The Legal Profession In Singapore



The Singapore legal profession encompasses two areas, that of the lives and work of lawyers and the system in which they worked. The history of the profession spans the first entry of law agents or semi-lawyers at the time when Singapore was an outpost of the East India Company to the admission of formally trained lawyers and the “Singaporeanisation” of the legal profession.

William Napier was Singapore's first law agent(1833). Source: The Malaysian Branch of The Royal Asiatic Society

The first decades

From the beginning of the founding of Singapore in 1819 to the introduction of the Second Charter of Justice in 1826,[1] Singapore was not governed by any regulation of law and order. Administration of justice was left to the different ethnic groups on the island. British civilians were not themselves subjected to any legal regime. Legal services were in most part provided by law agents.

The Second Charter provided for the appointment of advocate, solicitor, attorney, proctor and agent. Law agents were licensed to provide legal services but were not subjected to any formal qualifications. They were essentially part timers drawn largely from the merchant class. Although the law agents performed effectively, Singapore’s growth and increasing political maturity made it imperative for legal services to be professionalised.

Warrant to act for RC Woods and JG Davidson as law agents. Courtesy of the National Musuem of SingaporeNational Heritage Board

The beginning of professionalism

In 1852, Sir William Jeffcott made the first attempts to introduce special qualifications and examinations aimed at putting the legal profession on a firmer footing. The Third Charter of Justice[2] introduced in 1855 did not alter the status quo and comprehensive changes only came about with the establishment of the Straits Settlements and the Supreme Court of Judicature in 1867. Although law agents remained, the Ordinance recognised professional qualifications obtained in the United Kingdom. This was finally followed by the Courts Ordinance of 1873 which restricted admission to those who qualified as barristers or solicitors in the United Kingdom or had passed a local examination, thus ending the era of amateur lawyers. Through the Ordinance No III of 1878, lawyers became known as advocates and solicitors, terms which remained up to the present.

The formalisation of legal qualifications opened the doors for Asians to qualify for entry into the legal profession. Sir Song Ong Siang was the first Asian admitted after he graduated from Raffles Institution and read law at Cambridge under the Queen’s Scholarship. He was admitted to the Singapore Bar in 1893 and subsequently became a member of the Legislative Council. The first Indian lawyer by the name of Patnnarafeat Keunui Nambyar was admitted in 1904 and the first Muslim name to appear was Mohamed Ismail in 1912.

The 1870s also saw the establishment of the precursors of early law firms, some of which are still in existence to this day. Issac Swindburne Bond, a lawyer and member of the Legislative Council, practiced with Alfred Drew. Alfred Drew subsequently partnered with Walter John Napier in founding Drew and Napier. Another law firm dating back to 1902 is Allen & Gledhill, formed by Rowland Allen and John Joseph Gledhill.

Sir Song Ong Siang (1871-1941), the first Chinese from Singapore to be called to the Bar, Copyright: Singapore History Musuem

The pre-war years

The pre-war years continued to see a period of consolidation and development. It also saw the increasing number of Asians entering the legal profession. The first female lawyer was Teo Soo Kim, a daughter of Teo Eng Hock, a Teochew rubber magnate.

These years too witnessed the appearance of Asian law firms. The first was Chan & Swee Teow, later known as Wee Swee Teow & Partners which was founded in 1910. Others include Chan & Eber and Laycock & Ong, which existed alongside dominant English firms such as Drew and Napier, Allen & Gledhill, Rodyk & Davidson and Donaldson & Burkinshaw.

Wee Swee Teow(1880-1954), was admitted to Singapore Bar in 1912. Source: Copyright: Wee Swee Teow & Co

The Japanese Occupation and Independence

During the Occupation period from 1942 to 1945, the Japanese imposed aspects of their own laws. The civil and criminal courts were subordinate to the Japanese Military Court. With the internment of the British, the legal profession was largely left to the Asians and Eurasians.

The end of the war years marked the end of the dominance of the British colonials and saw the increasing localisation of the legal profession. This was further supported by the opening up of opportunities in the training of lawyers. The Department of Law was established at the University of Malaya in 1957.

Post-war Singapore witnessed rising nationalism and the formation of local political parties. Given their ease in public speaking and powers of reasoning, lawyers were active in political campaigning and the formation of political parties, such as the Malayan Democratic Union, the Progressive Party, the Singapore Labour Front and the People’s Action Party. Famous lawyer politicians included John Laycock, C C Tan, N A Mallal, David Marshall and Lee Kuan Yew.

The localisation of the legal profession was further cemented with Singapore’s independence. By 1960, no Caucasian lawyers were added to the rolls. The rise in the number of local lawyers also reflected the increasing accessibility of legal education to a wider section of the population. Before 1962, the bulk of lawyers in Singapore would have come from the upper end of society, given the high cost of an overseas education and training. A local degree course however, gave access to legal education for all.

The 1970’s and 1980’s marked further periods of growth for the legal profession as Singapore’s development gathered speed. The growing economy provided boom conditions for lawyers. The establishment of the Singapore Advocates and Solicitors Society, subsequently renamed Law Society of Singapore, and the Board of Legal Education provided further avenues for the continued development of the legal profession. This culminated in the founding of the Singapore Academy of Law in 1988 which is modelled on the Inns of Court to bring together lawyers in practice, officers of the legal service, academics and judges.

Song Ong Siang's Admission Paper. Source: National Musuem of SingaporeNational Heritage Board

1990s and the winds of change

As Singapore developed, law remained a promising profession for many. Those who could not qualify for the local university went overseas for their law degrees. Concerns grew about the lawyer to population ratio and this led to the Legal Profession (Amendment) Act 1993[3] and the Legal Profession (Qualified Persons) Rules, where controls were put in place to restrict the number of lawyers. Entry is restricted to those who read law at the National University of Singapore or a select list of 15 English universities. The Singapore Academy of Law Act in 1988[4] introduced the designation of the Senior Counsel in a further move to increase quality of the legal service. The legal skills of lawyers continue to evolve to keep pace with changes to the legal practice and the character of the legal profession.

In the late 1990s, the Singapore market opened up considerably through joint ventures between local and foreign law firms specialising particularly in corporate finance law. Large Singapore law firms, especially those with corporate law departments, underwent significant changes. With the development of joint-venture practice and the introduction of limited liability practice, many larger law firms became limited liability corporations. The time may come where firms can allow integrated practices accountancy and law under one roof.

Petition for admission to practice by Mohammed Ismail, the first Malay to be called to the Bar in Singapore. National Musuem of SingaporeNational Heritage Board

Liberalisation of the Singapore Legal Sector

The rapid pace of globalisation, together with strong growth in the financial services sector and demand for arbitration and dispute settlement have resulted in further liberalisation of the once tightly regulated legal industry. The gradual deregulation of the sector allowed more foreign firms into the industry and foreign lawyers became a significant presence amongst the legal fraternity as barriers to entry were relaxed.

In 2000, the Singapore Legal Profession Act was amended. For the first time, all foreign lawyers and foreign law practices in Singapore were required to be registered. Foreign law firms were allowed to engage in the practice of Singapore law within a Joint Law Venture through a Singapore law practice.

In 2008, the Singapore Legal Profession Act was further amended to liberalise the legal sector. One of the most important changes was the establishment of Qualifying Foreign Law Practices (QFLP). The QFLP is a foreign law practice in Singapore which is allowed to practice Singapore Law in commercial and corporate areas through Singapore lawyers who are its partners or associates. In December 2008, the Government awarded six QFLP licences.

On14 February 2012, the Legal Profession (Amendment) Bill was passed to allow foreign law firms to own stakes in local firms and share in the profits. Foreign qualified trial lawyers can now appear in local courts.

These changes will ensure the development of a vibrant and sophisticated legal market that offers a range of cutting edge legal services as well as the infrastructure to support an increasingly sophisticated and knowledge intensive business environment and help Singapore achieve its goal of becoming a legal hub in the region.

(Write up adapted from The Legal Profession, Essays in Singapore Legal History)


  1. Second Charter of Justice in 1826, see Letters Patent Establishing the Court of Judicature at Prince of Wales, Singapore and Malacca in the East Indies (London: Printed by J.L. Cox, 1827).

  2. Third Charter of Justice introduced in 1855, see Letters Patent for Reconstituting the Court of Judicature of Print of Wales’ Island, Singapore and Malacca: 10th August-19th Vict. 1855.

  3. Legal Profession (Amendment) Act 1993.

  4. Singapore Academy of Law Act in 1988.