The rule of law – backed by good governance, a clean, credible judiciary and sound legal institutions – underpins the survival and success of independent Singapore.

The year was 1967. The rule of law was “reasonably established”1 in the city-state of Singapore, which had just become independent two years earlier. “No one doubts that anyone will be executed at the whim and fancy of somebody else,”2 the Prime Minister said with quiet satisfaction.

And yet, he cautioned, “mediocrity on the government side, talent in private practice”3 could yet lead to unjust outcomes. Criminals might get away as their lawyers try to “turn up the law books”4 and “take every technical point in favour of their client”.5 He urged the legal profession to hold itself to high standards and norms and to have a “social conscience”.6 Rather than cling to forms and technicalities, the legal system had to serve the cause of justice and the public good.

Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s speech to the Singapore Advocates and Solicitors Society in 1967 drew together many themes that have marked Singapore’s journey to establish and uphold the rule of law as an independent country. The central principle: that the rule of law is vital, not only as an ideal, but as a foundation upon which a nation and its institutions might be built and governed.

Rising communal tensions in 1964 led to riots that left 23 people dead, 460 injured, 945 placed under preventive detention and saw 3,500 arrested.

Rising communal tensions in 1964 led to riots that left 23 people dead, 460 injured, 945 placed under preventive detention and saw 3,500 arrested.


Singapore in the 1950s and 1960s had been plagued by crime, disorder and subversion. Communists infiltrated trade and student unions and sought to disrupt social and economic life. Secret societies were bold and active; in July 1963, secret society detainees on Pulau Senang rioted and killed three officials. The wealthy and prominent faced kidnapping and extortion. In July 1964, a communal riot left 23 people dead, 460 injured, 945 placed under preventive detention and saw 3,500 arrested.7

As then Attorney-General Chan Sek Keong observed later, “the criminal process was no match for violence, threats and intimidation of witnesses”.8 In 1962, Mr Lee famously suggested in a speech before the University of Singapore Law Society that the phrase “law and order” was more appropriately rendered “order and law”:

In a settled and established society, law appears to be a precursor of order. Good laws lead to good order, that is the form that you will learn. But the hard realities of keeping the peace between man and man and between authority and the individual can be more accurately described if the phrase were inverted to “order and law”, for without order the operation of law is impossible.9

In order to thrive, Singapore first had to create the societal conditions in which the rule of law would prevail. People needed to live in a society that respected and observed the authority of the law, instead of being subject to the arbitrary decisions of individuals or officials.

One of the most important steps towards this was the elimination of corruption, which had been rife in Singapore’s history. An 1886 report on the Straits Settlements found a high incidence of police bribetaking and involvement in protection rackets. This culture of kickbacks had taken hold in an environment where salaries were too low for junior civil servants to live on, and anti-corruption measures were weak and ineffective. The Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), established by the colonial authorities in 1952 to fight corruption, was hardly equipped to do the job. It only had five officers when it was set up, and only eight in 1959 when the People’s Action Party came to power promising to make the fight against corruption a priority.10

Unable to raise salaries to make graft less attractive, the fledgling government passed the Prevention of Corruption Act in 1960, granting CPIB more powers to investigate and deter corruption. CPIB officers could investigate not only the accounts of suspects, but also their spouses, children and agents. Penalties for corruption were increased – for instance, those convicted would have to pay in fines the amount they had taken as bribes. Persons were liable to be convicted if they simply showed the intention to commit an offence – they did not have to actually receive a bribe. CPIB’s strength also increased over time: it grew from 8 officers in 1959, to 40 in 1968.11

Investigators and staff of the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau. The dedicated and lean outfit operated out of Stamford Road, scoring early successes against gambling syndicates that had officers on their payroll.


CPIB has sought to root out corruption wherever it exists, and not just in high-profile cases. In 1968, CPIB took down the largest of Singapore’s illegal chap ji kee gambling syndicates – the operation netted 67 corrupt police officers whose actions had allowed the syndicate to flourish. In the 1990s, it went after corrupt officers who had been bribed or cultivated into protecting a notorious loan shark, and who had been helping pirate video compact disc vendors evade arrest. CPIB’s efforts to ensure honesty and integrity throughout Singapore means that it also fights corruption outside the Public Service. Most notably, in 1994, CPIB took action against bettors, referees and players for their roles in fixing football matches.12

It is a cornerstone of the rule of law that no person should be above the law. CPIB’s targets have included important public figures: then Minister of State for Environment Wee Toon Boon was imprisoned in 1975 for intervening in the work of civil servants on behalf of a developer from whom he had taken bribes; then Minister for National Development Teh Cheang Wan was investigated in 1986 for allegedly taking bribes from a developer; Deputy Chief Executive Officer of the Public Utilities Board Choy Hon Tim got into trouble in 1995 for accepting a share of a contractor’s profits in exchange for ensuring that the company’s projects would run smoothly.13 More recently, in 2013, former Singapore Civil Defence Force Commissioner Peter Lim was convicted for having furthered the business interests of a firm in exchange for sexual gratification from an employee of the firm.

Singapore’s fight against corruption has since been credible, effective, relentless,14 pursued without fear or favour. A clean government and trustworthy Public Service have come to be the hallmark of the Singaporean system, allowing the development of credible and effective public institutions in every sphere of our national life.


The Constitution is the supreme law of the land. It establishes the three branches of government and defines the terms of citizenship. It also lays out safeguards for our national sovereignty, security and finances, and protects the fundamental liberties of individuals. Ultimately, all laws passed by Parliament must be in accordance with the Constitution.

When Singapore was ejected from Malaysia to become an independent nation on 9 August 1965, we did not yet have a Constitution; there simply had not been time to draft one from scratch. Instead, in December 1965, Parliament fashioned a Constitution for the new republic out of three existing documents: the 1963 Constitution of the State of Singapore, the 1965 Republic of Singapore Independence Act and excerpts from the 1957 Federal Constitution of Malaysia.15 The resulting document was, as former Chief Minister David Marshall reckoned, “the untidiest constitution that any country has started life with”.16

As our founding document and institution, Singapore’s Constitution is inextricably tied to our nation-building efforts. A small country vulnerable to the vagaries of global events needs a government with the mandate to respond flexibly and swiftly to any exigencies. As such, our Parliamentary Elections Act provides for a first-past-the-post electoral system that grants governments decisive majorities in Parliament. In the same vein, Article 13 of the Malaysian Constitution, which guarantees the right to private property, was not imported into our Constitution. This was significant in the 1960s, since land essential to Singapore’s development was concentrated in the hands of a small number of private landowners at the time.

Singapore’s early years had been marred by communal strife. Our Constitution promotes multicultural harmony and discourages communalism, underlining the importance of building a cohesive society out of our various ethnic and religious groups. As Minister for Law K. Shanmugam explained to the New York State Bar Association in 2009, Singapore society at the nation’s birth was “disparate, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, [and] poor”.

Declared open in 1939, the venerable Old Supreme Court Building served as the courthouse of the Supreme Court until 2005.

Mr Shanmugam added:

A basis had to be established on which people could interact with each other. That basis had to be secular and Rule based. It had to assure equality regardless of race, language or religion … Singapore was and is based on an ideal: that people of different backgrounds can come together and create a nation, and be assured of equal opportunities, even though one race, the Chinese, formed the vast majority – 75%. That ideal could be achieved only through the Rule of law.17

A constitutional commission was specially convened to determine how the Constitution should best protect the rights and welfare of all Singaporeans, regardless of their race, religion or language. One of the commission’s recommendations was the creation of a “Council of State” to advise the President on the impact that laws and policies might have on minority groups.18 This led to the establishment of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights in 1970.

After adopting the Constitution, the Government turned its attention to the branch of government that would be interpreting the laws – the Judiciary. Despite Independence, all our courts remained part of the Malaysian court system until 1969, when Parliament passed several Acts to re-establish the Supreme Court of Singapore as separate and autonomous from Malaysia.19

Even then, it took some time for Singapore to have a Supreme Court that comprised entirely Singaporean judges.20 In 1993, appeals to the Privy Council in the United Kingdom were finally abolished, with a permanent Court of Appeal being designated as Singapore’s highest court.

An independent and credible judiciary is needed to apply the law and to adjudicate disputes before it without fear of undue prejudice, pressure or retaliation. Provisions in the Constitution enshrine and ensure the independence of Singapore’s judiciary, by protecting the means by which they may be appointed, removed or remunerated.21


Since Independence, the Ministry of Law has played an important role in upholding the rule of law by ensuring that Singapore’s legislation reflects a sound, coherent and consistent legal policy. Before Government Bills may be tabled before Parliament, they must first be scrutinised and vetted by the Ministry of Law to ensure that the proposed laws are consistent with Singapore’s Constitution and the principles which underpin the rule of law. Since a country’s laws must evolve over time, the Ministry of Law also spearheads the Government’s efforts to review and reform the laws of Singapore in order to reflect societal norms as well as changing circumstances.


Within a decade after Independence, Singapore’s courts were straining to keep up with demand to resolve disputes and administer justice, as the economy grew and the passage of new laws increased the incidence of legal disputes. Civil proceedings in the High Court rose from 3,743 cases in 1969 to 6,525 in 1979. From 1971 to 1979, the number of new criminal cases increased from 13,000 to nearly 22,000.22

New facilities were needed; the existing buildings were no longer adequate: two court rooms had to be created out of a converted stable at South Bridge Road, others were poorly ventilated,23 and one was found to be unusable because its building was structurally unsound.24 In 1975, a new Subordinate Courts complex opened in Havelock Road, bringing together court facilities and staff that had previously been dispersed in several locations across the island, and greatly expanding capacity. As the number of cases continued to grow – doubling between 1981 and 1985 – computerisation25 and other specialised systems were introduced to manage an increasing variety of tasks, including traffic offences and the payments of fines.26

Despite continuous improvements over two decades, the courts’ capacity to administer justice continued to be strained as the 1990s approached. It was estimated in September 1990 that the Supreme Court would only clear its backlog of cases in 1995.27

Much more had to be done, not just to keep up with demand, but to prepare the judicial system for future needs. In 1990, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew appointed former lawyer and banker Yong Pung How as Chief Justice (CJ). Mr Lee felt that the position called for someone who not only had a fine legal mind, but also a keen eye for management and administration. The new CJ had his job cut out for him:

When I became Chief Justice in late 1990, we faced a huge backlog of cases awaiting hearing. Anyone who had begun an action by writ at that time could expect to wait up to five years before his action came to trial; and if there was an appeal from the decision given at the trial, he could expect another two years’ delay. Lawyers dragged their feet and to a large extent, the courts – metaphorically speaking – turned a blind eye to the delay. This, in turn, had the undesirable effects of discouraging litigation, preventing access to the courts, and eroding public confidence in the efficiency of the judicial system.28

CJ Yong’s concerns were not unfounded. The long time it took for commercial disputes to be heard in court posed a threat to business confidence in Singapore. The long wait for trial also raised questions about the ability of witnesses to give accurate evidence in court. Juvenile suspects sometimes reached adulthood before their cases were heard. Delays in dealing with cases of domestic violence meant that victims were left unprotected.29

CJ Yong initiated a period of transformation, with a series of efforts to improve the administration of justice. He was aware that with greater computerisation and the advent of the Internet in the 1990s, Singaporeans would become “more accustomed to instantaneous access to information and the less formal nature of cyberspace”, and would come to expect “greater efficiency and convenience in the administration of justice”.30 In addition, he felt that since the judicial system was a “monopoly business”, it had to set higher standards of performance, efficiency and transparency to the public.31

Technology was harnessed to make processes more efficient. The launch of the Electronic Filing System in 1997 greatly reduced the time and manpower needed to file or retrieve legal documents.32 Over time, the use of technology in our Courts has grown steadily more sophisticated.

During his tenure, CJ Yong also introduced measures to improve the efficiency of Singapore’s legal system. Most notably, he took firm action against time wastage in trials, and urged his fellow judges “to be firm in cutting off long-winded and irrelevant cross-examination of witnesses”.33 Hearing fees were introduced in July 1993 “to ensure greater efficiency in the use of court time”.34

Alternative mechanisms for dispute resolution helped speed up the administration of justice and promote more amicable settlements. The Singapore Mediation Centre, launched in August 1997, was able to resolve disputes in three-quarters of its first 110 cases by January of the following year. Besides mediation, the courts also made greater use of pre-trial conferences to help disputing parties minimise or even resolve their issues before trial.35 Of the 2,524 writs filed in 1996, 2,036 were settled without trial.36 Such approaches have helped Singapore’s legal system to develop a culture of seeking early dispute resolution, reducing the volume of trials.

Having won national and international recognition for their efforts to improve the administration of justice,37 Singapore’s Courts continue to strive for improvement. In March 2014, the Subordinate Courts were renamed the State Courts. Reflecting their critical role in dispensing justice for 95% of cases,38 the minimum statutory requirements for magistrates and district judges in these courts were also raised.39

The use of the Electronic Filing System in 1997 served to streamline Court proceedings by reducing the time and manpower needed to file and retrieve legal documents.

Proceedings at the State Courts Centre for Dispute Resolution.

Proceedings at the State Courts Centre for Dispute Resolution.


To me, the rule of law is characterised by four key features. First, that a country’s key institutions are effective, incorruptible and impartial. Secondly, a culture in which rights are respected and effectively enforced. Thirdly, that justice is accessible – costs are not a barrier to resolving disputes for the poor and the vulnerable, the legal process is easily navigable, and there are no inordinate delays. Fourthly, the entire legal system is predicated upon fairness, a concept which implies moderation and proportionality in the content and enforcement of our laws.40

– Mr V. K. Rajah, Attorney-General

For the rule of law to be effective, everyone has to have access to legal services, the justice system and other solutions to conflicts and grievances, as well as to basic information about legal rights and processes.

In Singapore, the Courts, the legal fraternity and various community groups organise legal awareness programmes and clinics that provide free basic legal advice. In September 2014, the Law Society expanded its network of legal clinics to all five districts in Singapore. This Community Legal Pro Bono Services Network also refers cases to social services agencies within the community, addressing other needs residents may have. In 2013, the Community Justice Centre in the State Courts was set up as a one-stop centre providing a wide range of support services (including free legal advice) for those involved in lawsuits, so that all parties involved would be able to participate effectively in court proceedings. Effort has also been made to make court procedures simple, understandable and jargon-free.

Legal services can be costly. The provision of legal aid is an important aspect of access to justice, particularly for the underprivileged. In 1958, Singapore became the first country in Southeast Asia to have a legal aid scheme with the establishment of the Legal Aid Bureau to provide civil legal aid and advice to persons of limited means.41 For criminal cases, all persons facing capital charges in the High Court are ensured of legal representation, free of charge, under the Legal Assistance Scheme for Capital Offences. For non-capital charges, criminal legal aid is administered by the Law Society’s Pro Bono Services Office under the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme, which receives funding from the Government.42

Beyond formal judicial processes, alternative forums – such as the Small Claims Tribunal, the Community Disputes Resolution Tribunals and Tribunal for Maintenance of Parents – also help to resolve some claims and disputes without the need for expensive legal representation.


The skills and integrity of our lawyers and judges have been crucial in helping Singapore to uphold the rule of law and operate an effective legal and judicial system. Yet, in the past, the legal profession in Singapore was largely open only to those who could travel to the United Kingdom to study for admission to the Bar in England.43 It was only in September 1957 that the University of Malaya began offering classes that would lead to a Bachelor of Laws degree, paving the way for professional lawyers to be trained locally. Overseen by the Singapore Institute of Legal Education,44 legal education in Singapore has evolved to serve the increasingly complex legal needs of a developing nation. Committees on the Supply of Lawyers periodically review Singapore’s legal profession in light of the country’s needs.


In 1962, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had lamented that many law school instructors were foreigners, “people whose training and experience relates to conditions obtaining in a different society.”45 Instructors, he said, needed “not only knowledge of the important principles of navigation but also of the more important presence of the local rocks and the shoals”.46 The foundation of a law school in Singapore helped the growth of jurisprudence with a greater sensitivity to the local context.

To uphold the rule of law and the integrity of our public institutions, our Public Service maintains its own strong corps of legal talent. Established in 1959 and led by the Chief Justice, the Legal Service Commission appoints Legal Service officers to staff the Judiciary, the Attorney-General’s Chambers and various government departments. Regular reviews of terms and remuneration help the Legal Service attract and retain a fair share of talent in an increasingly competitive legal industry,47 while secondments to other public agencies sharpen the officers’ understanding of public policy.48

Efforts have also been made to keep the judiciary strong and competent. In 1971, the Constitution was amended to permit Supreme Court Judges who retire at the age of 65 to continue working as judges on a contractual basis – a necessity, given the shortage of those able and willing to serve as High Court Judges. Persistent shortages led to the appointment of Judicial Commissioners, who may serve for a limited period of time before returning to private practice, or be absorbed into the permanent judiciary. Mr Chan Sek Keong, appointed Singapore’s first Judicial Commissioner in July 1986, subsequently became Chief Justice of Singapore.49

The Rule of Law, Economic Development and International Relations

The rule of law anchors Singapore’s economic prosperity and national development. It assures businesses of legal certainty and the security of investments – there will “not be a sudden change in policy or law instituted by a corrupt, capricious or meretricious government”.50 It gives confidence that any disputes encountered will be adjudicated “efficiently and transparently by competent and impartial judges”.51

Over time, laws and institutions in Singapore have been strengthened to support the growing size and complexity of Singapore’s economy. For instance, to meet the needs of a growing knowledge-based economy, the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore was established in 2001 to oversee issues relating to intellectual property.

Singapore’s adoption of international legal standards, and the credibility of our legal and judicial system,52 have also helped make our city-state a centre for international arbitration. The number of cases handled by the Singapore International Arbitration Centre grew from 64 in 2003 to 222 in 2014.53 The establishment of the Singapore International Mediation Centre (2014) and the Singapore International Commercial Court (2015) have further cemented Singapore’s role in this global field.

Financial integrity and good corporate governance depend not only on good laws and dispute resolution, but also on the effective enforcement of these laws. The Commercial Affairs Department (CAD),54 established in 1984 to investigate white-collar crime, safeguards Singapore’s reputation as a financial and commercial centre. In 1995, CAD was thrust into the international limelight with its assured handling of the case against Nick Leeson, the trader whose misdeeds brought down the prestigious Barings Bank.55

Singapore has been a strong advocate of the rule of law in bilateral, regional and international engagements.56 Small countries cannot be secure and thrive in an international system where might makes right. International law creates a level playing field for small and big states to interact with one another in ways that preserve peace and stability. Singapore’s strict observance of the rule of law in international affairs helps uphold our sovereignty in the international system. This explains Singapore’s support of and extensive contributions to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, thereby helping to establishing “a stable maritime legal order” vital to global shipping and commerce.57


Singapore has done well on international measures of its ability to uphold the rule of law. We are consistently placed in the top percentiles of the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators for the rule of law and reduced corruption.58

The strength of our laws, institutions and legal profession has been nurtured and upheld by leaders who refused to rest on their laurels in serving the public good. Challenging our judiciary to meet the highest of standards “no matter what the contextual and transactional environment” might be,59 CJ Yong Pung How argued in 1998 that “deference and respect for the courts must stay, but such public regard must be continually earned”.60 As Minister for Law K. Shanmugam noted in 2012, “Singapore accepts the Rule of law as a universal value”,61 but it has to be “approached and applied in a way which recognises practical realities, to achieve good governance and to promote the general welfare”.62

Standing just a stone’s throw away from the Old Supreme Court Building, the Supreme Court consists of the Court of Appeal and the High Court, and hears both civil and criminal matters.