Times. 15 January 1950, p.9.

19 "The Duties of Justices." The Straits Times, 19 May 1936, p.17

20 I"Free Justice." The Straits Times. 23 March 1925, p.2.

21 "JPs may sit on bench." The Singapore Free Press. 12 April 1948, p.1.

22 Ibid.

23 ISection 99 of Subordinate Courts Act 1948.

24 "A Brief History of the Formation of the Association of Justices of the Peace, State of Penang." Council of Justices of the Peace, Penang. Web. 3 April 2018

25 Ibid.

26 Annual Report on Justices of Peace Visits 2016, Administration Wing of the Chief Secretary for Administration’s Office, Hong Kong, pp.1-4.

27 Annual Report on Justices of Peace Visits 2016, Administration Wing of the Chief Secretary for Administration’s Office, Hong Kong, pp.1-4.

28 Annual Report on Justices of Peace Visits 2016, Administration Wing of the Chief Secretary for Administration’s Office, Hong Kong, pp.1-4.

29 "70 Justices of the Peace appointed." The Straits Times. 2 September 2015.

30 Training and Support for Justices of Peace Report 2014, Office of the Auditor General 2014, pp.5-6, http://www.parliament.wa.gov.au/publications/tabledpapers.nsf/displaypaper/3912425a547c301e6b6e8d 6548257d9c0018e712/$file/2425.pdf, accessed on 3 April 2018.

31 Ibid.

32 "Duties performed by Justices of Peace." http://justiceofthepeace.org.nz/, accessed on 3 April 2018

33 "Cases being resolved via mediation on the rise in Malaysia: Tun Zaki." The Sun Daily Online, 24 November 2016, http://www.thesundaily.my/news/2072944, accessed on 3 April 2018.

34 "CJ: Faster case clearance due to mediation." The Malay Mail Online, 22 February 2018. 3 April 2018.

35 Officiating Speech at the Council of JPs Penang /KLRCA Mediation Course, held on 25 August 2016 at Royal Hotel Penang by Lim Chong Fong, Judicial Commissioner of Penang High Court.

Koay Su Lyn is a research analyst with the History section of Penang Institute who writes to inspire and takes pride in introducing herself as a writer rather than a lawyer.
Dato' Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the executive director of Penang Institute. His many books include The Reluctant Politician: Tun Dr Ismail and His Time (ISEAS 2006).

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