Legal Education In Singapore


The Genesis Of An Idea

Before 1957 there were two avenues for a person to qualify for admission as an advocate and solicitor of the local Bar. He could seek professional qualification in the United Kingdom or pursue articled clerkship at a local firm. It was only in September of 1957 that classes for the Bachelor of Law degree started in Singapore.[1]

The first public proposal for a law faculty for the then University of Malaya came from Professor Cyril Northcote Parkinson in 1953. The first sign that the university was seriously considering the creation of a law school came from Sir Sydney Caine, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Malaya and in the final months of 1953 the University Senate and the University Council approved the idea of a law school within the University of Malaya.[2] Professor R.G.D. Allen and Sir Roland Braddell were commissioned to submit a report upon which rested the fate of the law school.

Professor Cyril Northcote Parkinson, Professor of History at the University of Malaya. Source: Photo Courtesy of NUS, Faculty of Law

The Allen - Braddell Report

The Allen – Braddell report was submitted to the university in February 1955 and released to the public in April 1955. It was recommended that a Faculty of Law with the ability to grant degrees be established. It was argued that a local law school would provide for the need for legal knowledge in Malaya; that a local law course could be designed to prepare a person to be an advocate and solicitor in Malaya and was in fact better placed to prepare one for the fused profession. The report also highlighted another benefit of a local law school - the development of local jurisprudence.

Dato Sir Roland Braddell, instrumental in helping establish the Faculty of Law in Singapore. Source: Photo courtesy of NUS, Faculty of Law


The first impediment to the setting up of the local law school was funding.

The second was the local Bar Committee’s insistence on English professional qualifications. However public opinion was in favour of making legal education available locally. The final agreement worked out between the University and the Bar Councils of the Federation and Singapore was that all qualifying persons-whether barristers, solicitors or local LLB graduates- had to pass a professional examination organised by the respective Bar Committees and in addition be an apprentice to a local lawyer for a year before they were eligible to practise law.

The founding of a law school and professional recognition for the law degree

Entrusted with the task of setting up the law school was Lionel Astor Sheridan, 29 years of age.[3] He was appointed Professor of Law at the University of Malaya on 31 July 1956 and one of his many responsibilities was the job of obtaining professional recognition for the proposed LLB degree.

To do this he had to win the support of the Bar Councils of the Federation and Singapore and to procure legislative amendments to the legislation regulating the admission of advocates and solicitors in both the Federation and Singapore. This he proceeded to do.

By 8 July 1957 an agreement was reached between the Bar Councils and the university that the local LLB degree would be a new method of qualifying as a lawyer and that it was equal to law degrees obtained abroad.[4]

The Advocates and Solicitors (Amendment) Bill was passed on 14th June 1961 to enable law graduates to apply for admission as advocates and solicitors.

Professor Lionel Astor Sheridan, founder, Dean of the Faculty of Law, University of Malaya. Source: Photo courtesy of NUS, Faculty of Law

Developments at the university level

Prior to the establishment of the University of Malaya in 1949, there were two institutions of higher learning in Singapore: Raffles College and King Edward VII College of Medicine

The end of the Second World War and cries for independence brought about the creation of the University of Malaya. It was the result of the gradualist strategy adopted by the British. They would train the locals to take over the responsibilities of administration and governance. As a result the Carr-Saunders Commission was formed to investigate the development of higher education in Malaya and ultimately recommended that the University of Malaya be established.

It took over the campuses of both the King Edward VII College of Medicine located at Sepoy Lines and Raffles College at Bukit Timah in Singapore. Plans to relocate the University to Johore fell through. And in the lead up to Malayan independence it was realised that it was not politically feasible to have the University of Malaya located in Singapore. This led to the setting up of a division of the University in Kuala Lumpur. In 1958/59 the Faculty of Engineering was successfully transferred to Kuala Lumpur and subsequently Geology, Indian Studies, and Malay Studies followed. The law school which was a Law Department within the Arts Faculty, remained in the Singapore division of the University of Malaya.

Faculty status was accorded to the law school on 9 November 1959. It became the Law Faculty of the University of Malaya. In 1962 the two divisions of the University split into two autonomous divisions. The Kuala Lumpur division retained the original name and the Singapore division was renamed the University of Singapore. The law school became the Law Faculty of the University of Singapore. On 8 August 1980, an Act of Parliament – The National University of Singapore Act- merged the University of Singapore and Nanyang University. The law school thus became the Law Faculty of the National University of Singapore (NUS).

With that the Law Faculty became part of the modern NUS and moved to the new premises in Kent Ridge. In 2005 the government announced that the Bukit Timah campus would be returned to NUS and that the Law school would go back to the historically and architecturally rich campus. After much renovation and work, the Law Faculty returned to its Bukit Timah campus on 17 July 2006.

Lectures in the new lecture theatre at Kent Ridge. Source: Kevin YL Tan

Dato' David Marshall addressing students at the Department of Law of the University of Malaya in 1957. Source: Photo courtesy of NUS, Faculty of Law

The first batch of students of the University of Malaya Department of Law during lectures. Source: Photo courtesy of NUS, Faculty of Law

Building a student body and teaching in virgin territory

Not many students were drawn to law for a number of reasons. Firstly, English was the medium of the law and students from non-English medium schools faced difficulties. In addition there was cultural bias; the western notion of law was foreign to the students from Chinese-medium schools. Thirdly, uncertainty over professional recognition for the law degree kept enthusiasm for legal education at bay.

Consequently the law school in its early stages adopted a liberal admission policy which resulted in high student attrition rates. This problem receded over the years and admission to the LLB course is now a highly competitive process.

The task of curriculum development and teaching in the new law school was daunting as the teachers found themselves in unchartered territory with law-finding murky.

The first graduating LLB class at the Tunku Abdul Rahman Hall, Kuala Lumpur, 10 June 1961. Source: Photo courtesy of NUS, Faculty of Law

From building local legal literature to engaging in international legal discourse

At the founding of the law school there was a dearth of textbooks and scholarly writings on Malayan law and so Sheridan set out to encourage and develop local legal scholarship. He himself made many contributions. His editorship of Malaya and Singapore, The Borneo Territories: The Development of their Laws and Constitutions[5] and his commentaries on the Malaya Constitution[6] are major works instrumental to the development of learning on Malaysian and Singapore constitution law.

The establishment of the University of Malaya Law Review in the 1958-1959 session, attributable to W.E.D. Davies was probably the most notable initiative for the development of scholarly writing. The law review was renamed Malaya Law Review in 1962 and then the Singapore Journal of Legal Studies in 1991. In the ensuing years local legal scholarship flourished and the law school has engaged with the world in several ways. One instance being the creation of the Asia-Pacific Centre for Environmental Law on 15 February 1996.

Curriculum development

In the Sheridan years there was a slant in the curriculum towards local law and heavy emphasis was placed on a liberal education in the law. Subjects like ‘Malayan Legal History’ and ‘Outline of the History and Development of Civil Procedure to the Present Day’ were required of every student.

In 1966 there was a shift towards a more professional curriculum.[7] An emphasis was placed on the substantive law subjects as the changed political circumstances (Singapore had just separated from Malaysia in 1965) and the changed commercial climate required that law graduates be prepared for commercial practice in a new nation.

Curriculum development in the years between 1966 and 1982 was characterised by specialisation.

In 1981 a major curriculum review exercise was conducted which resulted in the Jayakumar-Chin Report. This recommended compulsory non-law subjects with the aim of giving students a ‘broader education’. This was largely driven by the desire to fit graduates for public service and the commercial sector.

Chin Tet Yung(left) and Professor S Jayakumar(right), authors of the 1981 Jayakumar-Chin Report. Source: Kevin YL Tan

Student exchange programme and international moot competitions

The law school has, since 1995, incorporated into its curriculum student exchange programmes with other law schools from around the world. It has also participated in moot competitions such as the Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition, the Manfred Lachs Space Law Moot Court Competition and the International Maritime Law Arbitration Moot Competition

The triumphant Jessup Moot team of 1982. Source: Photo courtesy of NUS, Faculty of Law

Looking ahead

Legal education needs to keep up with current times. With today’s globalisation and greater interconnectedness attention to arguments on substantive fairness becomes more important. Today’s lawyer has to be sensitive to political considerations as well as have a sound grounding in the fundamentals of the law. He has to be formed into a thoughtful person with a passion for new learning and holistic solutions.

Differences in perspective and diversity of thought on what should be taught and how the law should be taught are to be encouraged. Legal education in Singapore has come a long way but it is no time for the law school to rest on its laurels. Its curriculum must continue to be relevant.

A new chapter in legal education

A new chapter in the development of legal education in Singapore began with the Singapore Institute of Legal Education (“the Institute”), which was formed in response to one of the recommendations under the Report of the Committee to Develop the Singapore Legal Sector in 2007.

The Institute was established under the Legal Profession Act to coordinate, administer and have oversight of all initiatives, programmes and curricula relating to legal education in Singapore, including diploma, undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. It came into operation on 3 May 2011.

A key function of the Institute is the administration of the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) scheme for the legal profession. The CPD scheme started in April 2012 for advocates and solicitors who have 5 or fewer years of experience post admission to the Singapore Bar, and will be progressively expanded to the more senior advocates and solicitors.

The CPD requirements are set out in the Legal Profession (Continuing Professional Development) Rules and the Guidelines made thereunder. CPD requirements can be met by doing some of the following :- writing an article and having it published in an approved publication; attending a conference, lecture, seminar or workshop conducted by an Accredited institution or attending an in-house seminar conducted by a law practice for its own lawyers; attending a small group discussion organised by a group of lawyers or law practices; or reviewing a multimedia, Internet-based, audio-visual, audio or video programme or material.

Apart from administering the CPD scheme, the Institute also conducts the postgraduate preparatory course leading to Part B of the Singapore examinations, and the Foreign Practitioner Examinations.

(Write-up adapted from Legal Education in Singapore, Essays in Singapore Legal History)


  1. For a history of the Faculty of Law in Singapore, see generally Kevin Tan, ‘A Historical Preclude’ in Kevin Tan Y. L. Tan, ed., Change and Continuity: 40 Years of the Law Faculty (Singapore: Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore, 1999), pp. 7-60

  2. The former giving its approval in a special meeting on 23 November 1953 and the latter on 2 December 1953.

  3. A Wilson, ‘The Founder of a Law School’ (1960) 2 Me Judice 6 at p.7.

  4. ‘Malayan Law Degrees: The “Go Ahead” is Given’, Singapore Tiger Standard (8 July 1957).

  5. L.A. Sheridan, ed., Malaya and Singapore, The Borneo Territories: The Development of their Laws and Constitutions (The British Commonwealth: The Development of Its Laws and Constitution series, Vol.9) (London: Stevens & Sons, 1961).

  6. L.A. Sheridan, Federation of Malaya Constitution: Text, Annotations and Commentary (Singapore: University of Malaya Law Review, 1961); L.A. Sheridan and H.E. Groves, The Constitution of Malaysia, 2nd ed. (Dobbs Ferry, New York: Oceania Publications, 1967); L.A. Sheridan and H.E. Groves, The Constitution of Malaysia, 3rd ed. (Singapore: Malaya Law Journal, 1979); L.A Sheridan and H. E. Groves, The Constitution of Malaysia, 4th ed. (Singapore: Malayan Law Journal, 1987).

  7. The Faculty passed the resolution to adopt the new curriculum on 10 October 1966.