Criminal law of Singapore

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A variety of activities ranging from smoking to carrying durians is banned on Singapore's Mass Rapid Transit system.

Although the legal system of Singapore is a common law system, the criminal law of Singapore is largely statutory in nature and historically derives largely from the Indian penal code.[1][2] The general principles[3] of criminal law, as well as the elements and penalties of general criminal offences such as assault, criminal intimidation, mischief, grievous hurt, theft, extortion, sex crimes and cheating, are set out in the Penal Code.[4] Other serious offences are created by statutes such as the Arms Offences Act,[5] Kidnapping Act,[6] Misuse of Drugs Act[7] and Vandalism Act.[8]

Singapore retains both corporal punishment (in the form of caning) and capital punishment (by hanging) as punishments for serious offences. For certain offences, the imposition of these penalties is mandatory. More than 400 people were executed in Singapore, mostly for drug trafficking, between 1991 and 2004. Statistically, Singapore has one of the highest execution rates in the world relative to its population, surpassing Saudi Arabia.[9] Science fiction writer William Gibson famously described Singapore as "Disneyland with the death penalty".[10][a]

In addition, some have regarded aspects of the Singaporean criminal law as petty or harmless when compared to the laws of other developed countries. Crimes in Singapore include urinating in public,[11] littering,[12] jaywalking,[13] the possession of pornography,[14] and the sale of chewing gum.[15] Nonetheless, it has been claimed that one of the results of such robust regulations and interventions is that Singapore has one of the lowest incidences of violent crimes in the world.[16]


Criminal law: The Penal Code[edit]

For most of the 19th century the criminal law which applied in the Straits Settlements (comprising Prince of Wales' Island (Penang), Singapore and Malacca) was that of the United Kingdom, insofar as local circumstances permitted. There was little doubt that at the time English common law crimes were recognized in these territories. However, due to problems such as doubts as to the applicability of Indian Acts, in 1871 the Straits Settlements Penal Code 1871[2] was enacted. It came into operation on 16 September 1872. The Code was practically a re-enactment of the Indian Penal Code.

Over the years, the Penal Code has been amended several times. In 1973 punishments for certain offences were enhanced, and by the Penal Code (Amendment) Act 1984,[17] which came into effect on 31 August 1984, mandatory minimum penalties were introduced for certain offences. A major review of the Code was launched in 2006 and its subsequent update was last revised in 2008.[18]

Criminal Procedure Code[edit]

Prior to 1870 the law relating to criminal procedure in force in Singapore was found mainly in the Indian Criminal Procedure Act 1852,[19] which was applicable because the Supreme Government of India had power to legislate for the Straits Settlements. After the passing of the Penal Code in 1871, the Indian Act was replaced by the Criminal Procedure Ordinance.[20] However, in general it continued to apply the English system of criminal procedure to the Penal Code. This was subsequently found to be impracticable as the Penal Code had done away with the division of crimes into felonies and misdemeanours. Accordingly, the Criminal Procedure Ordinance 1873[21] was passed to remedy the situation. The Ordinance also did away with the procedure for indictments in favour of charges for all criminal offences; and abolished the grand jury, and special and common juries.

A replacement Code of Criminal Procedure was enacted in 1902.[22] The present Criminal Procedure Code[23] was passed by the Legislative Council of the Colony of Singapore on 28 January 1955. All criminal offences under the Penal Code or other statutes are inquired into and tried according to the Criminal Procedure Code, of which is last revision in 2010.[22]

The Penal Code[edit]

The Penal Code defines the elements of each offence and prescribes the maximum, and occasionally also the minimum, penalties for it. The basic form of an offence (commonly referred to as the "simple offence" or, using Latin terminology, as the "offence simpliciter") has the lowest penalties. More serious forms of the offence are defined as separate offences and attract stiffer penalties.

For instance, theft is defined in section 378 of the Code, and section 379 makes simple theft (or theft simpliciter) an offence punishable with imprisonment of up to three years or with fine or both. Section 379A punishes the theft of a motor vehicle or any component part of a motor vehicle with imprisonment of not less than one year and not more than seven years and a fine. Sections 380 and 381 respectively make it offences to commit theft in any building, tent or vessel which is used as a human dwelling or for the custody of property; and, while being a clerk or servant, or being employed in the capacity of a clerk or servant, to commit theft of any property in the possession of one's master or employer. In both cases the penalty is imprisonment of up to seven years and a fine. The most serious theft offence is that of committing theft, having made preparation for causing death or hurt or restraint, or fear of death or of hurt or of restraint, to any person in order to commit the theft, or in order to effect an escape after committing the theft, or in order to retain property taken by the theft. The maximum penalty is imprisonment for up to ten years and caning with not less than three strokes.

Court Process[edit]

Under the Article 35(8) of the Constitution of Singapore, as well as the Section 11 of Criminal Procedure Code, the Attorney-General of Singapore is also the Public Prosecutor. Deputy Public Prosecutors (DPPs) and Assistant Public Prosecutors (APPs), legal officers from the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) Crime Division, act under the authority of the Public Prosecutor. As Public Prosecutor, the Attorney-General has prosecutorial discretion i.e. he may, exercisable at his discretion, institute, conduct or discontinue any proceedings for any offence.[24]

Prosecutorial discretion[25] grants AGC the power to institute, conduct or discontinue any prosecution at his discretion.[26] The prosecution bears the burden of proof and is required to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that in order for a defendant to be found guilty, the case presented by the prosecution must be enough to remove any reasonable doubt in the mind of the judge(s) that the defendant is guilty of the crime with which he/she is charged.

In general, an accused person is usually first charged with a higher offence that may be established on the facts of the case. Then it is either plead guilty or claim trial (plead not guilty) at the first mention in the state courts. Upon engaging a lawyer (defence counsel), the defence counsel will make written representations without prejudice legally to the prosecuting authority. The Prosecution may then review, exercise his prosecutorial discretion[3] and consent to amend the charge with lesser relevant offence, a process known as plea bargain. This is where the defence counsels will engage without prejudice with the Public Prosecutor in negotiations for reduction of charges, or mitigation in plea to seek leniency from the Court.

Testifying witnesses are not required to be given an oath or otherwise instructed to tell the truth. Instead, the Oaths and Declarations Act "gives the judge the prerogative whether to caution a witness ["to speak the truth"] or not."[27]

Other significant offences[edit]

Drug trafficking[edit]

Narcotics laws established by the Misuse of Drugs Act are very strict. Anyone caught with more than 15 grams (0.53 oz) of heroin (diamorphine), 30 grams (1.1 oz) of cocaine or morphine, 250 grams (8.8 oz) of methamphetamine, or 500 grams (18 oz) of cannabis faces mandatory capital punishment, as they are deemed to be trafficking in these substances.[28] The stated quantities are the net weight of the substances after they have been isolated by laboratory analysis. Between 1991 and 2004, 400 people were hanged in Singapore, mostly for drug trafficking, one of the highest per-capita execution rates in the world.[9] Persons caught with amounts of controlled substances less than the quantities that would warrant the mandatory death sentence may be spared from the gallows. They may, however, still face harsh penalties ranging from long terms of imprisonment to a maximum of 24 strokes of the cane (for males who are under the age of 55).

See also[edit]

Selected Singapore criminal statutes[edit]


  1. ^ This also refers to Singapore's consistent high score on the World Happiness Report.


  1. ^ "COVID-19 court cases: Why have some people not been charged?". CNA.
  2. ^ a b No. 4 of 1871 (S.S.).
  3. ^ a b "The public prosecutor, politics and the rule of law | The Straits Times". 29 September 2017.
  4. ^ Cap. 224, 2008 Rev. Ed.
  5. ^ Cap. 14, 2008 Rev. Ed.
  6. ^ Cap. 151, 1999 Rev. Ed.
  7. ^ Cap. 185, 2008 Rev. Ed.
  8. ^ Cap. 341, 2014 Rev. Ed.
  9. ^ a b "Singapore: The death penalty: A hidden toll of executions". Amnesty International. 2004. Archived from the original on 11 January 2008. Retrieved 15 January 2008.
  10. ^ William Gibson (September–October 1993). "Disneyland with the death penalty". Wired. Vol. 1, no. 4..
  11. ^ Environmental Public Health (Public Cleansing) Regulations (Cap. 95, Rg. 3, 2000), rg. 16.
  12. ^ Environmental Public Health Act (Cap. 95, 2002 Rev. Ed.), s. 17(1).
  13. ^ Road Traffic (Pedestrian Crossings) Rules (Cap. 276, R 24).
  14. ^ Penal Code, above, s. 292(a) (possessing any obscene book, pamphlet, paper, drawing, painting, representation or figure, or any other obscene object).
  15. ^ Sale of Food (Prohibition of Chewing Gum) Regulations (Cap. 283, 2004 Rev. Ed.)).
  16. ^ Chang, Hwee Yin (October 1994). "Crime in Singapore: A statistical comparison with major cities". Statistics Singapore Newsletter. Singapore: Statistics Singapore. 17 (2). Archived from the original on 25 December 2007. .
  17. ^ "Penal Code 1871 - Singapore Statutes Online".
  18. ^ "Penal Code 1871 - Singapore Statutes Online".
  19. ^ No. 16 of 1852 (Ind.).
  20. ^ No. 5 of 1870 (S.S.).
  21. ^ No. 6 of 1873 (S.S.).
  22. ^ a b "Criminal Procedure Code 2010 - Singapore Statutes Online".
  23. ^ Now Cap. 68, 2010 Rev. Ed.
  24. ^ "Overview of Functions - Attorney General's Chambers". Retrieved 20 April 2021.
  25. ^ Woon, Walter (29 September 2017). "The public prosecutor, politics and the rule of law". The Straits Times.
  26. ^ "Overview of Functions". Attorney-General's Chambers. Attorney-General's Chambers. 16 June 2020.
  27. ^ "[2018] SGHC 243".
  28. ^ Misuse of Drugs Act (Cap. 185, 2008 Rev. Ed.), ss. 5 and 33 read with the 2nd Sch.


Further reading[edit]

  1. ^ Civetta, Gus. "Arrest and Court Procedure". Singapore Criminal Lawyer.