The Abdoolcaders: Prominent Sons of Penang

When one speaks of the Abdoolcaders, most Malaysians are immediately reminded of the late Eusoffe Abdoolcader. One of the five Supreme Court judges sacked in the judicial crisis of 1988, Eusoffe was regarded to be the greatest judge the country had ever had – one similar to England’s Lord Denning – for his fearless passion for justice and the law. Even the tale of his deep, unconventional love for his wife continues to linger on the lips of many.

While Eusoffe was hailed as the “legal lion of the Commonwealth”, his father, Hussein Abdoolcader, remains almost forgotten. Overshadowed by the prominence of his son, Hussein was himself a lawyer and legislative councillor of the Straits Settlements, who became the first Malayan Indian to be knighted in 1948. It was this father-and-son duo who made the Abdoolcaders an illustrious Penang household.

Hussein Abdoolcader.

Hussein Hasanally Abdoolcader

Born in Surat, Bombay in 1891, the young Hussein came to Malaya with his merchant father, H. A. Cader. Coming from a well-to-do Gujarati-Muslim family, Hussein was educated at the Raffles Institution of Singapore and later, Penang Free School. He proceeded to read law at Christ College, Cambridge.1

He returned to India in 1914 to marry his cousin, Manubai,2 before commencing his legal practice in Penang. Little did Hussein expect to emerge as a prominent, sociopolitical personality upon his appointment to the George Town Municipal Commission in 1925 and later, the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements in 1928.

Representing the interests of the Indian community, Hussein lobbied Sir Hugh Clifford, then Governor of the Straits Settlements, and John Scott, the Colonial Secretary, for Deepavali to be recognised as a public holiday. In 1935 he secured a similar holiday to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.3 Nicknamed Malaya’s “holiday maker”, Hussein also successfully petitioned the government for labour settlements, followed by the regulation of toddy shops in town. More interestingly, Hussein held the longest public record as a legislative councillor, having the post for a good five terms4 despite several protests.5 These were, however, not the end of his public services.

As a leader of the Indian community and trustee of the Penang Free School, Hussein demonstrated great concern for communal welfare. Not only was he instrumental in the collection of large sums of contributions towards the Penang Silver Jubilee Fund for the poor and aged, he was also an active voice in the Indian Immigration Committee.6 A recipient of both the Silver Jubilee and Coronation Medals, Hussein presided over the Indian section of the Penang Celebration Committees and was part of the Francis Light Memorial Fund Committee. In recognition of his outstanding services, King George VI made him a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1938.
Hussein was also said to have the luck of a fox. When Penang fell into the hands of the Japanese in 1941, Hussein became a natural target for the Kempeitai, given his pro-Allied stance. In fact, shortly before the fall in 1940, Hussein was appointed a member of the War Loan Fund Committee of the Straits Settlements, which inquired into the practicability of floating a war loan to be presented as a contribution from the colony towards the war effort.7

Unsurprisingly, he was arrested and ordered to be beheaded. The authorities however released him upon a final request from him to see his family.8 While the actual “bargain” with his captors remains unknown, Hussein was then placed in the Penang State Council, and his wife in the Nippon Penang Women’s Association under the lead of Mrs. Y. Tanaka.9 Later, his third son, Eusoffe, emerged as one of the brightest “Nippon-go” students, selected to be sent to Japan for further studies10 – an opportunity that ended abruptly following the Japanese surrender in 1945.

The interregnum between the Japanese surrender and the return of the British witnessed the execution of “Nippon” collaborators. Hussein and his family were spared this fate, and instead, the return of the British saw Hussein’s rise to further prominence. For one thing, he was appointed alongside Colonel H. S. Lee and Dr Ong Chong Keng to the Governor’s Advisory Committee to consider the qualifications appropriate for citizenship under the Malayan Union.11 This paved the way for his subsequent knighting in January 1948. He was the first Malayan Indian to so honoured.11

Despite his failure to make a political debut in the short-lived Independence of Malaya Party formed by Dato’ Onn Jaafar in September 1951,11 Hussein became active in several sporting associations such as the Penang Boxing Board of Control and later, as president of the Mohammedan Football Association of Malaya.11 Dubbed Penang’s oldest practising lawyer, Hussein was made an honorary Doctor of Laws by the University of Malaya in 1964, at the ripe old age of 73.15 As he retired from the scene, his bright son, Eusoffe, was to take his place in the limelight.

Eusoffe Abdoolcader.

Eusoffe Abdoolcader

Born in 1924, Eusoffe attended both his father’s alma maters – Penang Free School and Cambridge – at a relatively young age, having completed his Senior Cambridge at the age of 15, with more distinctions than necessary for entrance to Raffles College.16 After his father’s influence enabled his admission to the College, which required the minimum age of 17, Eusoffe sailed through his studies without much interruption until the outbreak of war in 1941.

Eusoffe returned to Penang where he learnt Japanese and found employment as interpreter to the governor. Later, he earned a scholarship to Japan after undergoing a three-month course with the Japanese Education Institute (known as the Marei Koa Kunrensho) in Malacca and later, Singapore.17 In fact, it was claimed that Eusoffe won a place at Kyoto’s Imperial University to study law.

However, the surrender of Japan and the end of the Second World War changed things altogether and Eusoffe found himself returning to Penang on a British destroyer.18

He then embarked on legal studies with London University. As an undergraduate, his passion for law was quickly spotted: not only did he pass all his exams with flying colours; he was presented to King George VI and Queen Mary in Buckingham Palace – just as his father was once presented to King George V and Queen Mary as a law student19.

He obtained a First-Class Honours in Law and was called to the English Bar by the Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn on January 26, 1950; he also had the distinction of being made Freeman of the City of London the same year.

He returned home and was called to the Malaysian Bar on March 30, 1951 and later, the Singapore Bar on November 12, 1969. His talent for law was formidable – senior lawyers and old associates would recall Eusoffe as a fierce opponent. Even Tun Salleh Abas once remarked that “although I have never had the honour of appearing in court against him, on reflection I consider myself lucky for being spared the opportunity; otherwise I might have lost my cases”.20

Eusoffe was regarded to be the greatest judge the country had ever had.

Prior to his appointment to the Bench in 1974 – a position he declined back in 1959 – Eusoffe devoted his services as chairman of the Penang Bar Committee from 1968 to 1969 despite his busy practice. Those who knew him would remember his astounding memory which enabled him to cite a wide array of legal authorities.

He was equally blessed with a solid Latin vocabulary; it was commonplace that Eusoffe’s judgements were literary masterpieces, written in perfect English and fortified by Latin phrases. In the famous Penang case of Teoh Teik Huat v Lim Kean Siew,21 Eusoffe cited a long sentence using commas and massive alliterations, earning the praise of then Penang chief minister, Dr Lim Chong Eu, who remarked that it was the “longest sentence I ever heard in perfect English”.22

However, his political stance implied from his judicial decisions was widely debated. His decision in Merdeka University Bhd. v Government of Malaysia in 1980, for instance, entailed the impression that he was pro-establishment, having ruled in favour of the government for the non-establishment of Merdeka University, a proposed Chinese varsity.23
It was a case that was not only constitutional in nature, but also drew public interest. The sponsors of the university, having argued that the government’s rejection of their application for the university was “unconstitutional”, launched a campaign that gathered more than 4,000 signatures from Chinese guilds and associations to be submitted to the King who, under law, could give his permission.

The case was brought to court upon the monarch’s rejection, where Eusoffe ruled in a lengthy judgement that the government was not obliged to allow for such an establishment “merely because there was a dire need for university places, if it was not in the national interest”. To his detractors, Eusoffe affirmed that he was “not concerned with the political overtones or undertones, only with determining the issues involved and strictly within the confines of the law and constitution”.24

On the other hand, in J.P. Berthelsen v Director-General of Immigration, Malaysia, Eusoffe was deemed anti-establishment for deciding in favour of John Berthelsen, an American journalist with the Asian Wall Street Journal whose employment pass was revoked on the grounds that his presence would be prejudicial to the security of the country.25 In effect, Berthelsen’s certiorari to have the cancelation of his pass quashed was allowed on the grounds that he was not given a hearing. Nevertheless, regardless of public perception, Eusoffe claimed that “I merely apply the law. If you don’t like my judgements, you should change the law”.26

His neutral stance was proven true in the judicial crisis of 1988, a battle which eroded the credibility of the Malaysian judiciary with the abrupt sacking of Salleh Abas, the Lord President. Eusoffe, together with four senior Supreme Court judges – Wan Suleiman, Mohamed Azmi, Wan Hamzah and George K.S. Seah – issued an injunction against the tribunal that was hearing Salleh’s case and were later sacked for “gross misbehaviours”.27

Later, Eusoffe successfully defended himself at his impeachment and obtained a reinstatement to his position alongside two other judges. However, the Bench was no longer the same, for the principle of law they properly stood up for was annihilated in their failed attempt to save Salleh, and as a judge of high integrity, Eusoffe endured the greatest public humiliation – the hefty price for upholding the rule of law. Yet he held no qualms: “I only did it because I thought it was right”, he once said.28

Senior lawyers and old associates would recall Eusoffe as a fierce opponent.

If ever there was a more humanly side of Eusoffe, it was his devotion to his Chinese wife, Haseenah Abdullah. About 10 years apart in age, their relationship was deemed bizarre by those who knew them – it was said that while Eusoffe spoke English and no Chinese, Haseenah spoke only Chinese, and they would communicate in broken Malay.29

Yet, many were awed by the judge’s love for her, especially throughout her sickness – Haseenah was diagnosed with throat cancer and later, pneumonia, which required constant medical supervision. His concern for her health was such that he refused participation in international conferences overseas to care for her and even kept from her knowledge the fact that the judiciary came under tremendous assault in the 1988 crisis, least her condition be exacerbated.

When her health deteriorated and her kidneys started to fail in 1993, Eusoffe, who was 70 by then, was even willing to give his kidneys to her. Nevertheless, Haseenah was dying and even the doctors were said to be terrified of conveying the news. Eusoffe suffered a cruel blow from her death and apparently never recovered from the depression;30 on one hand, serving the law at a time when the integrity of the judiciary was questioned became pointless, and life after Haseenah’s death was a lonely one, empty of meaning.

Each year on her death anniversary, Eusoffe would occupy full pages of advertisement sections in newspapers with love poems, often in Latin, in memoriam of her – a gesture of deep love which remains in the minds of most Penangites even today. He committed suicice in early 1996 by shooting himself in the head.

While the nation mourned Eusoffe’s passing, little remains of him today apart from the immortalisation of his courageous judgeship by members of the bar, followed by his exceptional love tale and Latin poems.

His father Hussein, on the other hand, has a small road off Jalan Masjid Negeri named after him, known as Jalan Sir Hussein. Yet, few are aware of who he was.

The Abdoolcaders, legendary sons of Penang, deserve a unique place in Penang’s rich history.

Koay Su Lyn reads and writes of the past to make sense of the present. She is a research analyst in the History and Heritage Programme of Penang Institute.
1“Malayan’s First Indian Knight.” The Straits Times, 7 January 1948, p.4.
2“50 Happy Years Together.” The Straits Times, 10 September 1964, p.5.
3“Mr. H. H. Abdoolcader Entertained.” The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 1 September 1931, p.10.
4“Malayan’s First Indian Knight.” The Straits Times, 7 January 1948, p.4.
5“Protest at Mr. Abdoolcader's Reappointment to Council.” The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 8 September 1937, p.6.
6“Indian Immigration Committee.” Malaya Tribune, 27 November 1936, p.23.
7“Immediate Response to Malayan War Fund.” The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 31 May 1940, p.5.
8“Malayan’s First Indian Knight.” The Straits Times, 7 January 1948, p.4.
9“Penang Women First to Form Association: Governor’s Address to Office-bearers.” Syonan Shimbun, 21 November 1942, p.4.
10“Penang's Representative for Study in Nippon Bright Language Student.” Syonan Shimbun, 2 May 1944, p.2.
11“Committee to Advise Union Governor On Citizenship.” Morning Tribune, 16 May 1946, p.2.
12“Tribute Honours Men.” The Straits Times, 7 January 1948, p.3.
13“Thousands apply to join IMP.” The Straits Times, 12 September 1951, p.8.
14“Malayan’s First Indian Knight.” The Straits Times, 7 January 1948, p.4.
15“50 Happy Years Together.” The Straits Times, 10 September 1964, p.5.
16S. Jayasankaran. “Profile: The Legal Lion.” Aliran Monthly 1995: 15 (11 & 12), p.6.
17“Penang's Representative for Study in Nippon Bright Language Student’, Syonan Shimbun, 2 May 1944, p.2
19“Penang man meets King and Queen.” The Singapore Free Press, 2 August 1949, p.5.
20S. Jayasankaran. “Profile: The Legal Lion.” Aliran Monthly 1995: 15 (11 & 12), p.6.
21[1981] 1 MLJ 265.
22S. Jayasankaran. “Profile: The Legal Lion.” Aliran Monthly 1995: 15 (11 & 12), p.5.
23Merdeka University Bhd v Government of Malaysia [1981] 2 MLJ 356.
24“No by High Court to Chinese varsity.” New Nation, 8 November 1981, p.6.
25J.P. Berthelsen v Director-General of Immigration, Malaysia [1987] 1 MLJ 134.
26S. Jayasankaran. “Profile: The Legal Lion.” Aliran Monthly 1995: 15 (11 & 12), p.6.
27A.J. Harding. “The 1988 Constitutional Crisis in Malaysia.” The International and Comparative Law Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Jan 1990), pp.57- 81.
28S. Jayasankaran. “Profile: The Legal Lion.” Aliran Monthly 1995: 15 (11 & 12), p.7.
30“Eusoffe complained of depression, says Imam.” Bernama, 12 January 1996.

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