Helen Gaterell, April 2017
About the author
This guide was created by Helen Gaterell, Document Supply Services Supervisor at IALS Library.
Click here for Helen's contact details.
Reference Desk hours:
Tel (0)20 7862 5790
Related IALS Guides
Singapore is an island city-state located in Southeast Asia. Its strategic location in the Malay Archipelago was one of the major attractions for British colonists, who founded modern Singapore in 1819 as a trading port on the India-China trade route. The country went on to become a British colony in the twentieth century and gained full independence in 1965. The four official languages are Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, and English.
Singapore's history and constitutional make-up is predominantly British in influence with a unitary, multiparty, Westminster system of parliamentary government and a legal system based on English common law. The Singaporean legal system also occasionally draws from other sources: its Codes, for example, were borrowed from India in the nineteenth century and some areas, such as land registration and company law, draw more from Australian rather than British models.
We have a good selection of primary and secondary Singaporean materials at IALS Library, which can be found at the classmark GM4n (Straits Settlements) and GM4m (modern Singapore).
1819-1942 Straits Settlements
Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in Singapore in January 1819 and quickly realised its advantageous location as a British port in the Malay Archipelago. On 6 Feb 1819 the British signed the Treaty of Friendship and Alliance, establishing the British East India Company trading post on Singapore, and then the Treaty of London (or Anglo-Dutch Treaty) on 19 Nov 1824, which gave full sovereignty and property in Singapore to the English East India Company.
In 1826 the Straits Settlements were established in order to amalgamate the British territories of Singapore, Malacca and Penang and to further clarify borders between British land and other occupied territories in the area.
During this period, English law was loosely administered in the Settlements through the Resident's Court, and regulations were set down by Raffles in 1823 (reprinted in Malaya Law Review  10 248 - GM4.J.2). These regulations were largely followed until 1827. By this time, the Second Charter of Justice had established the Court of Judicature for Prince of Wales Island (Penang), Malacca and Singapore, bringing English common law to the Straits Settlements. However, there were significant administrative and financial problems and the Court of Judicature had no law-making ability, with the British government legislating from Calcutta.
On 1 Apr 1867, the British government agreed to make the Straits Settlements a Crown Colony, meaning that the countries in the Settlement received orders directly from the Colonial Office in London rather than from India. Singapore was appointed a Governor with legislative and executive councils. The Court of Judicature was also abolished and replaced by the Straits Settlements Supreme Court.
This structure remained largely unchanged for the next 75 years until the Second World War.
1942-1945 Japanese Occupation
The Japanese invaded Singapore in February 1942 and for the first four months all courts were shut down and the Military Court of Justice of the Nippon Army was established. During this period, however, there was confusion as to who had proper legislative authority and on 27 May 1942 the civil courts reopened and former British laws were administered as long as they did not interfere with the Military Administration. The fact that the Japanese did not make significant constitutional changes made it easy for the British to re-establish pre-war legal structures after the war.
1946-1958 Colony of Singapore
Between September 1945 and April 1946, Singapore operated under the British Military Administration (BMA), which saw all laws prior to Japanese Occupation brought back into force. The Straits Settlements were abolished and Singapore became its own Crown Colony with its own constitution. The Straits Settlements Supreme Court was replaced by the Supreme Court of the Colony of Singapore.
On 1 March 1948 a new constitution came into effect and elections were held for the first time.
British Parliament passed the State of Singapore Act on 1 Aug 1958, making the Colony a self-governing state. The post of Governor was abolished and replaced by Yang di-Pertuan Negara (Head of State) who could invite the winning party to form a government, thus establishing a Westminster Cabinet system of government.
1963-1965 Merger & Independence
Singapore became a member of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, which was thought to benefit the economy by creating a common, free market, and to improve Singapore's internal security. While Singapore was part of Malaysia, the judicial system was a typical hierarchical structure consisting of lower courts, a High Court and a Court of Appeal. The High Court of Malaysia in Singapore replaced the old Supreme Court of the Colony of Singapore, with sister high courts in Malaya and Borneo and a Federal Court presiding over all.
Singapore separated from the rest of Malaysia on 9 August 1965 and Singapore became independent. At independence, Singapore retained the court structure of the Federation of Malaysia, and the Singapore High Court remained under the umbrella of the Federal Court until the Constitution Amendment Act (1969).
After gaining independence in August 1965 Singapore was free to begin creating its own constitution. Between 1965 and 1980 a makeshift constitution existed, combining the Constitution of the State of Singapore (1963), the Republic of Singapore Independence Act (1965) and certain provisions from the Malaysian Federal Constitution. In 1980 these three documents were consolidated into the 1980 Reprint of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore.
The constitution is the supreme law of the land and lays down the fundamental principles and basic framework of state organisation. The Singaporean legal structure is premised on constitutional supremacy which, in theory, means that the law-making powers are limited by the constitution and judges can if necessary strike down both legislative and executive acts as being unconstitutional (although this power is very rarely used by judges in Singapore).
The 1980 Reprint of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore is available at IALS Library in hard copy at GM4m.C.1 AAA1.
World Constitutions Illustrated, available on the database HeinOnline, is a good source for constitutions, both current and previous versions. The Constitution of the Republic of Singapore can be found here, along with its amendments and amending laws. HeinOnline is available onsite to academic users and remotely for University of London staff and students with a valid IALS Library card.
Singapore Statutes Online (SSO) provides an open access copy of the Constitution, with amendment notes.
The highest court is the Supreme Court, which consists of the Court of Appeal and the High Court.
The Court of Appeal is the court of final appeal. It exercises only appellate jurisdiction in civil and criminal matters and possesses no original jurisdiction. It hears civil appeals from decisions on cases that started in the High Court as well as decisions that were appealed from the State Courts to the High Court. However, where criminal cases are concerned, the Court of Appeal only hears appeals from cases originating in the High Court. Court of Appeal decisions are binding on the High Court and State Courts.
The High Court hears both criminal and civil cases as a court of first instance and exercises original jurisdiction and appellate jurisdiction. In criminal cases, the High Court is empowered to try all cases but it can reserve points of law for a decision in the Court of Appeal. High Court decisions are binding on District and Magistrates’ Courts, but not on the Court of Appeal.
The State Courts (formerly Subordinate Courts) consist of the District and Magistrates' Courts. They oversee civil and criminal matters and hear over 95% of the judicial cases in Singapore. The District and Magistrates' Courts also oversee the Coroner’s Court, Family Court, Community Court, and Small Claims Tribunal. The District Court can pass sentences of imprisonment for a term not exceeding 10 years and the Magistrates’ Court can pass sentences of imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years.
Primary sources: legislation
There are two main sources of current Singaporean statutes:
- The statutes of the Republic of Singapore (1986). This looseleaf is available at IALS at GM4m.E.1. A previous edition (1970) is available at RES GM4m.E.1. The chapters in the 1986 revised edition were entirely renumbered so there is no continuity or connection with the numbering of laws in the previous (1970) edition.
- Singapore Statutes Online (SSO) is the official website for Singapore's legislation and is kept up-to-date, however it provides the unofficial version of Singapore's legislation: the legislation content of SSO is not and should not be relied upon as the authoritative text of Singapore's legislation. SSO is owned by the Singapore Government and is managed by the Legislation Division of the Attorney-General's Chambers of Singapore. It contains:
- Acts of Parliament and Subsidiary Legislation
- Revised editions of Acts and Subsidiary Legislation
- Bills tabled in Parliament
- Act Supplements, new Subsidiary Legislation and Amending Subsidiary Legislation published each year
- Historical versions of legislation
- PDF versions of legislation (where available)
IALS Library also has the following historical series of legislation:
- Indian Acts in Force (IALS Library has 1834-1867) RES GM4n.E.1
- Acts and Ordinances of the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements (IALS Library has 1867-1898) RES GM4n.E.1
- Laws of the Straits Settlements: revised edition 1920 (Covers 1835-1919) RES GM4n.E.1. Also available online.
- Laws of the Straits Settlements: revised edition 1926 (covers 1835-1925) RES GM4n.E.1
- Laws of the Straits Settlements: revised edition 1936 (covers 1835-1935) RES GM4n.E.1
- Laws of the Colony of Singapore (1955) RES GM4m.E.1
- Singapore Laws (1966) reprints RES GM4m.E.1
The Library also holds Butterworth's Annotated Statutes of Singapore at GM4m.E.5. IALS Library has 1996-2000. This is a 10 volume set with separate looseleaf Statute Referencer and Service Binder volumes. The annotations are considered so scholarly and detailed as to represent a unique addition to the literature of Singapore law.
IALS Library holds historical and up-to-date ordinances, from the Straits Settlements up to the Second World War and then through independence to the present day. They are available at the following classmarks:
- Acts and Ordinances of the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements (IALS Library has 1867-1898 at RES GM4n.E.1)
- Straits Settlements Ordinances (IALS Library has 1871-1942 at RES GM4n.E.2). These were enacted by the Governor with the Advice and Consent of the Legislative Council
- IALS has Ordinances from 1940-1942, which then run in annual vols from 1946-1969. These are at RES GM4m.E.2.
- Ordinances from 1970-1985 then run in annual supplements at GM4m.E.1
- Ordinances from 1986- current (incomplete) are available at GM4m.E.2
IALS Library holds the following series of secondary legislation:
- Orders of the Governor in Council, Rules, Regulations and By-laws. IALS Library has 1889-1940 at RES GM4n.E.4
- The years 1955-1991 are then available at RES GM4m.E.4
- Subsidiary legislation of the Republic of Singapore Looseleaf. IALS Library has 1990 - current at GM4m.E.3. It is also available on the Singapore Statutes Online (OSO).
- Current secondary legislation is available at IALS Library at GM4m.E.4. The Library has 1991 - current.
Revised copies of Singaporean Codes can be found on the SSO website at the following locations.
Primary sources: case law
The following sources contain reports of Singaporean cases:
- Singapore Law Reports contain all legally significant cases heard in the Singapore Court of Appeal and High Court and the Constitutional Tribunal. They are available in print at GM4m.G.2 (IALS Library has 1992-current). They are also available through online via the Justis database. Justis is accessible onsite and offsite to academic users with a current IALS Library card through the Electronic Law Library. Prior to 1992, the Singapore Law Reports were included in the Malayan Law Journal. These are available in print at FOL GM4.J.1. IALS Library has up to the current issue for this title, but only 1932-1991 will contain Singapore Law Reports.
- Court reports (often not reported elsewhere) will also be found in Singapore Journal of Legal Studies. It is available in print at GM4.J.10 (IALS Library has 1959-current) and some selected open access articles are available on the journal's website. The journal is also available on Westlaw and on HeinOnline (1959-current) though the Electronic Law Library. It was previously titled Malaya Law Review (Vols. 1-3, 1959-1961) then University of Malaya Law Review (Vols. 4-32, 1962-1990).
IALS also has print copies of the following historical law reports:
- Kyshe's Reports includes printed cases from the Supreme Court of the Straits Settlements. They are available at RES GM4n.G.1 and IALS has 1808-1890.
- Straits Settlements Law Reports are available at IALS Library at RES GM4n.G.2. These cover 1893-1942.
The Commonwealth Legal Information Institute (CommonLII) contains selected decisions of the District Court, Magistrates' Court and the Supreme Court (dates of coverage vary).
GM4m.H.1 Halsbury's Laws of Singapore. An encyclopaedia of Singapore (and UK applied) legislation and jurisprudence. Kept up to date by replacement volumes and current service.
IALS holds a number of textbooks and commentaries about the development of Singaporean law and on various legal topics, which can all be found at the classmark GM4m. Particularly useful for those studying the constitution and judiciary might be:
- The Constitution of Singapore: A Contextual Analysis, Kevin YL Tan, (Hart Publishing 2015) (GM4m.C.1 TAN)
- The Development of Singapore Law Andrew, Phang Boon Leong (Butterworths 1990) (GM4m.B LEO)
- An Introduction to The Singapore Legal System, Helena HM Chan (Malayan Law Journal Pte 1986) (GM4m.C.4 CHA)
- The Legal System of Singapore, Helena HM Chan (Butterworths Asia 1995) (GM4m.D.1 CHA)
The Law Practice Series may also be useful for those studying different aspects of Singaporean law. IALS holds:
- A Treatise on Singapore Constitutional Law, Thio Li-Ann (Academy Publishing 2012) (GM4m.C.1 THI)
- The Law of Contract in Singapore, Andrew Phang Boon Leong (ed) (Academy Publishing 2012) (GM4m.D.1 PHA)
- Intellectual Property Law of Singapore, Susanna H S Leong (Academy Publishing 2013) (GM4m.D.2 LEO)
- The Criminal Procedure Code of Singapore: Annotations and Commentary, Jennifer Marie (ed) (Academy Publishing 2012) (GM4m.D.4 MAR)
Journals and indexes
Singapore Academy of Law 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 at GM4.J.9 (IALS Library has 1989-2010) or open access on the journal's website. The journal is also available through the subscription database HeinOnline (1989-current). HeinOnline is available onsite in the Library for academic use, and offsite for students and academics from the University of London with a current Library card.
Singapore Academy of Law Annual Review of Singapore Cases is an annual summary that evaluates decisions of the Singapore courts in the preceding year. Selected cases from other jurisdictions impacting local law are also discussed. It is available on HeinOnline (2000-current).
Singapore Law Review is Asia's oldest student-run legal publication, managed exclusively by the students of the National University of Singapore, Faculty of Law. This journal ran before Singapore's independence and was called Me Judice (IALS Library has an incomplete collection from 1960-1967 at RES GM4.J.3). The Singapore Law Review is available in print at GM4.J.5 (IALS Library has 1969- current). The journal is also available on HeinOnline.
The Singapore Yearbook of International Law ceased publication in 2008. It is available in print at SG5.J.183 (IALS Library has 1997-2008). The journal's previous title was The Singapore Journal of International and Comparative Law: its name changed in 2004. Articles from 2003-2007 are available open access on CommonLII. The journal is also available on HeinOnline (1997-2008).
The Singapore Journal of Legal Studies prints articles on both domestic and international legal developments. It is fully peer reviewed and 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 available in print at GM4.J.10 (IALS Library has 1959-current) and some selected open access articles are available on the journal's website. The journal is also available on on Westlaw and on HeinOnline (1959-current). It was previously titled Malaya Law Review (Vols. 1-3, 1959-1961) then University of Malaya Law Review (Vols. 4-32, 1962-1990).
Straits Law Journal contains articles from 1888-1892 and concerns Singapore under the Straits Settlement. It is available on HeinOnline.
The Law Gazette is a quarterly journal published by the Law Society of Singapore. The Gazette contains news, feature articles, legal updates (latest cases and legislation) and regular columns covering the Bar, IT issues and practice tips. It is available online and its archive goes back to January 2000.
The Index to Legal Periodicals indexes articles from around 1000 law journals. Its primary focus is on common law jurisdictions and it is a good source for identifying articles on Singaporean law. The index is available onsite for all Library users and remotely for students and staff at the School of Advanced Study. Access is via the Electronic Law Library.
The Index to Foreign Legal Periodicals, available through HeinOnline, indexes articles from law journals and other publications. Though the emphasis is on non common-law countries, comparative and international law, researchers may still find articles on Singapore. It is available onsite at IALS for all Library users, and offsite for students and staff from the University of London who have a current Library card. Access is via the Electronic Law Library.
Westlaw's Legal Journals Index and Lexis Library's Journals Index are also useful tools for finding articles on Singapore. Onsite access is available for academic use and offsite access is for IALS staff and students, both through the Electronic Law Library.
Singapore Statutes Online (SSO) is a comprehensive database of essentially all Singapore’s statutes in force, including English and Imperial legislation when applicable, all in full text. It is searchable by subject, by the name or title of the act and by chapter number.
GlobaLex is an electronic legal publication dedicated to international and foreign law research and it has an excellent section on Singapore.
CommonLII contains selected case decisions of the District Court, Magistrates' Court and the Supreme Court (dates of coverage vary) as well as some legislation, subsidiary legislation and treaties
Eagle-i is a free to use dedicated portal to high quality legal information sources on the web, developed by the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies. Select Singapore from the drop-down list of countries and there are a number of links to reliable online sources.
FLAG database The award-winning FLAG Foreign Law Guide gives legal researchers details about holdings of foreign, international and comparative law in the UK's academic, national and specialist law libraries.