The Development Of The Court System


The age of an Imperum Britannicum

Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in Singapore in January 1819, the year in which modern Singapore was founded. Raffles was an employee of the East India Company (EIC). From its mercantile beginnings, the EIC became increasingly involved in the affairs of government within the territories they operated in.[1]

Early Days (1819-1826)

Raffles' Expedition

At the time of Raffles’ arrival, Singapore belonged to the Sultanate of Johore. Raffles entered into a formal treaty with the Temenggong and Sultan Hussein, confirming the right granted to the EIC to establish a trading post in Singapore. Singapore was placed under the jurisdiction of Bencoolen in Sumatra where Raffles presided as Lieutanant-General. Farquhar became the first Resident of Singapore.

Farquhar's early endeavours

Farquhar set about establishing the rudiments of a system for the administration of justice in Singapore. As Resident, Farquhar was vested with the authority of chief magistrate with the majority of the population under his military authority as commandant. Farquhar co-opted two Malay chiefs to help establish a system for administering justice and held court with them on a weekly basis. His decisions as Resident were final.[2]

Raffles' Regulations

Farquhar left Singapore in 1823. Raffles passed a series of administrative regulations. Regulation No. 111 of January 1823 attempted to put the ‘rough-and-ready’ system of justice on a more formal basis. The regulation provided for the setting up of a Magistracy and legal administration. Magistrates were appointed to assist the Resident and to hear petty criminal and civil cases. “Native chiefs” were permitted to settle disputes amongst their own people, subject to the control of the Magistracy. Raffles stipulated that the general law of Singapore would be English law but modified in consideration of the ‘usage and habits of the people.’

The legality of the regulation is in doubt as the treaty of 6 February 1819 only gave the EIC the right to establish a trading port in Singapore. It was not until the signing of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 that Singapore and Malacca were finally put under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Judicature in Calcutta.

Crawfurd's Administration

Raffles left Singapore in 1823 leaving Singapore under the Residency of Dr John Crawfurd. Crawfurd abolished Raffles’ magistracy, replacing it with a Court of Requests and a Resident’s Court. The Court of Requests dealt with minor civil cases and was presided over by the Assistant Resident. Crawfurd heard all other cases in the Resident’s Court. Crawfurd decided on cases based on the ‘general principles of English law’, taking into account the ‘character and manners of the different classes’ of local inhabitants.[3]

Similarly, the legality of Crawfurd’s judicial establishment prior to the Second Charter of Justice was in doubt. There were also no legal powers over the Europeans in Singapore. Serious cases involving British subjects had to be referred to Calcutta.[4]

Second Charter of Justice

The Second Charter of Justice finally arrived in 1827. It established the Court of Judicature for the Straits Settlements. Singapore, Penang and Malacca formed the Presidency of the Straits Settlements in 1826 with Robert Fullerton as the first Governor. The Court of Judicature consisted of the Governor, Resident Councillors and the Recorder who shall be a barrister and the only one who is legally trained. The English law to be applied was the law of
England and modified in application according to the circumstances of the place.[5]

The first Recorder, Sir Thomas Claridge, did not leave Penang and he was eventually recalled in 1829. No other Recorders were immediately sent and the Resident Councillors held court in their respective settlements.

In June 1830, the offices of the Governor of the Straits Settlements and his Resident Councillors were abolished. This led Fullerton to close the courts and dismiss the judicial establishment, generating legal chaos. Enraged merchants of the Straits Settlements appealed to the British Parliament. In early 1832, the titles of Governor and Resident Councillor were revived to allow them to continue to administer justice. The Court of Judicature re-opened in Penang, presided over by the new Governor, Robert Ibbetson. The new Recorder, Benjamin Heath Malkin arrived on 12 February 1833. There followed a series of postings for the office of Recorder which was a source of dissatisfaction. Another area of unhappiness arose from the situation in which judicial power was vested in members of the executive, namely the Governor and the Resident Councillors.

William Farquhar. Copyright: Singapore History Museum

Malay Court of Justice 1890.
Gretchen Liu

Cover page of draft Charter. Source: 
United Kingdom National Archives

Singapore River. Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

Third Charter of Justice(1855-1867)

By the 1830’s, Singapore’s trade and population were booming and increasingly powerful voices clamoured for the appointment of a separate professional judge for Singapore. On 12 August 1855, the Third Charter of Justice was granted. The Straits Settlements were to have two Recorders, one for Penang and the other for Singapore and Malaya. Sir Peter Benson Maxwell and Sir Richard Bolton McCausland were appointed Recorders to Penang and Singapore respectively. The Governor and Resident Councillors continued to be vested with judicial powers.

Under the administration of Orfeur Cavenagh who was appointed Governor in 1859, the public works programme was set in motion and included the construction of a court house which was to become the nucleus of
the Empress Place government offices.

Development of courts under colonial rule (1867-1942)

Establishment of the Supreme Court of the Straits Settlements

On 1 April 1867, the Straits Settlements were detached from India and became a separate crown colony. By Ordinance No. V of 1868, the Court of Judicature of the Straits Settlements was abolished and in its place the Supreme Court of the Straits Settlements was established. Sir Peter Benson Maxwell became the Chief Justice of the Straits Settlements. Under Ordinance No. III of 1867, the Governor ceased to be a judge of the court and by Ordinance No. XXX of 1867 and Ordinance No. V of 1868, the Resident Councillors ceased to be judges of the court. The law of England remained the basis of the local legal system, subject to the suitability and the provisions of local legislation.


The re-organisation of the formal court structure continued for the next several decades. The Supreme Court was reconstituted to consist of the Chief Justice and the Judge of Penang and a Senior and Junior Puisne Judge, with the Chief Justice and the Senior Puisne Judge residing in Singapore. Singapore had by this time, become the centre of government and trade within the Straits Settlements. The Supreme Court was conferred with jurisdiction to sit as the Court of Appeal with three judges to make up the coram of a full Court of Appeal.

Further revisions were made to the structure of the Straits Settlements’ judicial establishment in the early 20th century. The Courts Ordinance 1907-Ordinance No. XXX of 1907-represented a major overhaul of the Court’s jurisdiction. The court had two divisions: an original civil and criminal jurisdiction and an appellate civil and criminal jurisdiction.

The 1907 Ordinance also established the District Courts (with civil and criminal jurisdictions) and Police Courts, which replaced the Magistrates’ Courts. The Court of Requests was also abolished.

The backdrop: economic prosperity

With rising economic prosperity and the increasing population in Singapore, a stable legal and court system was given much official attention. According to H. Norman, writing in The People and Politics of the Far East, Singapore’s entire community was supported by the three pillars of ‘free trade, fair taxation and even-handed justice.’[6]

The Syonan years (1942-1945)

War came to Singapore on 8 December 1941 when Japanese troops landed in Kelantan. The Japanese Military Administration took over the British administrative infrastructure. All the courts under the British ceased to function. A Military Court of Justice of the Nippon Army was set up on 7 April 1942 to administer Military Ordinances and the Laws of the Nippon Army. The Civil Courts, comprising the Criminal, District, Police and Coroner’s Courts, were subsequently reopened. The Syonan Koto-Hoin (Supreme Court) was established on 29 May 1942 with a Japanese as the Chief Justice. All pre-existing laws were respected subject to variations, additions and alterations. Other laws that impacted on the lives of people related to the currency to be used and laws mandating the maintenance of fixed price level for goods. The Japanese formally surrendered on 12 September 1945.

The old Civil District Court
at Empress Place

Criminal District Court at South
Bridge Road

Criminal  District and Police
Court at Upper Cross Street

Indenture date 28 Feb
1945 - Assignment of leasehold
land and premises. Source:
Koh Seow Chuan

The post-war winds of change (1945 to the present day)

Starting all over

Following the end of the Japanese Occupation up until April 1946, Singapore came under the British Military Administration (BMA). All Japanese proclamations and decrees ceased to have effect and the ‘laws and customs existing immediately prior to the Japanese Occupation’ were to be respected. The Straits Settlements were disbanded and Singapore became a separate Crown Colony with its own Constitution.

Self-Government and Merger

The movement for self-determination gained momentum. In 1953, a Constitutional Commission was set up under Sir George Rendel to undertake ‘a comprehensive review of the constitution of the Colony of Singapore.’ Elections were held in 1955 and talks on Singapore’s future continued. The State of Singapore Act was enacted in August 1958 which converted Singapore into a self-governing state. The Singapore Constitution Order-in-Council abolished the post of governor and introduced the office of Yang di-Pertuan Negara as the constitutional head of state.

The 1959 general elections saw the People’s Action Party winning with a clear majority and Lee Kuan Yew became the first Prime Minister of the State of Singapore and Sir William Goode as its first Yang di-Pertuan Negara.

Throughout this period, the basic structure of the judiciary remained little changed. The framework and hierarchy of the courts remained largely as they had been in the pre-war era although there were several changes made to the judicial framework by the 1955 Courts Ordinance such as the re-designation of the former Police Courts as Magistrates’ Courts.[7] The earlier part of the 1950s also witnessed the construction of a number of new courthouses including the district and magistrates courts. In 1972, construction work began for a centralised Subordinate Courts Complex.

National Day Parade 1966. Source:

MICA Collection, courtesy of 
National Archives of Singapore

Swearing in ceremony of Judicial

Commissioner Chan  Sek Keong.
Source: ISTANA


On 31 September 1963, Singapore joined the Federation of Malaysia. The Malaysia Act 1963 had vested the judicial power of Malaysia in a Federal Court, High Court in Malaya, a High Court in Borneo and a High Court in Singapore. The High Court of Singapore became part of a larger national system of courts which had, at its apex, the Federal Court.

Barely two years later, on 9 August 1965, Singapore left the Federation and became an independent state. With pressing issues of survival uppermost in Singaporeans’ minds, the development of the court system was not of immediate priority. No changes were made to the judicial system and the Singapore High Court continued to exist-in law-as part of the Federal Court structure.

Reorganising the Court System

Four years after independence, Singapore enacted its own Supreme Court of Judicature Act to put the local court system on a footing consonant with the island’s status as an independent republic.[8] Singapore developed an independent judicial system but the Judicial Committee of Her Britannic Majesty’s Privy Council remained as Singapore’s final court of appeal. Modifications were made to overcome the shortage of High Court judges and to allow the appointment of judicial commissioners who held their judicial posts on a temporary basis.

The Subordinate Courts Act 1970 was passed to amend and consolidate the law relating to the subordinate courts, which includes the District Courts, Magistrates’ Courts, Juvenile Courts and Coroner’s Courts.[9] In September 1975, the different parts of the Subordinate Courts were centralised and operated from the Havelock complex.[10]

The Supreme Court’s City Hall premises too, underwent extensive upgrading and the construction of 12 additional court rooms in the City Hall building were finally completed by mid-1991.

Breaking New Ground

Cutting the Last Colonial Apron Strings

Amidst Singapore’s continued stability and economic progress, confidence in the local court system grew and this was reflected in a number of reforms in the 1990s. In 1989, a constitutional amendment was made to restrict appeals to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. In 1993, Supreme Court of Judicature Act constituted a permanent Court of Appeal for both civil and criminal appeals with the Chief Justice as the President of the Court of Appeal. The enactment of the Judicial Committee (Repeal) Act eventually abolished all appeals to the Privy Council with effect from 8 April 1994. Singapore has moved away from the last vestiges of its colonial links.[11]

Reform and Re-Positioning

The moods within the courts in the 1990s reflected a readiness to move forward, a determination to be attuned to the shifting needs of modern Singapore and a commitment to continual improvement of the administration of justice. A series of reforms was set in motion to transform the Singapore court system.[12] Changes were effected in areas of case management, alternative dispute resolution, the use of information technology and the involvement of the community in the justice process.

Exterior of the new Supreme Court
building. Source: Supreme Court

Opening of Legal Year.
Source: Supreme Court


Singapore courts have come a long way since the days of Raffles’ regulations. It has evolved into one of the most modern and progressive in the world today as testified by the many accolades which have come its way. The development of the Singapore court system has reflected Singapore’s growth and progress as a nation.

(Write-up adapted from The Development of the Court System, Essays in Singapore Legal History)

The technology court in new
Supreme Court building.
Source: Supreme Court


  1. ‘Origins of Constitutional Government’, in R.H. Hickling, Essays in Singapore Law (Petaling Jaya: Pelanduk, 1992)

  2. C.M. Turnbull, A History of Singapore 1819–1988, 2nd ed. (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1989)

  3. L.A. Mills, “British Malaya 1824 -1867” (1960) XXXIII Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society Part 3

  4. Kevin Y. L. Tan, “A Short Constitutional and Legal History of Singapore’ in Kevin Y. L. Tan ed., The Singapore Legal System, 2nd ed. (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1999)

  5. G.W. Bartholomew, ‘The Singapore Legal System’ in Riaz Hussan ed., Singapore, Society in Transition (Kuala Lumpur and New York: Oxford University Press, 1976). See also Andrew Phang Boon Leong’s ‘English Law in Singapore: Precedent, Construction and Reality or “The Reception that Had to Be” (1986) 2 Malayan Law Journal civ

  6. H. Norman, The People and Politics of the Far East (London, 1895), quoted in C. M. Turnbull, A History of Singapore 1819-1988, 2nd ed. (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1989)
  7. s. 90 of the 1955 Courts Ordinance

  8. Singapore Parliamentary Debates, Official Report (12 June 1969)

  9. Yeo Tiong Min ‘Jurisdiction of the Singapore Courts’, in Kevin Y. L. Tan, ed., The Singapore Legal System 2nd ed. (Singapore : Singapore University Press, 1999)

  10. Singapore Subordinate Courts: Excellence & Beyond

  11. Hoo Sheau Peng et al., eds., Speeches and Judgements of the Chief Justice Yong Pung How (Singapore: FT Law & Tax, 1996)

  12. Supreme Court Singapore: The Re-Organisation of the 1990s