Teo Soon Kim
First woman admitted to the Singapore bar
Teo Soon Kim (later Lo-Teo Soon Kim) broke historic ground for Asian women in the legal profession. She was the first Singaporean woman admitted to the bar in the Straits Settlements, the first female barrister in Hong Kong, and the third Malayan Chinese woman to qualify as a barrister in England.
Soon Kim grew up in a prosperous family, the daughter of the rubber baron Teo Eng Hock who, unlike many of his time, believed girls should be as educated as boys. Soon Kim went to the Methodist Girls' School and then taught at the school for two years.
Teaching was considered one of the few career options for women of the time, but Soon Kim did not find teaching satisfying. Instead she decided she wanted to become a lawyer, something no woman in Singapore had done before, and few women in Asia.
Her father sent her to England to study at the University of London. In 1927 Soon Kim was admitted to the bar of England and Wales, becoming just the third Malayan Chinese woman to achieve this.
Back in the Straits Settlements, that same year, a courts ordinance amendment made it clear that women were eligible to practise law there too, even though this had never been explicitly banned. Two sisters from Penang soon qualified to practise law in Malaya and Singapore. By late 1928 Soon Kim had returned home to marry Dr Lo Long Chi. Not long afterwards she was called to the Bar of the Inner Temple and she was sworn in to the Singapore bar on 17 June 1929, becoming Singapore’s first female barrister.
Soon Kim spent the next two years in China before returning to Singapore in 1931. She quickly established a busy practice, arguing numerous civil and criminal cases in the lower courts.
In 1932, she went to the Supreme Court to argue her most high profile case, successfully defending a farmer charged with murder after killing his cousin in a fight. Later that year she won another significant case involving a fatal motor accident.
Soon afterwards Soon Kim moved to Hong Kong, where in August 1932 she became the first woman to be admitted to the Hong Kong bar. Now a legal pioneer in two colonies, details of her what happened next in her life, are unknown.
Teo Soon Kim passed away, aged 74, in 1978.