Tan Thoon Lip



John Tan Thoon Lip (b. 22 February 1910, Singapore–d. 14 March 1959, Singapore), a lawyer and public official, was the first Asian registrar of the Supreme Court of Singapore.1

Education
Tan was first educated at Anglo-Chinese School for seven years, then another five years at Raffles Institution, where he was a prefect.2 He earned one of two Queen’s Scholarships in 1929, and thus became Singapore’s first Queen’s Scholar since the revival of scholarship in 1924.3 Raffles Institution declared a holiday to celebrate his achievement.4 The scholarship took him to St John’s College at Cambridge University, where he received a Bachelor of Arts in 1933 and then a Bachelor of Laws in 1934.5 That year he was also admitted to the English bar at Gray’s Inn before returning to Singapore.6

Legal career
Upon his return, Tan became one of two candidates accepted into the Straits Settlements Civil Service (SSCS).7 After completing a preparatory year as a probationer, he was appointed as an assistant registrar of companies, and also qualified as a local advocate and solicitor.8 Over the next few years he held various positions in Singapore, Penang and Malacca and became the first Chinese magistrate in Singapore when he was appointed as a police magistrate in 1937.9 In 1940, Tan joined the new Straits Settlements Legal Service, which, like the SSCS, was established to enable young Asian or Eurasian British subjects qualified in law to work in junior ranks of government.10

Wartime ordeal and postwar career
During the first several months of the Japanese Occupation (1942–45), Tan worked in the Office of the Custodian of Enemy Property, but in late 1942 he was arrested.11 He was beaten, starved and waterboarded, accused of corruption and interrogated about a Japanese colleague whom the authorities distrusted.12 Soon after his release, the Japanese offer him a position in the Military Administration. Despite misgivings, but with the support of family and friends, he accepted the job for his own safety.13 After the war he published a book entitled Kempeitai Kindness about his ordeal and testified against his chief tormentor, who was charged with the ill-treatment of civilians in Singapore.14

Tan was recruited by the postwar British Military Administration as an assistant legal officer.15 After civil administration resumed in early 1946, he was appointed to act temporarily as a district judge to hear cases of alleged food profiteering and black-market sales, which were widespread.16 The following year, he became the deputy registrar of the Supreme Court and the sheriff of Singapore. Tan was one of the first few Chinese promoted to the Colonial Legal Service.17 He was also the commissioner for workmen’s compensation and briefly acted as a district judge again in 1949.18 In 1950 he was appointed to the committee reviewing the system of film censorship, whose recommendations included creating a more open board of film censors to replace the official censor.19

Registrar of the Supreme Court
Tan acted as the registrar of the Supreme Court on multiple occasions and became the first Asian confirmed in the post fulltime in Singapore in 1952.20 As registrar he had both judicial responsibilities and an important administrative role for the high court. One problem the court faced was an increasing workload and Tan appealed to the United Kingdom colonial secretary for more judges; eventually an extra high-court judge was appointed.21

In 1955, Singapore’s new chief minister, David Marshall, sent him to New South Wales to study its legal aid program, and Tan returned three months later with recommendations for a Singapore programme.22 Despite objections from lawyers who preferred a British-style system run by lawyers instead of the government, the Legal Aid and Advice Bill based on Tan’s recommendations was passed on 6 June 1956.23

Community activities
Friends remembered Tan as a caring, intelligent and cultured gentleman and his contributions to the community reflected his diverse interests.24 In 1936, he became the honorary secretary of the Old Rafflesians’ Association.25 In 1948, Tan formally established the Singapore Music Circle, which had started in 1943 as an informal group to lift people’s spirits with amateur musical performances. The group disbanded in 1945 after being told to include Japanese music in their repertoire.26 He performed at some of its events, playing the piano and even scoring a Chinese dress production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It to raise funds for the Katong Boys’ Club.27

Katong Boys’ Club was founded in 1946 with Tan as its chairman to offer training and recreation for boys who would otherwise be on the streets. It was the third of its kind established in post-war Singapore.28 Tan concurrently served as president of the Young Men’s Christian Association and helped rededicate its headquarters, where he and others had been held by the Kempeitai.29 As chairman of the Singapore Film Society, he expressed concerns over the censorship of films.30 Tan was also the secretary of the Malayan Orchid Society.31

Retirement and death
Tan retired in January 1957 due to health problems from which he did not recover.32 He passed away in early 1959 and was buried in Bidadari Cemetery.33

Later that year an orchid hybrid (Vanda memoria Tan Thoon Lip) was named after him, and in 1967 his sister Maggie Tan donated to the National Library over 700 books in his memory.34

Publication
Kempeitai Kindness [Microfilm no.: NL 10187]. (1946). Singapore: Malayan Law Journal.


Family

Father: Tan Kwee Swee, a great-grandson of philanthropist Tan Tock Seng.35
Sister: Maggie, who won the Queen’s Scholarship the year after him.36



Author

Duncan Sutherland



References
1. Our new registrar [Microfilm no.: NL 3495]. (1952, February). The Malayan Law Journal, 18(2), vii; Death. (1959, March 15). The Straits Times, p. 20; Funeral of Tan Thoon Lip. (1959, March 16). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Queen’s Scholars. (1930, January 2). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Queen’s Scholars. (1930, January 2). The Straits Times, p. 13; Miss Maggie Tan. (1931, August 4). The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Singapore’s success: Raffles Institution takes a holiday. (1930, January 24). The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Social and personal. (1930, July 30). The Straits Times, p. 10; First Asian to hold top legal job dies. (1959, March 15). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Chinese magistrate for Singapore bench. (1937, February 26). The Straits Times, p. 12; 2 Chinese for Colonial Legal Service. (1947, October 24). The Singapore Free Press, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Two S.S. Civil Service vacancies. (1937, January 30). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. S.S. Civil Service. (1934, July 14). The Straits Times, p. 18G; Johore civil servants. (1935, May 19). The Strait Times, p. 14; New assistant official assignee. (1935, August 24). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Thian, Y.S., Chong, C.C., & Lim, S. (Eds.). (2002). In session: Supreme court of Singapore: The building, her heritage and her people. Singapore: Supreme Court, p. 94. (Call no.: RSING 347.5957035 IN); Our new registrar [Microfilm no.: NL 3495]. (1952, February). The Malayan Law Journal, 18(2), vii.
9. Chinese magistrate for Singapore bench. (1937, February 26). The Straits Times, p. 12; First Chinese magistrate in Singapore. (1937, February 27). The Straits Times, p. 6; Malacca notes & news. (1937, March 21). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Our new registrar [Microfilm no.: NL 3495]. (1952, February). The Malayan Law Journal, 18(2), vii.
10. S.S.L.S. appointments. (1940, August 11). The Straits Times, p. 9; New S.S. Legal Service to start next month. (1940, July 24). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Low, N. I. (1995). When Singapore was Syonan-To. Singapore: Times Books International, p. 72. (Call no.: RSING 959.57023 LOW [HIS]); Tan, T. L. (1946). Kempeitai kindness [Microfilm no.: NL 10187]. Singapore: Malayan Law Journal, p. 1.
12. Tan, T. L. (1946). Kempeitai kindness [Microfilm no.: NL 10187]. Singapore: Malayan Law Journal, pp. 6–13, 44–48, 97, 114.
13. Tan, T. L. (1946). Kempeitai kindness [Microfilm no.: NL 10187]. Singapore: Malayan Law Journal, p. v.
14. Tan, T. L. (1946). Kempeitai kindness [Microfilm no.: NL 10187]. Singapore: Malayan Law Journal; Judge tells story of Jap torture. (1946, July 7). The Straits Times, p. 8; Toyoda sentenced to death. (1946, July 9). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Our new registrar [Microfilm no.: NL 3495]. (1952, February). The Malayan Law Journal, 18(2), vii.
16. Special court for food cases. (1946, May 2). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Our new registrar [Microfilm no.: NL 3495]. (1952, February). The Malayan Law Journal, 18(2), viii; First Chinese in the C.L.S. (1947, October 29). The Straits Times, p.4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Our new registrar [Microfilm no.: NL 3495]. (1952, February). The Malayan Law Journal, 18(2), viii.
19. New body to study film petition. (1950, November 15). The Straits Times, p. 9; Film censorship board for S’pore plan. (1951, September 19). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Acting registrar. (1947, November 8). The Straits Times, p. 7; First Asian to be S’pore registrar. (1952, February 3). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Move to speed up court hearings. (1953, May 2). The Straits Times, p. 4; A fifth judge joins in. (1954, November 2). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Free legal aid plan in Singapore. (1955, June 19). The Straits Times, p. 3; Free legal aid plan. (1955, October 30). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Mr. Lim explains to the lawyers. (1956, August 10). The Straits Times, p. 9; They all like Marshall ‘baby.’ (1956, June 7). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Chiang, W. F. (interviewer). (1998, November 2). Oral history interview with Lim Kee Chan [Transcript of cassette recording no. 002068/09/09, p. 117]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/; The late Mr Tan Thoon Lip – In memoriam [Microfilm no.: NL 6579]. (1959, March). The Malayan Law Journal, 25(3), xxii.
25. Esprit de corps under difficulties. (1936, July 24). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Music lived even in the darkness. (1948, September 5). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Brisk demand for English frocks. (1948, August 19). The Straits Times, p. 5; S’pore hears Brahms. (1950, November 29). The Straits Times, p. 4; Lim, S. C. (1952, October 5). As Shakespeare would have liked it? In Chinese dressThe Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. Singapore to adopt Borstal system. (1946, April 23). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. Rededication of colony YMCA. (1948, June 7). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. Film society wants to see uncensored and banned pictures. (1950, June 16). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31. Orchid lovers welcome. (1956, June 10). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
32. Court tributes to registrar. (1957, January 15). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
33. Death. (1959, March 15). The Straits Times, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
34. T.M.A. orchid seedlings (1959, October 11). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Singapore Year book 1967 [Microfilm no.: NL 6554]. (1968). Singapore: Government Publications Bureau, p. 246.
35. Queen’s Scholars. (1930, January 2). The Straits Times, p. 13; Mainly about Malayans. (1936, November 15). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
36. Miss Maggie Tan. (1931, August 4). The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Public officers--Singapore--Biography
Personalities
Law and government>>Public administration
Tan, Thoon Lip, 1911-1959
Personalities>>Biographies
Lawyers--Singapore--Biography