Published date01 December 2012
Date01 December 2012
Citation(2012) 24 SAcLJ 1
AuthorThe Hon Tun Dato' Seri ZAKI Tun Azmi Former Chief Justice of Malaysia.

1 First and foremost I say thank you and express my appreciation to the Right Honorable Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong for inviting me to deliver a talk at this prestigious series of lectures. I must also publicly express my appreciation to the Academy for having arranged my visits to the various places during my stay here.

2 I believe that during the years when I was the Chief Justice, the relationship between the Judiciary and the Bar of Singapore and Malaysia had never been better. To this I must say thank you to Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong. On his suggestion, we formed the annual joint judicial conference which for next year will include Brunei as well. Singapore has also graciously accepted our invitation to attend training and conferences in Malaysia. Likewise Malaysia has done the same in respect of conferences and meetings in Singapore. I am confident that my successor will continue to foster this close relationship and exchanges.

3 When I was asked by Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong to speak on the Common Law of Malaysia in the 21st century, I responded positively without a second thought, thinking it was a straightforward subject. In the course of carrying out my research however, I found out how wrong I had been. In truth, the development of the common law in our jurisdictions is an extensive subject with a multitude of facets. I found the most complex part of writing this lecture, was the portion that attempts to map out the future development of the common law in our jurisdictions. The prospect of looking into a crystal ball and prophesying on the progress of the law into the far reaches of the 21st century is a daunting and hazardous task, littered with the prospect of uncertainty and miscalculation. It became more difficult when I had to limit this talk to only about 45 minutes. You will however forgive me if I expend the better part of this lecture on the common law in Malaysia, perhaps touching a bit on Singapore.


4 The term “common law” has a myriad of meanings. It requires precise definition for it assumes different connotations arising from the context in which it is utilised. For the purpose of the lecture I am limiting the definition of common law as denoting a system based on the English legal system.

5 A common law legal system which employs an adversarial fact finding process, where the rules of natural justice and the rule of law prevail and where trial by jury is significant. This definition comes into play when applied in the context of a State, in that it denotes a system based on the English legal system. In the context of the common law as imported and received in Malaysia from the British, it refers to the customary judge made law of these nations.

6 In this paper, I shall be touching on the ways in which “common law” is utilised, primarily in the context of the influence of English common law or judge made law.

A. A history of the reception of English common law in Malaysia and Singapore

7 To trace the evolution of the common law in Malaysia and Singapore it is relevant to examine the traditional sources of law in these jurisdictions which subsisted prior to the reception and utilisation of English common law, as well as the subsequent reception and utilisation of English law.

B. Traditional sources of law

8 Historical sources suggest that this geographical region, displayed an excellent example of a land of pluralism where diverse cultures subsisted symbiotically in all spheres of life, in terms of religion, law, culture and society. The system then in place, acknowledged, accepted and allowed diversity to flourish. This appears to have extended to the law. In Winstedt's The Malays – A Cultural History,1 he describes the Malay legal systems as including laws from all races of the Malay Archipelago and these include:2

(a) digest and tribal sayings that embody the Adat Perpateh practised by the Minangkabaus of Sumatra and Negeri Sembilan;

(b) Malay indigenous patriarchal law mixed with Hindu and

Muslim law called Adat Temenggung;

(c) Digest of Maritime Law compiled for the last Sultan of Malacca after consultation with the sailors of Bugis and Makassar; and

(d) the Muslim law of the Shafie sect.

9 There was therefore a system of laws and enforcement in place in the territories of the former Malaya and Singapore long before the common law was introduced by the British.

10 Indian influence in the Malayan archipelago was also evident for about a millennium or more. The British found, on arrival, a small Indian community who practised and were equipped with knowledge of Hindu law from India. The influence of Hindu law is also seen, for example, in the Pahang Digest of 1596, where Winstedt records that “the rule that interest may not exceed 100 per cent follows Hindu law”.3

11 As far as the Chinese are concerned, it is recorded that there was contact with the Malayan Archipelago as early as the 5th century AD although the greater influx of Chinese to Malaysia is recorded as having occurred in the early 19th century, tin mining being a particular attraction. Indeed it is recorded that the governments of the time grew rich with the increased revenue from tin. The Chinese in Malaya governed themselves largely through the Kapitan Cina system which probably originated in Portuguese Malacca.4 The Kapitan Cina exercised administrative, judicial and other functions and provided for a minimum of conflict.

12 While it is not possible to cite with certainty the precise nature of legal systems prior to British entry into Malaya, it is clear that there were some form of legal systems long before the common law arrived in the Straits Settlements between 1876 and 1824. With this backdrop in place, I turn now to consider the introduction of English common law in the Malay Archipelago which included Singapore.

C. English law

13 The English first arrived under the auspices of the East India Company in 1786 when Captain Francis Light took possession of Penang on behalf of the Company. At that stage it brought no formal legal system. This period was described as one of “legal chaos” by Dickens J in Palangee v Tye Ang5 and In the goods of Ethergee decd.6 During this period “each class of the population received full recognition and protection, according to its own laws and usages – in other instances the law of nature practically superseding any other”.7 While the English considered this to be a period of “legal chaos” it might well be viewed differently today in the post-modern era, as several sets of legal orders subsisted and operated successfully within society. In 1807 the First Charter of Justice introduced the English law into Penang without expressly saying that it is to be the lex loci of Penang.

14 Notwithstanding this, with the arrival of British lawyers in the region, the law of the land then practised in Penang was overlooked. In Rodyk v Williamson, cited in In the Goods of Abdullah,8 judges such as Malkin affirmed that the Charter introduced English law. In the

renowned Regina v Willans Esquire,9 Sir Peter Benson Maxwell acknowledged that there was no specific invocation of English law in the First Charter.

15 Thomas Braddell sought valiantly to argue in Fatimah v D Logan10 that the lex loci of Penang was Muslim law, premised on the fact that Penang was part of Kedah on its cession in 1786 and the Raja of Kedah was a Muslim prince and the law continued in force after cession unless an alteration was effected by a competent authority which had not been done. However the contention was dismissed outright by Hackett J.11

16 The existence of established local customary laws amongst the pluralist society which had subsisted for some centuries prior to this was therefore simply ignored, or at best, overlooked.

17 In 1819 Sir Stamford Raffles, also of the East India Company negotiated with the Sultan of Johore to have Singapore ceded to the Company. Singapore was established as a Factory subordinate to the Settlement or Presidency of Fort Marlborough at Bencoolen in Sumatra. In 1823/1824, Singapore became, under a reshsuffle, a Factory subordinate to the Presidency of Fort William in Bengal. In the interim, Malacca which had been ceded by the Dutch to the British, was transferred to the Company in 1825. In 1826 Penang, Malacca and Singapore were made into a separate Presidency of the Straits Settlement. In that year the Second Charter of Justice was promulgated, marking the introduction of English law, (again not without dispute) in Malacca and Singapore, although I am aware that this is an area of considerable dispute and research in Singapore. However it is widely accepted that Singapore legal history seems to be regarded as beginning in 1826 with the reception of English law.

18 In any event English law then took root in Malaysia and Singapore and if analogies are to be drawn then, as R H Hickling puts it:12

English law came into Malaysia as a tide, at first a gentle movement in a few places and then as a powerful surge challenging the entire coast and its estuaries.

19 The position of Islam and Malay custom was to some extent left unaffected by the British, paving the way for a parallel court system to develop. Today the Malaysian Constitution provids for non-interference of civil court on Islamic family issues13. To some this is controversial.

D. Merdeka – Pre-independence – 1956 – Post-independence

20 English common law and the rules of equity were incorporated and introduced into this region through the Civil Law Ordinance...

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