Major Governmental Bodies

Singapore Table of Contents

The President

The Constitution states that the president shall be elected by Parliament for a term of four years. In consultation with the prime minister, the president appoints to his personal staff any public officers from a list provided by the Public Service Commission. In the exercise of his duties, the president acts in accordance with the advice of the cabinet or of a minister acting under the authority of the cabinet. The president may use his discretion in the appointment of the prime minister and in withholding consent to a request for the dissolution of Parliament.

The Executive

The Constitution stipulates that the executive authority of Singapore is vested in the president and exercised by him or the cabinet or any minister authorized by the cabinet, subject to the provisions of the Constitution. The cabinet directs and controls the government and is responsible to Parliament. The president appoints a member of Parliament as prime minister and, in accordance with the advice of the prime minister, appoints an attorney general. The attorney general advises the government on legal matters and has the discretionary power to initiate, conduct, or terminate any proceedings for any offense.

The Legislature

The legislature consists of the president and Parliament. Members must be citizens of Singapore, twenty-one years of age or older, on the current register of electors, able to communicate in either English, Malay, Mandarin Chinese, or Tamil, and of sound mind. Membership ceases with the dissolution of a Parliament, which takes place every five years or at the initiative of the president. A general election must be held within three months of the dissolution of Parliament. Parliament convenes at least once a year, scheduling its meetings after the first session is summoned by the president. Members may speak in English, Malay, Mandarin Chinese or Tamil, and simultaneous translation is provided. Parliamentary procedure follows the British pattern: all bills are deliberated in three readings and passed by a simple majority. Only the government may introduce money bills, those that allocate public funds and so provide for the ongoing operations of the state. Once passed, bills become laws with the assent of the president and publication in the official Gazette.

The final step in the passage of laws is the examination of bills by the Presidential Council for Minority Rights. The council, established by the Constitution (Amendment) Act of 1969, must determine if bills or other proposed legislation discriminate against any religious or ethnic community or otherwise contravene the fundamental liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. It also renders advisory opinions on matters affecting ethnic and religious communities that are referred to the council by the Parliament or government. The council is composed of ten members appointed for life and ten members and a chairman appointed for three-year terms by the president on the advice of the cabinet. Any bill on which the council renders an adverse opinion may not become law unless modified to its satisfaction or passed by two-thirds of the Parliament. The council has no jurisdiction over money bills or over any bill certified by the prime minister as affecting the defense or security of Singapore or the country's "public safety, peace, or good order." In addition, bills certified by the prime minister as so urgent that it is not in the public interest to delay their enactment are also exempted from review by the council.


The electoral system is based on single-member constituencies. The law (amendments to the Constitution and to the Parliamentary Elections Act) providing for group representation constituencies also stipulated that the total number of members of Parliament from group representation constituencies had to total less than half the total number of members. Slightly more than half the constituencies would remain single-member constituencies. The candidate receiving the largest number of votes wins the election in that constituency. The consequence of this electoral rule, common to most Britishstyle constitutions, is to eliminate parliamentary representation for minority parties and to encourage the organization of parties whose candidates can win pluralities in many constituencies. In theory it is possible for a party to win every seat in parliament by receiving a plurality in every constituency.

The Judiciary

Singapore's judicial power is vested in the Supreme Court, consisting of a chief justice and an unspecified number of other judges. All are appointed by the president, acting on the advice of the prime minister. The judiciary functions as the chief guardian of the Constitution through its judicial review of the constitutionality of laws. The Supreme Court of Judicature Act of 1969, and various subsequent acts ensured judicial independence and integrity by providing for the inviolability of judges in the exercise of their duties and for safeguards on their tenure.

The Constitution establishes two levels of courts--the Supreme Court and the subordinate courts. The subordinate courts are the magistrates' courts, trying civil and criminal offenses with maximum penalties of three years' imprisonment or a fine of S$10,000; the district courts, trying cases with maximum penalties of ten years' imprisonment or a fine of S$50,000; the juvenile courts, for offenders below the age of sixteen; the coroners' courts; and the small claims courts, which hear civil and commercial claims for sums of less than S$2,000. The Supreme Court consisted of the High Court, which has unlimited original jurisdiction in all civil and criminal cases and which tries all cases involving capital punishment; the Court of Appeal, which hears appeals from any judgment of the High Court in civil matters; and the Court of Criminal Appeal, which hears appeals from decisions of the High Court in criminal cases. The final appellate court is the Judicial Committee of Her Majesty's Privy Council in London. According to Article 100 of the Constitution, the president may make arrangements for appeals from the Supreme Court to be heard by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. In May 1989, Parliament abolished the right to appeal to the Privy Council except for criminal cases involving the death sentence and civil cases in which the parties had agreed in writing to such an appeal at the outset. The judicial system reflected British legal practice and traditions, except for trial by jury. Singapore abolished jury trials except for capital offenses in 1959; all jury trials were abolished by the 1969 amendment of the code of criminal procedure.

The chief justice and other judges of the Supreme Court are appointed by the president on the advice of the prime minister. The prime minister, however, is required to consult the chief justice on his recommendations for the Supreme Court. Judges of the subordinate courts are appointed by the president on the advice of the chief justice. Singapore's judges and superior courts repeatedly demonstrated their independence from the government by ruling against the government in cases involving political opponents or civil liberties. The government response in such cases was to amend the law or to pass new laws, but it did not attempt to remove or to intimidate judges. Although internal political struggle in Singapore from the 1950s through the 1980s was often intense, and the ruling government was quite willing to intimidate and imprison its political opponents, it always followed legal forms and procedures.

The attorney general is appointed by the president, on the advice of the prime minister, from persons qualified to become judges of the Supreme Court. A judge may be removed from office only for misbehavior or incapacitation, which must be certified by an independent tribunal. The attorney general, who is assisted by the solicitor general, is the principal legal advisor to the government, serves as the public prosecutor, and is responsible for drafting all legislation. The office of the attorney general, the Attorney General's Chambers, is divided into the legislation, civil, and criminal divisions.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress