Legal Heritage

Since Singapore’s founding as a British colony in 1819, our legal system has been constantly evolving to meet the rapidly changing needs of the island city. This evolution and the people behind it are introduced in this website for researchers, students and members of the public to conveniently access information on Singapore’s legal history.

The information on these pages is drawn from the book Essays in Singapore Legal History. Content is arranged according to themes, and not in chronological order.

This Week In History

25 April
1987: The Human Organ Transplant Bill, aimed at cutting the number of needless deaths from kidney failure has passed the scrutiny of a parliamentary select committee, which recommended no change to the Bill after having received seven written representations and hearing evidence on it. The Bill allows doctors to remove the kidneys of a victim of a fatal accident for transplant of the dead person had not objected to it in writing during his lifetime.
Under the proposed law, those who do not wish to have their organs removed must opt out by signing a form. Those who opt out will not enjoy equal priority with others for kidney transplant if they should need them. They may withdraw their objections at any time but will get equal priority only after two years. The Bill exempts Muslims but they may opt in if they choose to be a kidney donor.

Organ Bill

23 April
1966: Limitation (Amendment) Bill said that action for personal injuries arising from road accidents, for example, must be brought within three years of the accident, instead of four to five years. Law Minister Yong Nyuk Lin said it would be difficult for witnesses to testify with any degree of accuracy should it drag on. It was felt that the reduction of the limitation period to three years would not cause hardship to third parties.
Police investigation papers were normally destroyed by the Police two or three years after an accident and if actions were brought after that, Police witnesses would be unable to refresh their memories from statements or plans made by them soon after the accident. The Bill had been referred to the Singapore Bar Committee and they supported its provisions.

Personal Injury

22 April
1989: Two laws curbing appeals to Privy Council come into effect – One is the Judicial Committee (Amendment) Act 1989, which restricts the right of final appeal to the highest appellate body in Singapore’s judicial system. It disallows appeals in civil cases unless the parties involved give a written agreement that they will be bound by the decision of the British Law Lords. For criminal trials, appeals are restricted to cases involving the death penalty or life.
Also coming into effect is the Legal Profession (Amendment) Act 1989, under which lawyers who face disciplinary proceedings can no longer appeal to London’s Privy Council after their cases have been heard by a three-judge court in Singapore. For those who are disciplined for criminal convictions, these will now be final and conclusive and cannot be questioned by any disciplinary committee or court.

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20 April
1973: When a doctor must get permission to treat addicts – Doctors may not be allowed to treat drug addicts without prior official permission when the Misuse of Drugs Bill becomes law. It is thought that addicts should be treated only in establishments specifically authorised to do so and not allowed to go from clinic to clinic for treatment or in search of drugs. This will be in accordance to the law, which is in force in Britain. Powers to enforce compliance among healthcare professionals will be contained in the regulations by the health Ministry. This will help keep tabs on addicts and enable them to undergo proper and systematic treatment.


12 April
2005: Biosafety laws to instill research confidence – New laws governing biological agents and toxins will boost the confidence of international scientists seeking to work with the 100 or so laboratories and groups in Singapore that deal in them. The draft laws aim for a culture of safety rather than being a witch-hunt, the Health Ministry said when it unveiled the 73-page draft Biological Agents and Toxins Bill.
The proposed laws call for those operating facilities to be responsible for complying with safety standards and security measures and penalties depend on which rules are flouted and the risk level of substances involved. The laws will also allow for a complete inventory of exactly what high-risk agents are being worked on here.


9 April
1969: Law study reforms: Views of top brains sought – Ord Justice of Appeal in England, Lord Diplock, flew in to seek the views of Singapore’s top legal brains on the proposed reforms for training of barristers in England. These reforms would affect Singapore and foreign students wishing to go to Britain to study law. Lord Diplock, who is the chairman of the Council of Legal Education in England added that the main aim of these reforms is to make the training of students more professional and the emphasis will be laid on professional techniques.

8 April
2014: Proposed law could make ISPs block piracy website
Singaporeans might see the end of illegal downloads from the infamous file-sharing site, The Pirate Bay. The Law Ministry proposed new legislation that would allow content owners to get court orders compelling Internet service providers (ISPs) to block "flagrantly infringing" websites. It is set to be implemented by the end of the year.
Recent findings are that six in 10 people download movies and videos illegally online. Lawyers said the amendment would make it easier for content providers, as the current process to block piracy sites is time consuming and costly, and could theoretically be dragged out over years and cost millions.

4 April
1966: Singapore appoints first woman judge – Jenny Lau Buong Bee made Singapore legal history in 1966 when she became the first woman to be appointed a district judge. Earlier, in 1960, she had made Malayan legal history by becoming the first magistrate in Malaya.
Madam Lau received her legal training at Lincoln’s Inn in London, returning to Singapore in 1957. She was briefly in a private law firm before being appointed as a magistrate in the Juvenile and Family Courts. She also sat on the Singapore Cinematographic Films Committee of Appeal (an old name for the Film Censorship Board) as well as the Eugenics Board. She served in the Subordinate Courts until 1975 when she joined the Shaw Organisation as a legal advisor. She eventually retired in 1988 but continued to help in her sister May’s law firm. 

30 March
1969: On the right side of the law at last – HE who became a SHE – A major legal complication involving a Singapore bachelor who underwent a sex change and became a nightclub artiste in Germany has been cleared. The tangle was over this person’s status before the law. Faced with such a problem for the first time, the High Court came up with this result: that HE is now a SHE. Granted by Justice Winslow, the order states that she – born a male during the Japanese Occupation – is to be known and called by a certain feminine name.
Commenting on this, she said that the order has taken “a heavy load off me”.

26 March
2006: International trademark treaty will now bear Singapore's name – Called the Singapore Treaty on the Law of Trademarks, it will put in place standardised requirements and processes for individuals or companies seeking to file newer types of trademarks for their products or services - those that go beyond the usual logos produced in the print media.
These new trademarks can take the form of holograms, 'soundmarks' or even 'scentmarks'. An example of a soundmark is the distinctive tune played when an Intel-based computer boots up; similarly, a scentmark is a smell associated with a brand. Forty-one countries such as Singapore, the United States, Madagascar and Uzbekistan, have become signatories to the treaty.

18 March
2009: New graduate law degree programme launched at SMU – The School of Law at the Singapore Management University (SMU) launched a new Juris Doctor or J.D. programme to enable mid-career or fresh graduates in other disciplines to pursue a degree in law. The programme is a three-year full time course, though students can complete it in as little as two years if they enrol in courses during their vacation. Under the programme, students have to complete a total of 18 core law courses, which include criminal law, contract law, law of property and ethics and social responsibility. They also need to undergo a ten-week internship and complete 80 hours of community service.

17 March
1988: Record 120 new lawyers called to the Bar – There was then also an equal number of men and women and Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin said it showed “perfect equality of sexes”. He said it also showed that women were just as capable as men. CJ also reminded them that the profession which they had chosen was a “learned and honourable” one and that each of them will have to play a part to keep it so.
“I believe that part is best played if each member demands of himself or herself the highest standards of probity, integrity and competence and just as important, to keep abreast of the law through continuing legal education in whatever form it takes,” he said.

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First Mass Call Reception hosted by SAL in 1989.

10 March
1971: Call for point system for drivers – The Registry of Vehicles should consider adopting a point system whereby traffic offenders are asked to “show cause” why their licenses should not be withdrawn for breaking traffic rules, A United Nations safety expert suggested. Mr DG Vaughn, advisor to the National Safety First Council, was speaking on Road Safety to members of the Lions Club of Singapore East at Hotel Equatorial.
2005: The case of a man whose conviction whose conviction and sentence were reversed after he had served his time in prison has prompted Chief Justice Yong Pung How to call for reforms in the criminal justice system, so that such a situation does not happen again. Describing it as “regrettable”, he said there should be place in the system for special circumstances like those of Mr Yeo Eng Siang.

22 February
1975: University of Singapore Students Union president Tan Wah Piow was jailed for a year by the first District Court after he was found guilty of rioting in the Corporative Drive premises of the Pioneer Industries Employees Union on Oct 30, 1974.

21 February
2002: The Supreme Court is planning to implement a video-conferencing system. This is a new e-litigation initiative where matters such as pre-trial conferences and applications which require the presence of only one party, can be done through a videophone.

Supreme Court Technology

17 February
2005: The law gets tougher on insider trading. Under the new law, it is not necessary to prove that the accused intended to use the information when the accused sold or purchased the shares. In effect, the new law ensures that those who knowingly have inside information are prohibited from trading, whether or not they are connected with the company.

13 February
1976: Several lawyers have called for an urgent review of the law on mandatory caning to allow judges the discretion in deciding whether or not caning should be imposed. It was with reference to the case of armed robber Sani Ben Salleh, then 17, who was sentenced to a jail sentence and 26 strokes for three robberies. It was later reduced to 10 by Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin after he found the sentence to be completely out of proportion with the offences. 

9 February
1965: The Federal Court of Malaysia today dismissed the appeal of Indonesian Lemanit Ahmad, 23, who was earlier convicted and sentenced to death in September 1964 for causing a bomb to explode at the Royal Air Force Base in Telok Paku Road in Changi.
2006: More than nine in 10 (96%) Singaporeans back the death penalty for heinous crimes, a survey conducted by the Sunday Times found. Nine in 10 also want the hard line to be taken against any foreigner who commits a crime that carries the death penalty. He should not be spared even if his country does not give the punishment of death for that crime.