The Supreme Court of Penang at Light Street, George Town, is Malaysia's oldest high court. Established in 1808 within the grounds of Fort Cornwallis, it was the birthplace of Malaysia's modern judiciary. The court was moved to its present location at Light Street in 1809 and its current Palladian-style building was built between 1901 and 1905. It continues to serve as the supreme court for the State of Penang and sits in the middle of George Town's UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The court building has undergone several renovations; the latest included the addition of a three-storey wing at Farquhar Street, and the Sessions and Magistrates Court just across Light Street. The Logan Memorial, which commemorates James Richardson Logan, a famous Scottish lawyer, is also placed in front of the newer building across the street.
The Malaysian legal system traces its roots to the Royal Charter of Justice granted by King George III to Penang in 1807 to form a police force and a Court of Justice. As Penang Island (then called the Prince of Wales Island) flourished into a strategic port with a growing immigrant population, Captain Francis Light had sought the counsel of the British Governor-General in India on the legal aspects of governing the island's residents.
The Supreme Court of Penang was officially opened on 31 May 1808. It was initially housed within Fort Cornwallis. Sir Edmond Stanley was appointed as the First Recorder (Judge) of the Supreme Court in Penang. He became the first ever judge to serve on Malaysian soil. Thus, the Supreme Court of Penang became the birthplace of Malaysia's modern judiciary and legal profession.
At the time, judges were known as 'recorders'. Later, with changes made to the judiciary of the Straits Settlements (Penang, Singapore and Malacca), the term 'recorder' was substituted with 'judge'.
Sir Stamford Raffles, who would later go on to found Singapore in 1819, served as the first registrar of the Supreme Court of Penang.
The current Palladian-style building was inaugurated in 1903. It was designed by the engineers of the Public Works Department led by John Henry McCallum, the then Surveyor-General of the Straits Settlements, and cost $206,678 (Straits dollar) to build. Originally, the building came with statues and emblems, but these have since been removed.
The court has underwent a number of renovations. More recently, a three-storey wing accessible from Farquhar Street was added. Another court building was also constructed across Light Street opposite the Supreme Court; it now houses the Sessions and Magistrates Court. The Logan Memorial, which was erected in memory of James Richardson Logan, a Scottish lawyer who fought for the rights of Asians in colonial Penang, stands in front of the newer court building.
Throughout the court's history, it achieved several firsts. In 1926, Mrs. B.H. Oon and Mr. Lim Khye Seng, who once practised law in Penang, became the first Malaysian pair of brother and sister to be called into the English Bar. Mrs. B.H. Oon also became the first female ethnic Chinese lawyer to be admitted into the English Bar, as well as the Straits Settlements and Federated Malay States* Bars in 1927. Up until then, only men can serve in the Straits Settlement & Federated Malay States Bars, thanks to the Advocates & Solicitors Ordinance of 1914. To allow for Mrs. B.H. Oon's appointment, the act was amended in 1927. She was subsequently awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.
Another first was achieved on 4 July 1974, when Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia's first Prime Minister, was admitted into the Bar before the Supreme Court of Penang. While addressing the Bench at his Call, he described the event as "the proudest moment" of his life.
Among the other famous lawyers who practised law in the Supreme Court of Penang are Cecil Rajendra and Karpal Singh. Cecil Rajendra is the first practising lawyer to win international acclaim as a poet and a writer. Meanwhile, Karpal Singh, aka 'The Tiger of Jelutong', was one of Malaysia's most distinguished lawyers and a top Democratic Action Party (DAP) politician who held the parliamentary seats of Jelutong and Bukit Gelugor until his death in 2014.
*The Federated Malay States refer to a federation of four Malayan sultanates which became British protectorates - Selangor, Perak, Pahang and Negeri Sembilan.
Penang State Government
N.26 Padang Kota State Assemblyman : Chow Kon Yeow (Democratic Action Party)
Malaysian Federal Parliament
P.049 Tanjong Member of Parliament : Ng Wei Aik (Democratic Action Party)
- Hockton, K., Howard Tan, 2012. Penang : An Inside Guide to Its Historic Homes, Buildings, Monuments and Parks. MPH Group, Kuala Lumpur.