Jenny Lau Buong Bee
Singapore’s first female judge
Jenny Lau Buong Bee made Singapore legal history in 1966 when she became the first woman to be appointed a district judge. Earlier, in 1960, she had made Malayan legal history by becoming the first magistrate in Malaya.
The third of seven sisters, she was born to a principal who became Chief Inspector of Schools and a teacher. The siblings all became professionals - three doctors, two lawyers and two educators.
Jenny received her legal training at Lincoln’s Inn in London, returning to Singapore in 1957. She was briefly in a private law firm before being appointed as a magistrate in the Juvenile and Family Courts. She also sat on the Singapore Cinematographic Films Committee of Appeal (an old name for the Film Censorship Board) as well as the Eugenics Board. She served in the Subordinate Courts until 1975 when she joined the Shaw Organization as a legal advisor. She eventually retired in 1988 but continued to help in her sister May’s law firm.
Being on the leading edge of the legal profession in the 1960s was challenging for a woman. Jenny found support in her sisters, whom she met up with on weekends.
Jenny was an understated but determined champion of the underdog and common man. This was reflected in the thoughtful judgments she made while serving on the bench, the reminiscences of junior lawyers to whom she dispensed career advice, and unrecorded acts of kindness to common folk that were sometimes unexpectedly revealed.
One day well into her retirement, two men approached her as she was sitting in a cafe. They had appeared before her in court when they were young and foolhardy. She had listened to their appeal against being sent to prison and agreed to give them a second chance. It was the turning point they needed. They stayed out of any further trouble and eventually made good of their lives. Recognising her at the café, they wanted to thank her for giving them that second chance.
In private, Jenny was a devoted mother who constantly kept her children's interests close to heart. In her later years, she doted on her granddaughters, entertaining them with her phenomenal memory for social networks in Singapore society. She succumbed to cancer just shy of her 81st birthday.
"My sister always loved the law but it was quite a difficult time then. It wasn’t easy, especially when you’re the first and everybody’s eyes are on you but I think she did pretty well."
May Oh, sister