Onto our favourite(?) topic of all law students – the history of Singapore’s legal system. As history is always, long and boring, the WHOLE history will be broken down into several parts. In Part I, it will touch briefly on the founding of Singapore till the Japanese Occupation.


Raffles and Birth of Singapore

Early 19th century: Singapore was under the rule of Sultan of Johor. Malay customary and adat laws formed the basis of its legal system.

6 February 1819: 1819 Singapore Treaty signed between Sir Stamford Raffles, Sultan Hussein Shah of Johor and Tememggong Abdu’r Rahman. This formalised the rights of British India Company (“EIC”) to set up a trading factory in Singapore.

1819 – 1823: Sir Raffles formulated a code of law known as “Singapore Regulations”, putting in place a basic functional legal system. The code was meant to administer justice, yet ironically, was considered to be illegal.

1824-1825: Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 signed to formalise British occupation of Singapore. Singapore and Malacca was transferred to EIC on 24 June 1824 and became subordinate to Fort William in Bengal. Singapore and Malacca, thus, came under the jurisdiction of its Supreme Court of Judicature.

Statute 6 Geo IV c 85 was passed by the British Parliament in 1825. This enabled the King to make provisions for the administration of justice in Singapore and Malacca, and empowered the EIC to annex both to Prince of Wales’ Island (modern day Penang), forming the Straits Settlements.

The Second Charter of Justice

27 November 1826: The Second Charter of Justice was issued. It established the Court of Judicature of Prince of Wales’ Island, Singapore and Malacca. Both common law and equity of the English Law was introduced to Singapore via the Second Charter of Justice. Singapore, Malacca and Prince of Wales’ Island officially combined to be collectively known as Straits Settlements, with Robert Fullerton serving as the first governor.

The Charter established the Court of Judicature of Prince of Wales’ Island. The Recorder, who was based in Penang, headed the court. He was assisted by the Governor of the Straits Settlements and the Resident Councillors of each Settlement.

Charter Act 1833 and Period of Legal Chaos 

1833: With the reorganisation of EIC’s possession by the British Parliament, the Charter Act 1833 empowered the Governor General in Council to legislate the Straits Settlements. Until 1867, it was the only legislative power in Singapore.

The Governor General and the British Parliament promulgated laws and regulations which neglected the needs and interests of Singapore and made no attempts to promulgate local regulations. The Governor had the authority to overrule legal judgements. This led to increasing dissatisfaction with the legal system, which often meted out justice infrequently and unfairly.

Third Charter of Justice

12 August 1855: The Third Charter of Justice was granted, creating the office of the Second Recorder to help with the increasing legal workload. The Recorder of Singapore, together with the Governor and Resident Councillor, had jurisdiction over Singapore and Malacca.

1858: With the abolition of EIC, the Straits Settlements was transferred to the Indian Government.

Crown Colony and Substantive Changes

10 August 1866: The Government of Straits Settlement Act was passed.

1 April 1867: Recognising Singapore’s growing commercial importance, the Straits Settlements became a Crown Colony under the direct jurisdiction of the Colonial Office in London. This consolidated both legislative and judicial authority in Singapore, forming the basis of Singapore’s legal system.

  1. Recorder of Singapore became the Chief Justice of Singapore. Sir Peter Benson Maxwell, then Recorder of Singapore, became the first Chief Justice of Singapore.
  2. The Judicial Duties Act 1867 meant Governor no longer sat as a Judge on the Court of Judicature, although Resident Councillors still sat under their new titles of Lieutenant-Governors.

1867: Thomas Braddell and Daniel Logan appointed as Attorney-General and Solicitor-General. Braddell was responsible for giving Straits Settlements its own body of statutes.

1868: The Straits Settlements Supreme Court Act 1867 and Straits Settlements Supreme Court Ordinance 1868 abolished the Court of Judicature of Prince of Wales’ Island, Singapore and Malacca. It was replaced by the Supreme Court of the Straits Settlements. Resident Councillors no longer sat as Judges of the court.

1873: Straits Settlements Courts Ordinance 1873 restructured the courts’ jurisdiction. The Supreme Court now consisted of the Chief Justice, the Judge of Penang, a Senior Puisne Judge and a Junior Puisne Judge. The Supreme Court was also given the jurisdiction to sit as a Court of Appeal, with final appeals lying to the Judicial Committee of Privy Council. Previously, appeals had lain only to the King-in-Council.

1877: An Executive Council was established that empowered the Governor to appoint, among others, judges. This formed the basic form of the present processes used to appoint judges to the Supreme Court.

1878: The Straits Settlements Courts Ordinance 1878 was passed in response to the UK Judicature Acts 1873-1875, which restructured the English courts. The jurisdiction of the Supreme Court was now similar to the jurisdiction of the new English High Court.

1907: The Straits Settlements Courts Ordinance 1907 divided the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction into its general, original and appellate civil and criminal jurisdiction. The Ordinance allowed the Governor to appoint Judicial Commissioners of the Federated Malay States to perform the duties of a Judge in the Supreme Court.

1 September 1934: The Court of Criminal Appeal Ordinance established the Court of Criminal Appeal. Previously, the Court of Appeal exercised only the appellate civil jurisdiction.

Japanese Occupation

7 April 1942: With the surrender of the British to the Japanese, all existing British courts ceased to function and were replaced by a Military Court of Justice of the Nippon Army.

27 May 1942: The civil courts were reopened and followed former laws, insofar as they did not interfere with the Military Administration.

29 May 1942: The Syonan Supreme Court (“Syonan Koto-Hoin”) was established. A Court of Appeal was also created but it never sat.


I hoped everyone survived and enjoyed the little walk into Singapore’s legal system. More history lessons to come in Part II, stay tune!