LAI SIU CHIU
First woman on the Supreme Court Bench
In 1991 a glass ceiling in the Singapore Judiciary was shattered when Lai Siu Chiu was appointed Judicial Commissioner. This led to a change in the standard mode of address in the Supreme Court from the traditional “My Lord” to the gender-neutral “Your Honour”.
Three years later, in 1994, Siu Chiu became the first woman Supreme Court Judge. And in 2015, when the position of Senior Judge was created, she was the only woman among the five former Supreme Court judges who were named Senior Judge. The three-year appointment marked her return following her 2013 retirement after 22 years on the Bench.
At the time of her 2013 retirement, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said: “Known to be a firm judge, she (Siu Chiu) was one of the hardest working members of the Court.”
Born in Malacca in 1948, Siu Chiu came to Singapore to read law at the then University of Singapore and graduated in 1972 with Honours. She had aspired to be a Fleet Street reporter but was advised that it would be difficult for a woman to be taken seriously. Law, she said, then became a “viable option”.
She was called to the bar in 1973 and joined M/s Sim Teow Gok & Co, and then moved to Allen & Gledhill where she was one of a handful of female litigators. She became a partner of the firm in 1980.
Her litigation work was to prove very helpful when she was appointed to the Bench. Speaking in 2009 to LawLink, the National University of Singapore’s Law Faculty’s alumni magazine, Siu Chiu said: “When lawyers know that you were a litigator, they do not try to pull the wool over your eyes – even in my first year as a judge – because they know you know the tricks of the trade too.”
In 2014 she told Singapore, a publication of the Singapore International Foundation, that as a judge, she only needed to focus her attention on the facts presented and decide on the merits of each case. The cases went from beyond ‘run of the mill’ contract or negligence actions to complex and sophisticated disputes which required careful analysis and consideration.
“I live by the principle that either I do a task well or not at all. From young, I have been self-disciplined especially in my studies. I knew I had to familiarise myself with a case before I go into the court-room. Otherwise, my conscience won’t give me a moment’s peace.”
Apart from her work in the Courts, Siu Chiu has also been active in the social services sector. In the early 1980s, she was first Deputy Chairwoman and then Chairwoman of Children’s Charities Association, an umbrella organisation for six children’s charities. She stepped down as Chairwoman when her first child was born in 1984.
Siu Chiu was Chairwoman of the Membership and Social Committee of the Singapore Academy of Law from 2006 to 2013. She also spearheaded annual fund-raisers for the Yellow Ribbon Fund (YRF) which administers funds for rehabilitation programmes for ex-offenders. In 2013, she led a charity event which raised $335,000 for the YRF. She continues to contribute to the YRF as a member on its main management committee.