J. W. D. Ambrose
by Foo, Terence
James Walter Davy Ambrose (b. 1909, Penang, Malaya–d. 28 October 1992, Singapore), an ethnic Indian, was a high court judge in the Singapore legal system. Between 1936 and 1958, he held various portfolios in the legal and judicial services of Malaya, including the post of magistrate in Penang and district judge in Singapore. Ambrose then reached the peak of his career with his appointment as a high court judge in Singapore in 1958, serving in the position for 10 years before his retirement.1
Early life and education
Ambrose attended Penang Free School, where he excelled academically and topped the Senior Cambridge examinations in 1925 with distinctions in English, History, Latin and Mathematics.2 He earned the Queen’s Scholarship in 19283 and in the following year proceeded to further his studies at Keble College, Oxford University, Great Britain.4
Ambrose was awarded second class honours for his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1932 and obtained his Bachelor of Civil Law degree two years later. He then enrolled as a student in Inner Temple, an association for the English legal profession, and was called to the Bar in 1935.5
Apart from his academic endeavours, Ambrose displayed leadership and sporting abilities during his college life. He was elected president of the Oxford Majlis, an association of Indian undergraduates, and also held the post of president of the Sankey Law Society. In addition, Ambrose was the first foreign student at Oxford to be awarded varsity colours for badminton and was appointed captain of the school badminton team.6
Ambrose returned to Malaya shortly after being called to the Bar and served a period of apprenticeship with Penang law firm Wreford and Thornton. In 1936, he was admitted to practise as an advocate and solicitor in the courts of the Straits Settlements. Within a few months, he was appointed as assistant official assignee, assistant registrar of companies and assistant official receiver.7
Posted to Malacca in 1939, Ambrose was appointed as assistant public trustee of the newly established Public Trustee Office of Malacca.8 During this period, Ambrose was credited with aiding the rise of another high court judge, Choor Singh, by encouraging him to study law.9
In 1940, Ambrose joined the Straits Settlements Legal Service and was transferred to the Colonial Legal Service in 1953. Ambrose served as the magistrate of Penang in 1954 before being assigned as the new registrar in the Singapore High Court the following year. He later rose to the posts of district judge and magistrate in the high court.10
In 1957, Ambrose was designated as official assignee11 and public trustee12 before being appointed as a high court judge in May 1958. He was the fourth Asian in Malaya to become a high court judge and the first Indian to be made a puisne judge.13
As a district judge in 1955, Ambrose took over a case involving the alleged misappropriation of funds by an insurance agent after the original presiding judge, F. A. Chua, was appointed a high court judge. The mid-trial transfer of judges was the first to occur in Singapore’s post-war legal history.14
In a 1958 case concerning a gang robbery, Ambrose overturned a majority verdict by the jury and ordered a retrial with another jury.15
On 19 April 1966, Ambrose acceded to the appeal of a seaman who unlawfully carried with him a loaded revolver in a joint decision made with two other judges: Justice Tan Ah Tah and Justice A. V. Winslow. The seaman’s sentence was reduced and he was freed from jail after the appeal.16
Ambrose tried a number of public disorder and terrorism cases, including one related to the Hock Lee Bus riots that occurred on 12 May 1955. Four youths who took part in the riots around the Alexandra area of Singapore were charged with attacking the police and found guilty by Ambrose on 30 August 1955.
On 12 July 1963, a riot occurred on the prison island of Pulau Senang. After the riot resulted in the deaths of four police officers, Ambrose headed the three-man Commission of Inquiry tasked to examine and advise the government on the issue.17
Alongside Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin and Justice Tan Ah Tah, Ambrose presided over the appeals of four Indonesians responsible for the bombing of the MacDonald House building in March 1965. The appeals against their death sentences were dismissed.18
On 1 January 1967, Ambrose’s house was burgled, resulting in a loss of S$1,614 worth of money and jewellery.19 Ironically, the apprehended burglar faced Ambrose in the high court during his appeal. Ambrose instructed that the case be referred to the registrar for a fresh hearing date before the appellate judge.20
Ambrose retired from his legal career on 25 February 1968. His colleagues lauded his patience, courtesy and composure as a judge, and acknowledged his extensive knowledge of the law.21 Ambrose passed away on 28 October 1992 at the age of 82, leaving behind his wife Kamala.22
1. Ex-Supreme Court judge dies. (1992, October 31). The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG
2. Mainly about Malayans. (1939, February 19). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Hwang, T. F. (1967, December 2). Two S'pore Judges to retire. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Mainly about Malayans. (1939, February 19). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Mainly about Malayans. (1939, February 19). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Mainly about Malayans. (1939, February 19). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Mainly about Malayans. (1939, February 19). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Mainly about Malayans. (1939, February 19). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Queen's scholar admitted to S.S. bar. (1936, July 4). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Mainly about Malayans. (1939, February 19). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Untitled. (1939, December 31). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Law Gazette. (2009). Justice Choor Singh. Retrieved from Law Gazette website: http://www.lawgazette.com.sg/2009-6/news2.htm
10. New registrar at high court. (1955, July 21). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. First step towards free legal aid. (1957, May 12) The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Mr. Ambrose at his new desk. (1957, May 16). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Mr. Ambrose at his new desk. (1957, May 16). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Fourth Asian for High Court. (1958, May 2). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Judges switched in midst of trial. (1957, February 14). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Judge disagrees with the jury. (1958, December 13). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. A seaman argues his own appeal and wins. (1966, April 19). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Senang riot trials before inquiry. (1963, July 23). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. MacDonald House bombing: Four fail in appeal. (1966, October 6). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Homes of Justice Ambrose, five others burgled. (1967, March 11). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Just fancy that.... (1967, June 8). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Mr. Justice Ambrose bids a sad farewell. (1968, February 25). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG: Ex-Supreme Court judge dies. (1992, October 31). The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG
22. Ex-Supreme Court judge dies. (1992, October 31). The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; 1st anniversary: In the precious and loving memory of James Walter Davy Ambrose. (1993, October 28). The Straits Times, p. 32. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Corruption charges. (1954, December 15). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Hickling, R. H. (1992). Essays in Singapore law. Petaling Jaya: Pelanduk Publications.
(Call no.: RSING English 349.5957 HIC)
Hwang, T. F. (1987, September 19). The three roses. The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Kwek, M. L., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Hall of Justice: Supreme Court Singapore. Singapore: Supreme Court, Republic of Singapore.
(Call no.: RSING English q347.5957035 HAL)
Oei, A. (1992). What if there had been no Lee Kuan Yew? Singapore: Mandarin Paperbacks.
(Call no.: RSING English 959.57 OEI -[HIS])
Thian, Y. Z., Chong, C. C. & Lim, S. (Eds.). (2002). In session: Supreme Court Singapore: The building, her heritage and her people. Singapore: Supreme Court.
(Call no.: RSING English 347.5957035 IN
The information in this article is valid as at 13 March 2013 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 resources on the topic.