A Guide to the Singapore Legal System and Legal Research

By Chai Yee Xin

Chai Yee Xin is a Research Librarian at Singapore Management University (SMU). She holds an MSc in Information Science and an LLB from the City University of London.

Published July/August 2021

(Previously updated by Arundhati Ashok Satkalmi in September/October 2007; by Tzi Yong Sam Sim in July 2008; by Charlotte Gill in January 2013; and by Chai Yee Xin in March 2017)

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This article is intended to serve as a convenient preliminary introduction to the Singapore legal system, an example of the successful application of common law in a multi-ethnic Asian setting, providing the legal framework with which to forge a disparate gathering of immigrants into a nation and to enable the economic leapfrog from Third to First World in a single generation.

1. Background and Constitution[1]

The name Singapura comes from the Sanskrit singha (“lion”) and pura (“city”). According to the Malay Annals, this name was given by a 14th century Sumatran prince named Sang Nila Utama, who, having landed on the island after a thunderstorm, spotted an auspicious beast on the shore. His chief minister erroneously identified this creature as a ‘singha‘, or lion. With the first recorded settlement dating back to the second century AD, the island was an outpost of the Sumatran Srivijaya empire and originally had the Javanese name Temasek (‘sea town’). In the third century, a Chinese account gave reference to Singapore as Pu-luo-chung, or “island at the end of a peninsula.” Temasek (Tumasek) rapidly became a significant trading settlement but declined in the late 14th century. Between the 16th and early 19th centuries, Singapore Island was part of the Sultanate of Johor. During the Malay-Portugal wars in 1613, the settlement was set ablaze by Portuguese troops. The Portuguese subsequently held control in that century and the Dutch in the 17th, but throughout most of this time, the island’s population consisted mainly of fishermen.

Modern-day Singapore was founded in 1918 by the British. In extending their dominion over India and increasing trade with China in the second half of the 18th century, the British saw a need for a port of call in the South-East Asia region. Sir Stamford Raffles, Lieutenant Governor of Bencoolen established a trading station upon landing on January 29, 1819; on February 6, 1819, he concluded a formal treaty with Sultan Hussein of Johor and the Temenggong,[2] the de jure and de facto rulers of Singapore respectively.

In 1824, Singapore’s status as a British possession was formalized by two new treaties. The first was the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of March 1824,[3] by which the Dutch withdrew all objections to the British occupation of Singapore. The second treaty was made with Sultan Hussein and Temenggong Abdu’r Rahman in August,[4] by which the two owners ceded the island out right to the British in return for increased cash payments and pensions.

The Straits Settlements and Japanese Occupation
Singapore, together with Malacca and Penang, the two British settlements in the Malay Peninsula, became the Straits Settlements in 1826, under the control of British India. As a result, British common law applied to Singapore as it did in India, especially the Penal Code which was imported from the penal laws applicable to India during that time.[5]

By 1832, Singapore had become the center of government for the three areas. On April 1, 1867, the Straits Settlements became a Crown Colony under the jurisdiction of the Colonial Office in London.[6] During the ensuing decades, Singapore prospered as a trading post and as the major strategic naval station in the Far East of the British. This was interrupted when Singapore fell to the Japanese on February 15, 1942 and was renamed Syonan (Light of the South).[7] It remained under Japanese occupation for the next three and a half years. Japanese law applied during this time.

Towards Self-Government – Birth of the Constitution
The British forces returned in September 1945, and Singapore came under the British Military Administration. When the period of military administration ended in March 1946, the Straits Settlements was dissolved. On April 1, 1946, Singapore became a Crown Colony with a new Colonial Constitution.[8] Constitutional powers were initially vested in the Governor who had an advisory council of officials and nominated non-officials. This evolved into the separate Executive and Legislative Councils in July 1947. The Governor retained firm control over the colony but there was provision for the election of six members to the Legislative Council by popular vote. Hence, Singapore’s first election was held on March 20, 1948.

When the Communist Party of Malaya tried to take over Malaya and Singapore by force, a state of emergency was declared in June 1948. The emergency lasted for 12 years. Towards the end of 1953, the British government appointed a commission under Sir George Rendel to review Singapore’s constitutional position and make recommendations for change. Rendel’s proposals were accepted by the government and served as the basis of a new constitution that gave Singapore a greater measure of self-government.

The 1955 election was the first active political contest in Singapore’s history. The Labor Front won 10 seats and David Marshall became Singapore’s first Chief Minister on April 6, 1955, with a coalition government made up of his own Labor Front, the United Malays National Organization, and the Malayan Chinese Association. Marshall resigned on June 6, 1956, after the breakdown of constitutional talks in London on attaining full internal self-government. Lim Yew Hock, Marshall’s deputy and Minister for Labor became the Chief Minister. The March 1957 constitutional mission to London led by Lim Yew Hock was successful in negotiating the main terms of a new Singapore Constitution.

On May 28, 1958, the Constitutional Agreement was signed in London. The British Parliament passed a State of Singapore Act and Singapore’s status was changed from a colony to a state.[9] The Singapore (Constitution) Order-in-Council was enacted, and it created the position of a Yang di-Pertuan Negara as the constitutional head of state, a prime minister, and a 51-elected member Legislative Assembly.[10]

Self-government was attained in 1959. In May of that year, Singapore’s first general election was held to choose 51 representatives to the first fully elected Legislative Assembly. The PAP won 43 seats, gleaning 53.4 percent of the total votes. On June 3, the new constitution confirming Singapore as a self-governing state was brought into force by the proclamation of the governor, Sir William Goode, who became the first Yang di-Pertuan Negara (Head of State). The first Government of the State of Singapore was sworn in on June 5, with Mr. Lee Kuan Yew as Singapore’s first Prime Minister.

Part of Malaysia
To prevent a communist take-over of Singapore, on May 27, 1961, the Malayan Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, proposed closer political and economic cooperation between the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, North Borneo, and Brunei in the form of a merger. The main terms of the merger, agreed on by him and Lee Kuan Yew, were to have central government responsibility for defense, foreign affairs, and internal security, but local autonomy in matters pertaining to education and labor. A referendum on the terms of the merger held in Singapore on September 1, 1962 showed overwhelming support for the merger. Malaysia was formed on September 16, 1963, and consisted of the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, and North Borneo (now Sabah). Brunei opted out. Singapore officially joined the Federation of Malaysia. The Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore (State Constitutions) Order-in-Council was enacted.[11]

The merger proved to be short-lived. Singapore separated from the rest of Malaysia on August 9, 1965 and became a sovereign, democratic and independent nation. This separation was effected by three documents: the Constitution of Malaysia (Singapore Amendment) Act,[12] the Constitution of Singapore (Amendment) Act, [13] and the Republic of Singapore Independence Act of 1965.[14]

Independent Singapore was admitted to the United Nations on September 21, 1965,[15] and became a member of the Commonwealth of Nations on October 15, 1965. On December 22, 1965, it became a republic, with Yusof bin Ishak as the republic’s first president.

The Constitution of Singapore is the supreme law of Singapore, and it is a codified constitution. The Constitution cannot be amended without the support of more than two-thirds of the members of parliament on the second and third readings. The president may seek opinion on constitutional issues from a tribunal consisting of not less than three judges of the Supreme Court. Singaporean courts, like the courts in Australia, cannot offer advisory opinions on the constitutionality of laws.

The Constitution
The Constitution entrenches certain fundamental rights, such as the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and equal rights. These individual rights are not absolute but qualified by public interests such as the maintenance of public order, morality, and national security. Apart from the general protection of racial and religious minorities, the special position of Malays, as the indigenous people of Singapore, is constitutionally mandated. The Constitution contains express provisions delineating the powers and functions of the various organs of state, including the legislature (Section 5), the executive (Section 6) and the judiciary (Section 7).

1.1. Major Constitutional Developments: Post-Independence

  • 1970: to safeguard the rights of the racial, linguistic, and religious minorities, the Presidential Council was established and later renamed the Presidential Council for Minority Rights in 1973.
  • 1984: a constitutional amendment was passed to provide for non-constituency members of Parliament.
  • 1988: a constitutional amendment was passed to introduce group representation constituencies (GRCs). At least one member of the GRC must be from a minority race.
  • 1988: the constitution was amended to provide for nominated members of Parliament.
  • 1991: the constitution was amended to provide for a popularly elected president.

2. The Judiciary

2.1. The Court System

The judge is the arbiter of both law and fact in Singapore. The jury system had been limited in Singapore and was entirely abolished in 1970.[16] Judicial power is vested in the Supreme Court (comprising the Singapore Court of Appeal and the High Court) as well as the State Courts.[17]

The Court of Appeal: The highest court of the land is the permanent Court of Appeal, which hears both civil and criminal appeals emanating from the High Court and the State Courts. As a significant watermark of Singapore’s legal history, appeals to the Privy Council in England were abolished on April 8, 1994. The Practice Statement on Judicial Precedent issued by the Supreme Court on July 11, 1994 clarified that the Singapore Court of Appeal is not bound by its own decisions as well as prior decisions of the Privy Council. However, it would continue to treat such prior decisions as normally binding, though it may depart from the prior precedents where it appears right to do so.

The Chief Justice sits in the Court of Appeal together with the Judges of Appeal. A Judge of the High Court may, on the request of the Chief Justice, sit in the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal is presided over by the Chief Justice, and in his absence, a Judge of Appeal or a Judge of the High Court. The Court of Appeal is usually made up of three judges. However, certain appeals, including those against interlocutory orders, may be heard by only two judges. If necessary, the Court of Appeal may comprise five or any greater uneven number of judges.

The High Court: The High Court consists of the Chief Justice and the Judges of the High Court. A Judge of Appeal may also sit in the High Court as a judge. Proceedings in the High Court are heard before a single judge, unless otherwise provided by any written law. The High Court may also appoint one or more persons with expertise in the subject matter of the proceedings to assist the court. The High Court judges enjoy security of tenure whilst the judicial commissioners are appointed on a short-term contract basis. Both, however, enjoy the same judicial powers and immunities. Their judicial powers comprise both original and appellate jurisdiction over both civil and criminal matters.

The High Court hears both criminal and civil cases as a court of first instance. The High Court also hears appeals from the decisions of District Courts and Magistrates’ Courts in civil and criminal cases and decides points of law reserved in special cases submitted by a District Court or a Magistrates’ Court. In addition, the High Court has general supervisory and revisionary jurisdiction over all state courts in any civil or criminal matter.

With a few limited exceptions, the High Court has the jurisdiction to hear and try any action where the defendant is served with a writ or other originating process in Singapore, or outside Singapore in the circumstances authorized by Rules of Court; or where the defendant submits to the jurisdiction of the High Court. Generally, except in probate matters, a civil case must be commenced in the High Court if the value of the claim exceeds S$250,000.00. Probate matters are commenced in the High Court only if the value of the deceased’s estate exceeds S$3,000,000.00 or if the case involves the resealing of a foreign grant. In addition, ancillary matters in family proceedings involving assets of S$1,500,000.00 or more are also heard in the High Court.

The following matters are also exclusively heard by the High Court:

  • Admiralty matters
  • Company winding-up proceedings
  • Bankruptcy proceedings
  • Applications for the admission of advocates and solicitors.

The High Court has jurisdiction to try all offences committed in Singapore and may also try offences committed outside Singapore in certain circumstances. In criminal cases, the High Court generally tries cases where the offences are punishable with death or imprisonment for a term, which exceeds ten years.

The Constitutional Tribunal: A special Constitutional Tribunal was also established, within the Supreme Court, to hear questions referred to by the elected president on the effect of constitutional provisions.

The State Courts:[18]Formally known as the Subordinate Courts, the State Courts (consisting of the District Courts, Magistrates’ Courts, Juvenile Courts, Coroners Courts, as well as the Small Claims Tribunals) have also been set up within the Singapore judicial hierarchy to administer justice amongst the people. With the increased sophistication in business transactions and law, the Commercial, Civil, and Criminal District Courts have recently been established within the State Courts to deal with the more complex cases.

The District and Magistrates’ Courts: The District Courts and the Magistrates’ Courts share the same powers over specific matters such as in contractual or tortious claims for a debt, demand, or damage and in actions for the recovery of monies. However, the jurisdictional monetary limits in civil matters for the Magistrates’ Courts and District Courts are $60,000 and $250,000 respectively. The courts also differ in terms of criminal sentencing powers. Imprisonment terms imposed by the Magistrates’ Courts are limited to two years and for the District Courts, seven years.

The Small Claims Tribunals:[19] The Small Claims Tribunals, on the other hand, afford a speedier, less costly, and more informal process for the disposition of small claims. The monetary limit is $10,000 and up to $20,000 only if the disputing parties consent in writing.

Family Justice Courts:[20] Under the Family Just Act 2014, the Family Justice Courts comprise of the High Court (Family Division), the Family Court and the Youth Court. They deal with a variety of matters including divorces, maintenance, youth offenders, custody, and adoptions.

The Coroners’ Court: The Coroners’ Courts deal with cases that are classified by the police as coroners’ cases. The Coroners’ Court will hold an inquiry when there is reason to suspect that a person has died in a sudden or unnatural manner, by violence, when the cause of death is unknown and in situations where the law requires an inquiry.

Other Specialized Courts

Apart from the above courts, the following are specialized courts:

  • The Juvenile Courts deal with offenses committed by minors
  • The Traffic Court hears and tries traffic offences
  • The Night Courts, established in April 1992, deals with the high volume of regulatory and traffic offences

2.2. Alternative Dispute Resolution

Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) is rapidly growing as an alternative means of dispute resolution for matters ranging from domestic and social conflicts to large-scale, cross-border legal disputes. ADR, with negotiation, mediation and arbitration as the main modes practiced in Singapore, is an effective, efficient, and economical means of resolving a spectrum of disputes in a variety of settings.

ADR began tentatively in the 1980s when the government envisaged Singapore as a major dispute resolution center. The Singapore Government is a strong proponent of ADR and has put in place substantive institutional and infrastructural framework to support this endeavor. The Rules of Court (Cap 322, Rule 5, 1999 Rev Ed) provide ample opportunities for ADR even within a litigation setting. Various modes of ADR could still be relied upon even if litigation proceedings have begun. For instance, litigants or their legal representatives may either apply to the court for the matter to be referred to mediation, or directly to the Singapore Mediation Centre itself.

In 1986, Singapore acceded to the 1958 New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards.[21] Under this Convention, each contracting State is required to recognize and enforce arbitral awards made in another contracting State. Arbitral awards rendered in Singapore are potentially enforceable in more than 120 jurisdictions. The International Arbitration Act (Cap 143A, 2002 Rev Ed),[22] which incorporates the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) Model Law on International Commercial Arbitration,[23] gives effect to the Convention.

In 1991, the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC) was established. This was followed by the establishment of the Singapore Mediation Centre (SMC) in 1997. In 1994, mediation of civil disputes was first introduced in the State Courts through the Court Mediation Centre. Since then, mediation is routinely conducted in the Small Claims Tribunals and the Family Justice Courts, and the Ministry of Community, Youth and Sports’ Maintenance of Parents Tribunal (Cap 167B).

As part of the national effort to foster a mediation culture, the Community Mediation Centres Act (Cap 49A, 1998 Rev Ed)[24] was enacted in 1997 to spearhead the community mediation endeavor, which is seen as an effective means of settling relational disputes on the ground, especially in multi-racial, multi-religious Singapore. All mediation sessions are conducted at two Community Mediation Centres (CMCs), CMC (Central) and CMC (State Courts). The effort is aimed at developing an Asian model of mediation drawing on the customary and influential role of the traditional leaders of the various races in mediating conflicts within those communities.

In April 2003, the Chief Justice appointed Justice Judith Prakash to preside over all arbitration matters brought before the High Court. This is part of the judiciary’s goal of ensuring that judges with the requisite expertise and experience preside over cases involving specialized areas of law and commercial practice. The State Courts now offer Court Dispute Resolution (CDR) and Court Dispute Resolution International (CDRI). CDR is a free-of-charge, voluntary settlement process by which the parties reach a satisfactory solution with the aid of a neutral third person, the Settlement Judge. The parties begin by having a joint discussion with the Settlement Judge regarding their positions and requirements. At various stages, the Settlement Judge may call for a caucus—a private session—where he speaks to the parties separately, in order to conduct a full and frank discussion of the issues. In this way, issues can be identified, and all involved can then proceed to map out a suitable solution.

CDRI is a settlement conference co-conducted by a Singapore State Courts Judge and a Judge, from another jurisdiction, such as Australia, Europe, or the United States of America. The co-mediation provides a forum in which additional judicial perspectives and views are brought to bear on disputes. CDRI will be confined to issues of fact and will be conducted using the Early Neutral Evaluation approach.

In 2015, Singapore established the Centre for Dispute Resolutions and the Singapore International Commercial Court (SICC). The SICC was created as a response to Singapore being a leading arbitration hub, not only for issues connected to Singapore, but for commercial disputes across Asia. It is a new division of the High Court and offers court-based resolutions for international and commercial disputes. The Centre of Dispute Resolution was launched in at the State Courts as a way for the courts to consolidate their ADR services.

3. The Executive

3.1. The Ministry of Law

The Ministry of Law (“MinLaw”) helps to create, maintain, and enhance Singapore’s business climate through the implementation of sound, transparent and pro-business legal policies and an updating of the code of law originally inherited from the British. Areas managed by the Ministry of Law include constitutional and trustee matters, legal policies on civil and criminal justice, alternative dispute resolution and community mediation, the administration of intellectual property rights, as well as the administration of land titles and the management of state properties.

3.2. Attorney General’s Chambers

The Attorney General’s Chambers (“AGC”) is the government’s legal adviser in all aspects of public administration law, criminal law, international law, legislation, and law reform; AGC provides a vast array of legal expertise for the good governance of Singapore. The Attorney-General (“AG”) is the legal adviser to the Government. He is also the Public Prosecutor. The AG discharges his responsibilities and duties through five legal divisions (Civil, Criminal Justice, International Affairs, Legislation, and Law Reform and Revision), with the support of the Corporate Services Division, the Computer Information Systems Department and the Library and Resource Centre. In addition, the AGC provides the Singapore Statutes Online service. This is an online database, which provides access to Acts and subsidiary legislation passed by the Singapore legislature.

3.3. Competition Commission of Singapore

The Competition Commission of Singapore’s work includes promoting fair competition, maintaining and enhancing efficient market conduct, and promoting overall productivity, innovation, and competitiveness of markets in Singapore. It acts internationally as the national body representative of Singapore in respect to competition matters, and it advises the government or other public authority on national needs and policies in respect to competition matters generally. The Commission has powers to investigate and adjudicate anti-competitive activities. It will also have the powers to impose sanctions.

There are six main divisions of the Competition Commission. They are the Business and Economics Division, Legal Division, Enforcement Division, Policy and Markets Division, International and Strategic Planning Division, and Corporate Affairs Division.

4. Primary Sources of Law

4.1. Primary Legislation: Acts of Parliament

Print copies of legislation are available from Toppan LeeFung Pte Ltd. Hard copies may be ordered from the website. Alternatively, the contact details are: Toppan Leefung Pte. Ltd. Legal Publishing, 1 Kim Seng Promenade #18-01 Great World City, East Tower, Singapore, 237994. | Operating Hours: Monday to Friday: 9:30am to 6:00pm; closed on Saturday, Sunday, and Public Holidays. | Tel: (65) 6826 9685/6826 9629 | Email: legalpub@toppanleefung.com

Online databases usually only maintain records for post-independence documents and legislation. An excellent guide for pre-1965 and colonial-era Singaporean materials can be found by Lee Su-Lin from NUS Libraries. Note that most of these historical documents are out of print.

4.2. Electronic Sources for Legislation [25]

Bills Introduced (commencement of 10th Parliament): Bills introduced and passed in Parliament from April 1, 2002, beginning with the Police Force (Amendment) Bill (Bill no.01/2002), are available on the Singapore Parliament website. Statutes of the Republic of Singapore is a source for prior primary legislation available in print format. Subsidiary Legislation of the Republic of Singapore (also a print publication) provides access to prior secondary legislation.

Singapore Statutes Online: A joint initiative of the Attorney-General’s Chambers and the Managing for Excellence Office, Ministry of Finance, the Singapore Statues Online is a legal research tool which offers the public free access to the full text consolidation of Acts of Parliament and subsidiary legislation that are in force. Amendments to statutes are updated regularly on this website but take note that only the Revised Editions of Acts are authoritative. This is administered by the Attorney-General’s Chambers. Singapore Statutes Online also created a video titled Introduction to Singapore Legislation which provides a succinct outline of how Singapore legislation is made and passed.

LawNet – Legal Workbench is a fee-based network administered by the Singapore Academy of Law. It provides up-to-date repository of online legal research information such as statutory and case law. Subscribers to the Legal Workbench database have access to Singapore legislation, case law, and treaties including

  • Rev. Ed. of Singapore Statutes
  • Rev. Ed. Of Singapore Subsidiary legislation
  • Acts supplements
  • Bills supplements
  • Singapore Law Reports 1965-
  • Malayan Law Journal 1932-
  • Academy Digest 1995-
  • Heritage Law Reports
  • Military Court of Appeal decisions 1973-
  • Unreported judgments 1991-
  • Parliament reports 1977-
  • Damages for personal injuries database
  • Singapore treaties database

Laws of the Straits Settlements (1835-1919): The C J Koh Law Library digitized this rare five-volume set. The laws are freely available via the NUS Libraries catalogue, LINC.

4.3. Selected Legislation (including treaties)

Regulations for the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA): The POFMA rules and regulations are published on the POFMA office’s official website. The full text of the act is also available on both Singapore Statutes Online and POFMA website.

Arbitration Rules: The SIAC rules and the SIAC Domestic Arbitration Rules are published by the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC).

Free Trade Agreements: Enterprise Singapore in collaboration with Ministry for Trade and Industry (MTI) Singapore full texts of free trade agreements concluded between Singapore and other countries. Published by the Ministry of Trade and Industry.[26]

Internet Policy and Regulatory Framework: The Info-Communications Media Development Authority regulates Internet Service Providers and Internet Content Providers through the Class License Scheme and Internet Code of Practice.

Intellectual Property Legislation: Intellectual Property Office of Singapore provides a useful list of IP legislation. This includes information on legislation updates, Free Trade Agreements, and public consultations. It is also possible to locate Circulars and Practice Directions relating to patents, trademarks, registered designs, and plant varieties protection.

Manpower Legislation: Acts and regulations relating to labor relations, occupational health, and occupational safety are published by the Ministry of Manpower.

Monetary Authority of Singapore – Legislation & Notices: The Monetary Authority of Singapore publishes statutes, regulations, and notices, which it administers as well as other legislation which govern the financial industry in Singapore.

Singapore Code on Take-overs and Mergers: A copy of the code which is administered by the Securities Industry Council (SIC) is published on the Monetary Authority of Singapore website.

Rules of Court: The Rules of Court are made in accordance with the provisions of the Supreme Court of Judicature Act and regulate and prescribe the procedure and practice to be followed, mainly in civil proceedings in the High Court and the Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court has launched the electronic Rules of Court (or “e-ROC”), which provides easier online access to the rules.

Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore: e-Tax Guides are an electronic store of tax guides. This service aims to provide convenient and timely access to tax information grouped along the headings of Income Tax, GST, Property, Stamp Duty, and Charities/ IPCs.

Tax Treaties: The Avoidance of Double Taxation Agreements concluded by Singapore since 1965 are available in full text. These are made available by the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore.

Family Law: The Family Justice Courts’ Website provides links to legislation, Practice Directions, and Registrar’s Circulars used in the Family Justice Courts.

Criminal Law: The State Courts provide links to Practice Directions and Registrar’s Circulars used in the Criminal Courts. Some of the key acts include the Penal Code (Cap. 224) and the Criminal Procedure Code (Cap. 68). It also highlights the sentencing and bail guidelines.

4.4. Common Law

Singapore has inherited the English common law tradition. In essence, the common law system of Singapore is characterized by the doctrine of judicial precedent (or stare decisis). According to this doctrine, the body of law is created incrementally by judges via the application of legal principles to the facts of particular cases. In this regard, the judges are only required to apply the ratio decidendi (or the operative reason for the decision) of the higher court within the same hierarchy. Thus, in Singapore, the ratio decidendi found in the decisions of the Singapore Court of Appeal are strictly binding in the Singapore High Court, the District Court, and the Magistrates’ Court. The court decisions from England and other Commonwealth jurisdictions are, on the other hand, not strictly binding in Singapore. Other judicial statements (obiter dicta) made by the higher court in the judgment which do not directly affect the outcome of the case may be disregarded by the lower court.

The lower court is able, in some cases, to avoid having to apply the ratio decidendi in a prior higher court’s decision if (a) it can materially distinguish the facts of the case before the lower court from those in the prior higher court’s decision or (b) the higher court’s decision was made per incuriam (that is, without abiding by the doctrine of stare decisis) in the first place.

Influences of and Departures from English Common Law: The heavy influence of the English common law on the development of Singapore law is generally more evident in certain traditional common law areas (such as contract, tort, and restitution) than in other statute-based areas (such as criminal law, company law, and the law of evidence). With respect to the latter, other jurisdictions such as India[27] and Australia[28] have strongly influenced the approach and content of some of these statutes.

However, the erstwhile tendency of Singapore courts to adhere to English decisions has recently given way to some significant departures from the English courts (even in the traditional common law areas). This development of local jurisprudence reflects the need for the autochthony of Singapore law is further driven by the European Union legal developments and their impact on the British system.

4.5. Law Reports[29]

Singapore Law Reports: Under an arrangement with the Government and Supreme Court of Singapore, the Singapore Academy of Law is Singapore’s official law-reporting agency with primary responsibility for the selection and publication of Singapore case law. First published in 1992, the Singapore Law Reports (published by the Singapore Academy of Law) are an integral part of legal practice and scholarship in Singapore. The series reports on a fortnightly basis all legally significant cases heard in the Singapore Court of Appeal and High Court, and by the Constitutional Tribunal. Cases are selected for publication by the Council of Law Reporting chaired by the Attorney-General.

In 2003, the Academy re-issued the Singapore Law Reports from 1965 through 2009. The Singapore Law Reports (Reissue) was published in early 2010 with re-written head notes for the reports from 1965-2002, and re-edited judgment texts, that conforms to the SAL house-style. The re-issue together with the Singapore Law Reports current series forms the complete set of law reports published by the Academy. The Singapore Law Reports and the re-issue are available in print and online though LawNet.

LawNet: Subscription database containing Singapore case law. Use of LawNet is on a per-session basis in half-an-hour blocks of time for the following:

4.6. Citations

Mallal’s Digest (Consolidated Table of Cases 2009 Reissue): Alphabetical table of cases digested in the fourth edition of Mallal’s Digest Reissue volumes. Refer to the Preface for dates of coverage. This is available in print at the CJ Koh Law Library, National University of Singapore.

The Singapore Law Reports: Consolidated Index and Tables: There are two volumes containing alphabetical tables and subject indexes of cases reported in the Singapore Law Reports for the years 1965-1996 and 1997-2000, respectively. For more recent cases, refer to the tables and indexes in the individual volumes of the Singapore Law Reports. Available in the C J Koh Law Library, National University of Singapore.

4.7. Electronic Sources for Case Law

Case Law & Decisions: Free access to judgments of the following courts for the last three months is provided on LawNet at the following sites:

The latest cases in the past three days are also available on the websites of their respective courts.

Court of Appeal and High Court Judgments: Singapore Law Watch publishes the Court of Appeal and High Court Judgments for the last three months. The information is provided by the Supreme Court of Singapore.

Legal Decisions from the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore: Summaries of grounds of decisions made by the Registry of Trade Marks (1999- ). The summaries are for information only and are not meant to be comprehensive. Patent decisions are available from 2008. The full text of decisions from 2010 are available on this site but for information only. The official version of all decisions is available on LawNet.

Strata Title Board Judgments: Recent judgments are made available on the Strata Title Boards website. The archives start from 2005.

Judgment from the International Court of Justice: The case concerning the sovereignty over Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks, and South Ledge is covered on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Website.

4.8. Subscription Services

LawNet: Subscription database containing Singapore case law, in particular:

  • Singapore Law Reports
  • Malayan Law Journal
  • Academy Digest
  • Unreported judgments

4.9. Indexes and Digests

Mallal’s Digest: Consolidated Table of Cases 2009 Reissue: Alphabetical table of cases digested in the fourth edition of Mallal’s Digest Reissue volumes. Refer to the Preface for dates of coverage. This is available in print at the C J Koh Law Library, National University of Singapore.

The Singapore Law Reports: Consolidated Index and Tables: There are two volumes containing alphabetical tables and subject indexes of cases reported in the Singapore Law Reports for the years 1965-1996 and 1997-2000, respectively. For more recent cases, refer to the tables and indexes in the individual volumes of the Singapore Law Reports. Available in the C J Koh Law Library, National University of Singapore.

4.10. Legislation and Case Law Indexes

Singapore Subsidiary Legislation (1981-1991) / Singapore Subsidiary Legislation (1991- ): Searchable indexes of all amendments to Singapore Subsidiary Legislation (1990 Ed.). Available in the C J Koh Law Library, National University of Singapore.

The Statutes of the Republic of Singapore (Indexes): The Alphabetical Index of Public Acts, Subject Index to Acts, and Chronological Table of Singapore Acts are found at the front of the first volume of the Statutes. Available in hardcopy at the loans desk of the C J Koh Law Library, National University of Singapore.

5. Journals

The Singapore Journal of Legal Studies (and its predecessor journals, the University of Malaya Law Review and the Malaya Law Review) is in its fifth decade of publication. The journal is managed by its Editorial Committee drawn from the Law Faculty of the National University of Singapore with assistance and advice from eminent legal personalities from other institutions in Singapore and abroad. It is fully peer-reviewed under conditions of anonymity by subject specialists within and outside the Law Faculty, NUS. It is one of the oldest legal journals in the British Commonwealth. The Journal has always covered both domestic and international legal developments.

The Singapore Academy of Law Journal began in 1989. The Journal contains articles relating to Singapore law as well as Asia-Pacific and common law legal systems, and comparative and international law. The journal is available in print or online via LawNet.

6. Parliamentary Information

The Singapore Parliament:[30]The Singapore Parliament has a single House and together with the President of Singapore is known as the Legislature. The main function of the Singapore Parliament is the enactment of laws governing the State.

The Singapore Parliament is modeled after the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy where Members of Parliament are voted in at regular general elections. The leader of the political party that secures most seats in Parliament will be asked by the President to become the Prime Minister (PM). The PM will then select his ministers from elected MPs to form the Cabinet. When the new Parliament meets for the first time, the Speaker will be elected followed by the oathtaking of members. The “life” of each Parliament is five years from the date of its first sitting after a general election. General elections must be held within three months of the dissolution of Parliament.

The Law-Making Process: The law-making process begins with a bill, normally drafted by the government legal officers. Private members’ bills are rare in Singapore. During the parliamentary debates on important bills, the Ministers sometimes make impassioned speeches to defend the bill and answer pointed queries raised by the backbenchers. The Members of Parliament (MPs) may, in some cases, decide to refer the bill to a Select Committee to deliberate upon and submit a report to the Parliament. If the report is favorable or the proposed amendments to the bill are approved by Parliament, the bill is accepted by the Parliament and passed.

The Presidential Council for Minority Rights (PCMR) established under the Singapore Constitution is tasked, except for certain exempted bills, to scrutinize bills for any measures, which may be disadvantageous to persons of any racial and religious communities without being equally advantageous to other such communities, either by directly prejudicing persons of the community or indirectly giving advantage to another community. If the report of the PCMR is favorable or a two-thirds majority in Parliament has been obtained to override any adverse report of the PCMR, the bill proceeds, as a matter of course, for the President’s assent. It is at this juncture that the bill is formally enacted as ‘law.’

Composition: In terms of composition, the Singapore Parliament consists of both elected and non-elected Members of Parliament (MPs).

Elected MPs:The elected MPs are drawn from candidates who have emerged victorious in general elections held every four to five years. At present, Parliament is dominated by the ruling PAP with a smallish representation from the opposition political parties. They are drawn from a combination of single-member constituencies as well as Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs). Established in 1988, the GRC presently consists of four to six members, at least one of whom must be of a designated minority race. The underlying aim for the GRC is to entrench multiracialism in Singapore politics.

Non-Elected MPs: The non-elected MPs, on the other hand, do not enjoy voting rights on constitutional amendments, money bills and votes of no confidence in the government. They consist of two different categories: The Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMPs) and the Nominated Members of Parliament (NMP). NCMPs are appointed from the candidates who have polled the highest percentage of votes amongst the ‘losers’ in the general election.

6.1. Sources of Parliamentary Proceedings

The following can be found on the Parliament website under the Parliamentary Business Tab:

  • Votes & Proceedings
  • Order Paper (Daily agenda)
  • Singapore Parliament Reports
  • Select Committee Reports
  • Bills Introduced
  • Standing Orders
  • Parliamentary Glossary

7. Free Trade and Avoidance of Double Taxation Agreements

Singapore is connected to the major world economies and increasingly to new markets by a network of 18 Free Trade and more than 60 Avoidance of Double Taxation Agreements. Singapore’s trade architecture includes her network of FTAs including ones with major economies like India and more being negotiated in the pipeline taxes with the Gulf Co-operation Council and China. With FTAs, Singapore-based exporters and investors stand to enjoy a myriad of benefits like tariff concessions, preferential access to certain sectors, faster entry into markets and intellectual property (IP) protection.

The Avoidance of Double Taxation Agreement between Singapore and another country serves to prevent double taxation of income earned in one country by a resident of the other country. It also makes clear the taxing rights between Singapore and her treaty partner on different types of income arising from cross-border economic activities between the two countries. The agreements also provide for reduction or exemption of tax on certain types of income.

Details can be found as follows:

8. Singapore Government Information and Publication

SINGOV is the default homepage for the Singapore Government Online. All gov.sg sites are linked back to the SINGOV Directory. SINGOV is the “Government” component of the Singapore Government Online. It serves as a convenient launch pad for users to locate information on the Singapore government, such as government news and policies, leadership and bureaucracy, official statistics put out by the government, as well as details and contact information of public service agencies. SINGOV not only acts as a gateway—it also highlights important information.

Singapore government information and publications can be access through the link. It includes archives of government press releases, official policy speeches, information from the various ministries’ newsrooms, and key agencies’ releases. There is also a useful directory of major governmental organs and a listing of the key officials.

Official publications like the Singapore Government Gazettes and Supplement are printed by Toppan LeeFung Pte Ltd. These are freely available online on the eGazette website. The eGazette is updated daily. Both current notices and back issues are available for the following:

  • Government Gazette
  • Bills Supplement
  • Acts Supplement
  • Subsidiary Legislation Supplement
  • Industrial Relations Supplement
  • Treaties Supplement

9. Regional-ASEAN

Singapore is a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, which was established on August 8, 1967 in Bangkok by the five original Member Countries, namely, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Brunei Darussalam joined on January 8, 1984; Vietnam on July 28, 1995; Lao PDR and Myanmar on July 23, 1997; and Cambodia on April 30, 1999. The ASEAN Declaration (also known as Bangkok Declaration)[31] states that the aims and purposes of the Association are: (1) to accelerate economic growth, social progress, and cultural development in the region and (2) to promote regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law in the relationship among countries in the region and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter.

The ASEAN Vision 2020,[32] adopted by the ASEAN Leaders on the 30th Anniversary of ASEAN, agreed on a shared vision of ASEAN as a concert of Southeast Asian nations, outward looking, living in peace, stability, and prosperity, bonded together in partnership in dynamic development and in a community of caring societies. In 2003, the ASEAN Leaders resolved that an ASEAN Community should be established comprising three pillars, namely, ASEAN Security Community, ASEAN Economic Community, and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community. The areas of cooperation, structure, and mechanisms of the ASEAN may be found online on the ASEAN website. There have also been efforts aimed at bringing down barriers to trade and creating an ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA Council).

10. The Singapore Legal Profession

The legal profession in Singapore is ‘fused’—the Singapore lawyers may act as both an advocate as well as a solicitor. Throughout, he or she remains an officer of the Supreme Court. Singapore lawyers may serve in varied roles, including as a legal or judicial officer in the Singapore Legal Service, as an in-house counsel of a company, or practicing law in a local or international law firm.[33] In the local firm, the lawyer typically handles litigation, corporate work, conveyance, and intellectual property work. The lawyer in the international law firm is generally limited to sophisticated corporate, finance, and banking transactions.

The Law Society primarily upholds the interests of the practicing lawyers whilst the Singapore Academy of Law seeks to advance the legal profession as a whole. The Singapore Institute of Legal Education (SILE) maintains and improves the standards of legal education in Singapore.

To be admitted to the Singapore Bar, an aspirant has to first attain the status of a “qualified person” by obtaining a law degree from the National University of Singapore, Singapore Management University, Singapore University of Social Sciences, or from one of the approved overseas universities in the United Kingdom, Australia, United States of America, or New Zealand. The law graduates from approved overseas universities are also required to take the Part A Bar Examinations conducted by the National University of Singapore. All qualified law graduates must attend the Preparatory Course leading to Part B of the Singapore Bar Examinations and pass the Part B Examination. This is conducted by the Singapore Institute of Legal Education.[34] Finally, the law graduate is required to complete a Practice Training Period with an Advocate and Solicitor. The details regarding the requirements and duration are available on the SILE website. Upon fulfillment of the above requirements, he or she is admitted to the Singapore Bar.

There are other avenues for admission to the Singapore Bar, albeit more limited, for Queen’s Counsel and Malaysian practitioners.

11. The Singapore Academy of Law

The Singapore Academy of Law (“SAL” or “the Academy”) was established by the Singapore Academy of Law Act (Cap. 294A) in 1988. At the time of its inception, Parliament had envisaged an institution patterned after the English Inns of Court, to develop among the legal profession in Singapore a collegiate spirit, which is necessary for pride in the profession and in its honorable standards and practices.

Over the years, the Academy has evolved from a membership-based body to a service-based institution. It is now also the law reporting agency in Singapore; a continuing legal education provider; a legal publications body; an alternative dispute resolutions agency; an appointing body for Senior Counsel, commissioners for oaths and notaries public; a promoter of legal information technology and the keeper of stake-holding moneys in Singapore.

The Academy is a statutory body with a broad set of functions. Under the Academy is its subsidiary, the Singapore Mediation Centre, which plays a specialized and unique role in the promotion of mediation as alternative means for the resolution of civil, commercial, and trade disputes.

The Tax Academy of Singapore was formed as a collaboration between the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore, The Law Society of Singapore and the international accounting firms Deloitte & Touche, Ernst & Young, KPMG, and Pricewaterhouse Coopers. The Tax Academy of Singapore is a non-profit institution established to provide specialized and structured tax training and education for practitioners and professionals who wish to embark on a career in tax.

12. Legal Education

Law degrees in Singapore, like in the UK, are earned at an undergraduate level. This is supplemented by the Preparatory Course.

The following law schools exist in Singapore:

13. Legal Publishers

14. Legal News & Current Awareness

Singapore Law Watch is a free daily news service published by the Singapore Academy of Law. The site features the latest Singapore law headlines, judgments, case highlights, legislation as well as a current listing of seminars and publications. Readers may subscribe to an email alert or RSS feeds.

The Law Society website provides short updates on the latest developments in legislation and legal practice. It also carries a classified for jobs.

In the process of “getting to the source,” I came across several rich resources. However, keeping the scope of this article in mind, I had to curb the temptation to list all of them. Still, the richness of information has compelled me to mention the following few:


  • Charles Burton Buckley, Constance Mary Turnbull, and Lionel Astor Sheridan whose writings well inform readers about the events prior to the birth of the Republic of Singapore.
  • S. (Sinnathamby) Rajaratnam, S. (Shanmugam) Jayakumar, Kevin Tan Yew Lee, Yeo Tiong Min, Lee Kiat Seng, to name a few for writings mainly relating to post-independence period.

Websites: The following links will take any researcher to reliable information and in turn lead to other rich resources:

Singapore Law Repository by C J Koh Law Library: For over 50 years, the National University of Singapore through many of its reincarnations was the sole academic institution offering law degrees in the region. Throughout this time, rich information resources have found a home in the University’s Law Library. The library, presently known as C J Koh Law Library, and its staff has furthered legal education of many. Under the research help tab of their library website NUS provides a list of research tutorials, library guides and a research index which are very useful for getting a background understanding of Singaporean law.

Singapore Management University (SMU) – Li Ka Shing Library: The SMU School of Law began in 2007. The library has rich online resources. Its Law Research Navigator is particularly useful with its ‘How Do I use LawNet’ guide and its Singapore law guide.

The following is a list of other libraries with good Singapore collection.

UK Universities

Australian Universities

New Zealand Universities

American Libraries

[1] (A) Background: A chronological table listing the events beginning from 600-700 B.C. leading up to the events of 1960 appears in the edited work by L. A. Sheridan titled Malaya and Singapore, the Borneo territories: the development of their laws and constitutions (1961). An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore: from the foundation of the settlement under the honorable the east India company on February 6, 1819 to the transfer to the colonial office as part of the colonial possessions of the crown on April 1st 1867 authored by Charles Burton Buckley is an excellent source. This work is arranged chronologically and provides the details of the events. The texts of hard-to-find documents are included in this publication, which was published by the Oxford University Press in 1984. Singapore, a country study is a work product of the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress and Barbara Leitch LePoer, which was published in 1991 by the United States Government Printing Office.

The World Factbook is an annual publication of the Central Intelligence Agency. It is available in electronic and print form. An electronic version is updated periodically during a given year and online access is free. The United States Department of State publishes BackGround Notes (presently, only in an electronic version) for Singapore, and the information is updated quarterly. This is a good source for quick fact checking.

(B) Constitution: Attorney Generals Chambers of Singapore provides online access to the text of the Constitution and Constitutional Documents along with other statutes. Online versions of Singapore Constitution are also available on CommonLII. Constitutions of The Countries of the World; a series of updated texts, constitutional chronologies and annotated bibliographies edited by A.P. Blaustein and G.H. Flanz is a print source that can be consulted for the text. Constitutional Law in Malaysia and Singapore by Kevin Tan, Yeo Tiong Min, and Lee Kiat Seng published by Malayan Law Journal in 1991discusses constitutionalism and development of constitutional law in chapters one and two respectively. Most importantly, it also has the reports of various constitutional commissions in appendix A – D. These reports are very difficult to locate.

(C) Singapore is a city-state with multiethnic and multicultural population. It has four official languages: English, Mandarin, Tamil, Malay. As noted in the Background Notes (April 2007) “English is the language of administration and also is widely used in the professions, businesses, and schools. The government has mandated that English be the primary language used at all levels of the school systems.”

[2] The English text of the treaty is available on pages 479-483 of The Consolidated Treaty Series edited and annotated by Clive Parry (volume 69, 1818-1819).

[3] The English and Dutch text of the treaty is available on A) pages 38-40 of An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore by Charles Burton Buckley, and B) pages 87- 100 of The Consolidated Treaty Series edited and annotated by Clive Parry, volume 74 (1824).

[4] The English text of the treaty is available on A) pages 168-170 of An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore by Charles Burton Buckley, and B) pages 379-384 of The Consolidated Treaty Series edited and annotated by Clive Parry, volume 74 (1824).

[5] Available at India Code by conducting a search for penal code under short title.

[6] Straits Settlements Act of 1866, 29 and 30 Victoria, c. 115.

[7] A recent (2005) book, The Syonan Years, Singapore Under Japanese Rule 1942-1945, authored by Lee Geok Boi can be informative.

[8] Straits Settlements (Repeal) Act, 9 and 10 George 6, c. 37.

[9] 1958, 6 and 7, Elizabeth 2, c. 59.

10 [1958] 2 U.K. S.I.2156 (no. 1956).

[11] [1963] 2 U.K., S.I. 2656 (No. 1493).

[12] 4 International Legal Materials 938.

[13] Singapore Act 1966.

[14] Republic of Singapore Independence Act. Singapore Statutes Online.

[15] United Nations. General Assembly 20th Session, Resolution 2010, 1332nd Plenary Meeting 21st September 1965.

[16] Criminal Procedure Code (Amendment) Act, 1969 (No. 17 of 1969) which came into force on 5th January 1970.

Leong, Andrew Phang; Jury Trial in Singapore and Malaysia: The Unmaking of a Legal Institution, 25 Malaya L. Rev. 50 (1983) has a good discussion of the passage of the Act.

[17] Singapore Supreme Court Official Website.

[18] Singapore State Courts Official Website.

[19]About the Small Claims Tribunals.” Singapore State Courts Official Website.

[20] Singapore Family Justice Courts Official Website.

[21] 330 U.N.T.S. 349.

[22] (Cap 143A, 2002 Rev Ed.).

[23] UNCITRAL Model Law on International Commercial Arbitration 1985 with Amendments as Adopted in 2006, https://uncitral.un.org/sites/uncitral.un.org/files/media-documents/uncitral/en/19-09955_e_ebook.pdf.

[24] (Cap 49A, 1998 Rev. Ed.).

[25] C J Koh Law Library of the National University of Singapore has an excellent PowerPoint presentation titled Researching Legislation created by Carol Wee and Lee Su-Lin and can be accessed from the C J Koh Law Library.

[26] International Enterprise (IE) Singapore

[27] Dr. Rakesh Kumar Srivastava, Update to India’s Legal Research and Legal System, GlobaLex (2021).

[28] In addition to Researching Legislation mentioned in endnote 24, see also Australasian Legal Information Institute.

[29] Carol Wee and Lee Su-Lin have produced another excellent PowerPoint titled Searching Singapore Case Law which is accessible at the C J Koh Law Library and informs researchers about the process.

[30] Parliament of Singapore Official Website.

[31] The ASEAN Declaration.

[32] ASEAN Vision 2020.

[33] LawOnline provides hyperlinked alphabetical list of law firms in Singapore.

[34] Singapore Institute of Legal Education.