Sarawak courtroom stories from the olden days

If courtroom battles were all boring, there would be no legal dramas like Suits or The Practice.

The truth is, anything can happen during a legal proceeding or else no one will make movies or television series out of it.

In Sarawak, our courtroom dramas are even more colourful due to our multi-ethnic communities and various cultural practices.

Here are some Sarawak courtroom stories from the past which you might find intriguing today:

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Image by Carrie Z from Pixabay

1.A court interpreter delivered the most straightforward translation ever.

“There is the story of the Justice in Kuching who delivered a death sentence of unusual length upon a Chinese. He had no knowledge of anything but English and at the end said to the interpreter, ‘Tell the prisoner what the learned judge has said’. The interpreter turned to the unfortunate man and said in a loud voice, “Lu mati!” (which translates to ‘You gonna die!’)

This story was shared John Beville Archer in his book, Glimpses of Sarawak between 1912 and 1946.

Kuching Old Courthouse
Kuching Old Courthouse

2.A magistrate who ran around the court fleeing an attacker

In the same book, Archer talked about a norm no longer practiced in the Sarawak courtroom and how the practice came about.

“The people rather liked coming to Court. It was held with very little pomp and much friendliness. One thing which is missing nowadays are the Policemen sitting in a row behind the principals – these were always armed with native swords, with colourful corded belts and the senior N.C.O, similarly armed sat behind the magistrate. This, they say, became the practice after an attempt many years before to attack the magistrate who was run around the Bench by an aggrieved suitor.”

3. The difference between ‘Butang’ versus ‘Butang Rangkai’

Kenelm Hubert Digby was a district officer, judge and eventually the Attorney General in Sarawak.

Around 1934 in Limbang, he tried his first case under the native customary law.

“Clad in sarong I sat on a mat on the ruai, the long communal verandah, with the Native Officer and the penghulu on either side of me, and the hundred or so inhabitants of the longhouse gathered around us. The case was concerned with a complaint of a married woman that a man had committed butang rangkai (literally ‘dry adultery’) with her. Her story was that, during the absence of her husband, the accused had entered her mosquito net, but had been virtuously and successfully repulsed by her before any damage had been done.

“The accused hotly denied this allegation. He admitted that he had formed the intention of having intercourse with the complainant and that he had entered her mosquito net in pursuance of his enterprise. On the contrary he said, the woman had welcomed him and he had entirely achieved his purpose. This case had been brought only because the woman’s husband had come to hear the incident.

“The Sea Dayak fine for butang (adultery) was fifteen dollars, while butang rangkai the fine was only twelve dollars. Gathering together all the shreds of my English legal training I informed the accused that since his defence amounted to a confession of the completed offence and since every willful act must include an attempt to commit the act, he could have no reasonable objection to being convicted in accordance with the complainant’s allegations, and required to pay twelve dollars instead of the fifteen for which according to his own story, he was really liable. I was surprised at the fuss which he made.

“I turned for enlightenment to the Native Officer, who explained to me that the accused did not mind paying the extra three dollars but he did object very strongly to the suggestion that, having made advances to the woman, he had been rejected by her. If this allegation received the stamp of truth from the court it might be a considerable time before the accused managed to live it down.”

4.Using a cane to summon a Dayak to court

Have you ever wondered how court summons were delivered?

Arthur Bartlett Ward who once a Sarawak Resident and member of Council Negri in his memoir, Rajah’s Servant (1966) explained,

“The method of summoning Dyaks to Court was peculiar. Paper documents would have been useless, so a ‘tongkat’ or a Malacca cane walking stick with a brass head and a government mark, was sent abroad from village to village with a verbal message, until it reached the person named who forthwith hurried to Simanggang. The system was effective and I never heard of a ‘tongkat’ going astray or being abused.”

5.The two historical Singaporean politicians who had appeared as lawyers in Sarawak courtroom.

Peter Mooney was Sarawak Crown Counsel in Sarawak in the 1950s. In his memoir A Servant of Sarawak (2011), Mooney named two formidable opponents he had encountered in Sarawak courtroom.

The first one was the former Chief Minister of Singapore, David Marshall.

About Marshall, Mooney narrated, “I encountered him in many criminal trials and appeals in Sarawak. He fully deserved his reputation. He prepared his cases meticulously. Every fact was at his fingertips and he had thoroughly mastered the relevant law. He was flamboyant in nature and given to rhetoric. I remember him saying in an appear, ‘…and suspicion settles, like a cloud of atomic dust, over the prosecution witness!’ He could have made a name as an actor.”

Beside Marshall, Mooney also had faced Lee Kuan Yew in Sarawak courtroom battles.

“Like David Marshall, as counsel he was always thoroughly prepared. Unlike David he was never histrionic but presented his client’s case most persuasively with cool and inexorable logic. Had he not abandoned the Bar for politics he would undoubtedly have made a great name for himself as an advocate. He had brilliant intellect and his presentation was quite flawless.”

Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight.

She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science.

She is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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