The Origins of Singapore Law and the Singapore Legal System
Singapore inherited its legal system from the British who founded modern Singapore. Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles of the East India Company established Singapore as a trading station in 1819. In 1807, some 12 years earlier, the East India Company had obtained the First Charter of Justice from the English monarchy. This empowered it to set up a Court of Judicature in Penang which had powers similar to those of English superior courts; to pass judgment according to “justice and right.”
The Johor Sultanate subsequently ceded Singapore to the British in 1824. With that, the East India Company acquired full sovereignty in perpetuity over Singapore. Singapore, along with Penang and Malacca, became a British Crown Colony as part of the "Straits Settlements".
On 27 November 1826, the East India Company obtained the Second Charter of Justice from the English monarchy. This created a new Court of Judicature to serve Penang, Singapore and Malacca, collectively known as the Straits Settlements.
The Second Charter of Justice was not intended to import or “receive” English law into Singapore after 27 November 1826. Nevertheless, the Singapore courts generally continued, even after that date, to accept decisions of English courts pertaining to commercial matters as part of the law of Singapore.
Finally, in 1878, the Civil Law Ordinance was enacted to regulate the reception of English law into Singapore. Section 6 of the Civil Law Ordinance provided that current English law was to apply to all commercial matters, unless there was applicable local legislation in force. This provision gradually developed, over the years, into Section 5 of the Civil Law Act (Cap 43).
By then, Singapore had gone from being a Crown Colony, to an independent State in 1959, and then, to a member of the Federation of Malaya, Sarawak and North Borneo that formed Malaysia in 1963.
On 9 August 1965, Singapore separated from Malaysia and became a sovereign, independent nation.
Section 5 of the Civil Law Act remained in force after Singapore’s independence, until it was finally repealed on 12 November 1993 by the enactment of the Application of English Law Act (Cap 7A) (the “AELA”).
Section 4 of the AELA specifies which English enactments are to apply or continue to apply in Singapore, subject to necessary modifications.
Section 4(3) of the AELA makes it clear that any provision in a local Act shall prevail if and when an inconsistency arises between the local Act and the provisions of any English enactment.
In stark contrast to its predecessor i.e. Section 5 of the Civil Law Act, no English enactment is part of Singapore law except as provided in the AELA or other written law.
The Singapore Constitution
The Constitution is Singapore’s supreme written law. It entrenches basic freedoms of the individual and sets out the structure and organization of Singapore’s Executive, Legislature and Judiciary. Any Singapore law enacted after the Constitution that is inconsistent with the Constitution is void to the extent of the inconsistency.
The Constitution was originally contained in three basic documents :
(i) the Constitution of Singapore (originally the Constitution of the State of Singapore when it was a constituent state in Malaysia);
(ii) the Republic of Singapore Independence Act, 1965; and
(iii) the Constitution of Malaysia (part of which was applicable to Singapore).
On 31 March 1980, a reprint of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore was published incorporating provisions in the Malaysian Constitution.
A second reprint of the Constitution was published by the Attorney-General on the authorization of the President on 20 March 1992.
A third reprint of the Constitution was published by the Attorney-General on the authorization of the President on 2 July 1999.
To protect and safeguard the sovereignty of the Republic of Singapore, Part III of the Constitution provides that :
Both these provisions cannot be amended unless supported at a national referendum by at least two-thirds of the voters.
However, participation or co-operation in any venture, project or enterprise with other sovereign states is not precluded if it confers on Singapore any economic, financial, industrial, social, cultural, education or other benefits.
Singapore is also not precluded from entering into any treaties or agreements with other sovereign states for mutual or collective security and benefits.
Except for Part III, the Constitution can only be amended by an Act of Parliament supported by at least a two-thirds majority.
Singapore’s Legislative Process
Acts of Parliament
Singapore has a unicameral Parliament i.e. it sits in only one house, in contrast to England’s House of Commons and House of Lords.
A piece of legislation starts its life as a Bill. Bills are proposed by a Member of Parliament (usually the Minister concerned) and then read by Parliament.
The first reading is when the Bill is introduced to Parliament. At the second reading the Minister or Member who moves the Bill normally gives a speech to explain the objects and reasons of the Bill. Then there may be a debate on the Bill. Sometimes the Bill may be sent to a Select Committee for deliberation. Important or controversial Bills usually go to a Select Committee. The Select Committee then makes a Report to Parliament. Lastly, the Bill goes through a third reading and any amendments adopted by Parliament may be made at that time.
A Bill that has been passed by Parliament is an Act of Parliament, but it does not come into force until the President of Singapore gives his assent and the Act is published in the Government Gazette. There is therefore a critical distinction between the date a Bill becomes an Act, and the date an Act comes into force. For more information on how a Bill becomes an Act, visit the Parliament of Singapore's website at www.parliament.gov.sg
Singapore Acts of Parliament often confer certain powers on a Minister or other similar persons or authorities to make rules or regulations in order to put the Act into practice.
These rules and regulations are known as subsidiary legislation. They may be changed by the Minister (and/or the specified rule-making body) from time to time, without the need to amend the Act in question.
The Singapore Courts & The Administration of Justice in Singapore
Article 93 of the Constitution vests Singapore’s judicial power in the Supreme Court and the Subordinate Courts.
The Judiciary comprises the Chief Justice, Judges of Appeal and other Judges appointed by the President, acting on the advice of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister consults the Chief Justice on the appointment of any Judge other than himself.
The Judiciary administers the Law with complete independence from the Executive and Legislature. This independence is safeguarded by the Constitution.
There is also the post of “Judicial Commissioner”, created to “facilitate the disposal of business in the Supreme Court". A Judicial Commissioner has the powers of a Judge of the Supreme Court and is appointed for such period or periods as the President deems fit.
Law Clerks are appointed to assist the Judges in their legal research.
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court consists of the Court of Appeal and the High Court. Together, they are regulated by the Supreme Court of Judicature Act (Cap. 322).
Court of Appeal
The Court of Appeal is presided over by the Chief Justice and the Judges of Appeal. Hearings in the Court of Appeal are before a panel normally comprised of the Chief Justice and two Judges of Appeal, alternatively the Chief Justice, a Judge of Appeal and a Judge.
The Court of Appeal became Singapore’s final appellate court in 1994 after the Judicial Committee (Repeal) Act (Act 2 of 1994) abolished all appeals to the Privy Council in England, thereby making the Court of Appeal Singapore’s court of last resort.
The Court of Appeal hears appeals from any judgment or order of the High Court in any civil matter whether made in the exercise of its original or appellate jurisdiction. It also hears appeals from decisions of the High Court in the exercise of its original criminal jurisdiction and determines questions of law reserved for its decision by the High Court.
The High Court
Judges of the Supreme Court and Judicial Commissioners preside over High Court hearings.
In its original jurisdiction, the High Court hears all civil and criminal cases, including those involving capital punishment. In its appellate jurisdiction, it can hear appeals from the Subordinate Courts. In its supervisory / revisionary jurisdiction, it can hear applications for judicial review e.g. reviews of administrative decisions, habeas corpus applications.
The Subordinate Courts
The Subordinate Courts are constituted under the Subordinate Courts Act (Cap 321). They consist chiefly of the District Courts and Magistrates' Courts, which are presided over by District Judges and Magistrates, respectively. These are appointed by the President, on the recommendation of the Chief Justice.
In addition, there are also specialized ‘courts’ which are really forms and/or divisions of the District and Magistrates’ Courts. These are the Coroners' Court, the Family Court, and the Juvenile Court.
Divorces, judicial separations, adoptions, custody, maintenance, family violence and other family matters are heard in a court commonly designated the Family Court, presided over by a District Judge.
The Syariah Court administers and resolves marriage and divorce disputes between parties who are either Muslims or who have married under the provisions of Muslim law.
It was created by the Muslim's Ordinance that came into effect on 30 May 1957 and was later replaced by the Administration of Muslim Law Act ("AMLA") in 1966. With amendments to the AMLA in 1999, the Syariah Court became better equipped to resolve divorce cases (as well as ancillary issues) in a more expedient and effective manner.
This Court deals specifically with offences allegedly committed by "children" (under 14 years of age) or "young persons" (14 to 16 years of age)
This Court holds inquiries into any death which occurs in a sudden or unnatural way or by violence, or where the manner in which the death occurred is unknown.
Small Claims Tribunals
The Small Claims Tribunal Act (Cap. 308) establishes the Small Claims Tribunal.
It is presided over by Referees appointed by the President, on the recommendation of the Chief Justice and has the power to hear and determine claims arising from the sale of goods or the provision of services.
Its jurisdiction is limited to claims up to $10,000 and may be increased up to $20,000, if the parties agree.
Parties are not allowed to be represented by lawyers at hearings of the Small Claims Tribunal.
Decisions of the Small Claims Tribunal may be enforced as if they are Judgments of the Magistrate’s Court. Dissatisfied parties have the right to appeal any decision of the Small Claims Tribunal to the High Court.
Enforceability of Singapore judgments
Following the enactment of the Reciprocal Enforcement of Commonwealth Judgments Act (Cap. 264) and the enactment of the Reciprocal Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act (Cap. 265), judgments of the Supreme Court are enforceable in Hong Kong SAR, as well as in most member-countries of the British Commonwealth.
Arbitration in Singapore
Because of its growing importance to our clients and generally, to persons or companies intending to do business in Singapore, arbitration deserves a brief mention in this section even though it is not part of the legislative framework for the administration of justice in Singapore.
Singapore is a party to the 1958 New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards. This means that an arbitral award made in Singapore is enforceable in any of the approximately 140 countries which are signatories to the Convention.
In Singapore, arbitration is regulated by two Acts : the Arbitration Act (Cap 10) (the “AA”) and the International Arbitration Act (Cap 143A) (the “IAA”).
The AA deals with domestic arbitrations. The IAA deals with international arbitrations.
In the late eighties, the Singapore Government made a concerted effort to promote Singapore as an arbitration hub.
The 1986 Economic Committee issued a report recommending the establishment of an international arbitration centre as part of a programme to speed up the resolution of commercial disputes and develop Singapore as a centre for legal services.
A working party constituted in 1987 for this purpose recommended the establishment of an international arbitration centre. The result was the establishment of the Singapore International Arbitration Centre ("SIAC") in 1991.
The SIAC has a variety of rules to suit the specific arbitration needs of parties. Below is an extract from the SIAC website :