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Facilitating Singapore’s Success: The Legal System

In Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon’s speech to the American Law Institute’s 93rd Annual Meeting in May 2016, he recounted how as a student at Harvard in the early 1990s, there were many people who had never heard of Singapore and how it had been described as an ‘improbable nation’.[1]

With a lack of natural resources to rely on, good leadership was a crucial aspect to Singapore’s success as a nation. Since independence, founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew focused on political stability and economic development. He believed that talent development was a crucial and essential quality necessary for Singapore’s progress and continued success.[2]

In a book chronicling Philip Yeo’s life, Neither Civil Nor Servant, Singapore’s economic success can be traced back to the immeasurable work done by the Economic Development Board to attract multinational corporations to invest in Singapore in its formative years.[3] The usual articles exalting Singapore would typically focus on the nation being an economic miracle, but economics aside, Singapore’s success can be attributed to a number of other factors, such as a well-qualified judiciary and a robust emphasis on deterrence for serious crimes.

For instance, according to Dam’s interpretation of the rule of law through an economic lens of protecting property and enforcing contracts, he argues that the rule of law can only be maintained if there is a strong judiciary in place to resolve disputes between private parties.[4] Thus, Dam concludes that weak judiciaries has a deleterious effect on economic expansion.[5] Shepard has argued that courts play an important role in facilitating economic growth because businesses react to contract and tort cases; and the decision taken by these businesses to invest or innovate is based on how they would be treated by the courts ‘when deals go south or products fail’.[6]

Public Confidence in the Judiciary

The quality of the judiciary may be assessed through a number of non-exhaustive factors, for example, educational background, experience, status as senior counsel, public perception, or even professional rankings.[7] This commentary is focused on educational background, continuing education and public perception. Gibson has argued that courts depend on public confidence for the effectiveness and legitimacy of judicial authority.[8] To achieve this effectiveness, firstly, judges must be of high quality in order to instil public confidence and to command the respect from the various stakeholders (e.g. counsels, prosecutors, litigants and the public at large). Secondly, even if there is a high-quality judiciary, the judiciary cannot function effectively to reach fair outcomes if it is subjected to repeated attacks beyond justified comment which may tarnish its image.

Decisions that judges make have a significant impact on many. A high-quality judiciary is crucial to political stability, as it helps to foster public trust in the system. One of the features of judicial decisions in the common law system is stare decisis, a principle that obliges subsequent courts to follow applicable precedents. This ensures that judicial decisions are consistent, certain and principled, and not based on the whims of judges.[9] As law is one of the most intellectually demanding subjects in the world,[10] hearing a case, interpreting it and applying legal principles to achieve fair and consistent outcomes in a judgement requires a huge reserve of intellectual power.[11] The rule of law which underpins notions of justice demands that legal rules are consistently applied in every case, which is achieved by stare decisis.

In Singapore, the judiciary is made up of the brightest minds in the legal fraternity. For example Quah has identified that one of the five secrets to Singapore’s success is nurturing the ‘best and brightest’. He argues that ‘education is the key to the long-term future of the population in Singapore which has no natural resources [… and that] Singapore has compensated for its absence of natural resources by investing heavily in education to enhance the skills of its population and to attract the “best and brightest” Singaporeans to join and remain in the public bureaucracy and government by its policies of meritocracy […]’.[12]

As at 7 February 2022, there were 28 judges, 1 judicial commissioner and 4 senior judges (collectively, “judges”) on the Supreme Court bench in Singapore. Based solely on biographical information listed on the Singapore judiciary website,[13] about 18 (approximately 64%) of these judges on the Supreme Court bench had undergraduate or postgraduate law degree qualifications from Harvard, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge. About 22 (approximately 78%) of these judges received their undergraduate law degrees from the National University of Singapore (NUS) or its predecessor, the University of Singapore. Recently, The Times Higher Education World University Ranking by subject had placed NUS 8th globally for the study of law.[14] It is a reasonable inference that the brightest minds in the legal fraternity, who possess deep domain expertise in various practice areas, serve in our judiciary. The academic credentials and international qualifications of these judges, while not only the sole determinant of public confidence in the judiciary, do help to bolster the judiciary’s standing in terms of public perception. This is comparable to the UK, where the Sutton Trust’s Leading People 2016 report showed that 74% of the judiciary had Oxbridge qualifications.[15]


Apart from a high-quality judiciary, public perception of the judiciary is equally important, as there must be public confidence in the judicial decision-making process in order to support economic growth. Confidence in the judiciary ultimately affects confidence in the economy, influencing investment and consumption decisions made by companies and individuals.

In an answer provided by the Minister for Home Affairs and Law, Mr. K. Shanmugam, to a parliamentary question from Mr. Christopher de Souza in March 2018, Mr. Shanmugam shared survey results conducted by his ministry in late 2015 on how Singaporeans viewed the Singapore courts. 92% said they had trust and confidence in the legal system and 96% agreed that Singapore was governed by the rule of law.[16] Mr. Shanmugam also emphasised that Singapore’s approach focuses on appointing the best people from private and public sectors to the bench and key legal service appointments.[17]

Scandalising the Judiciary

Singapore's emphasis on protecting the judiciary from abuse and contempt, which has been enshrined in the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act of 2016, is also important. This is due to the fact that repeated attacks on the judiciary would undermine the trust and confidence in it, fundamentally affecting Singapore’s standing and the way the nation functions.[18] Case in point? The UK, where the offence of scandalising the judiciary was abolished. This was a result of the notion that the offence was of limited value due to the all too common occurrences of it, and the lack of successful prosecutions.[19] Singapore cannot afford to reach that stage and hence successful prosecutions of contempt of court cases are important to instil confidence in the legal system. 


There are also a multitude of factors that could explain the low crime rate in Singapore, such as better policing and enforcement in Singapore. It could also be attributed to cultural factors. For instance, Nivette has argued that low crime rates in Asian countries could be linked to cultural factors.[20] It may also be argued that the strict laws in Singapore which produce a deterrent effect on crime is a contributing factor to the low crime rate in Singapore. For instance, Teo has argued that strict laws and punishments for drug abuse reflect the low tolerance towards drug abuse in mainstream society, and this could possibly explain the lower prevalence of drug-related crime compared to Western countries.[21]

Thus, Singapore’s reputation for strict laws and sentencing creates a deterrent effect, as Reynolds has observed.[22] This deterrent effect consequently results in lower crime. Bun et al., has argued that strong deterrence, i.e. increasing the risk of apprehension and conviction is more influential in reducing crime than raising the expected severity of punishment.[23]

From a serious crime perspective, Singapore’s utilisation of the death penalty has been a source of controversy, facing criticisms from organisations such as Amnesty International. However, the nation has held firm in the belief that the possibility of the death penalty for crimes deemed to have caused serious harm to victims and society helps prevent potential occurrences of these offences.

In a written reply to a parliamentary question by Associate Professor Jamus Lim on 5 October 2020 on whether there has been any systematic study by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on the deterrent effect of a life sentence relative to the death penalty, Mr Shanmugam shared that the MHA had commissioned a survey involving 2,000 residents in 2019 on attitudes towards capital punishment. A majority of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the death penalty was more effective than life imprisonment as a deterrent against using firearms in Singapore (70.8%), committing murder (70.6%) and drug trafficking (68%).[24]

In another study conducted in 2018 which sampled non-Singaporeans who were likely to visit Singapore and hence might potentially encounter Singapore laws and penalties, the MHA also found that 76% of respondents believed that the death penalty was more effective than life imprisonment in discouraging people from committing serious crimes in Singapore.[25]

Even for petty crimes, there are strict rules in Singapore. Acts such as smoking in certain public areas and spitting are prohibited. The very strict adherence to the rule of law has enabled Singapore to have a reputation as a conducive environment to conduct business. 

Apart from strict laws which do produce a general deterrent effect, there is also a possibility that sentences may be enhanced in criminal appeals. In an article commemorating former Chief Justice Yong Pung How in January 2020, there was a recount of how Yong CJ had discouraged frivolous appeals by enhancing sentences.[26] Recently, in December 2021, in an egregious case of a man who had posed as an agent for wealthy ‘sugar daddies’ and tricked 11 women into sex acts, Menon CJ more than doubled his jail term after his appeal for a shorter sentence was dismissed.[27]

Apart from general deterrence, there is public trust in the Singapore Police Force which has enabled it to carry out law enforcement effectively. For example, in the US, there have been some individuals who have been victims of systemic police brutality, e.g. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott and George Floyd.[28] Singapore has avoided this problem by its emphasis on community-oriented policing through the implementation of the neighbourhood police post (NPP) system.[29] The NPP system works by integrating police posts with neighbourhoods and distributing more police officers across residential estates, instead of concentrating them in large police stations.[30] In turn, police officers are able to conduct high visibility patrols, house visits to build rapport with residents, and take part in community engagement. Police officers are perceived by the population as part of their community and this has helped to increase confidence in the police and led to a positive impact on the image of the police.[31]

Strict laws and a strong emphasis on deterrence are key features of the Singapore legal system. According to the 2021 Safe Cities Index by Statista, Singapore was ranked the third safest city in the world, after Copenhagen and Toronto.[32] Singapore has achieved this by being able to rely on a high-quality judiciary which is trusted by its citizens to deliver principled and fair outcomes. This is supported by strict laws which serve as a strict deterrence to would-be offenders, allowing the nation to be recognised as one of the safest cities in the world, lending support for its economic growth. 

This article is written by Ben Chester Cheong, Lecturer (Law Programmes), SUSS School of Law. He also serves as an Of Counsel at RHTLaw Asia LLP.

[1] Sundaresh Menon, “Lecture – The Rule of Law: The Path to Exceptionalism,” Singapore Academy of Law Journal 28 (2016): 413-427, 413.

[2] See for example, Hong Liu and Huimei Zhang, “Chapter 8: Lee Kuan Yew’s Thoughts on Talent and Singapore’s Development Strategy,” in Lee Kuan Yew Through the Eyes of Chinese Scholars, eds. Chen-Ning Yan, Ying-Shih Yu and Gungwu Wang (World Scientific Book, 2017),

[3] Pei Shing Huei, Neither Civil Nor Servant: The Philip Yeo Story (Straits Times Press, 2016).

[4] Kenneth W Dam, “The Judiciary and Economic Development,” John M. Olin Program in Law and Economics Working Paper No. 287, 2006, p 11,

[5] Kenneth W Dam, “The Judiciary and Economic Development,” John M. Olin Program in Law and Economics Working Paper No. 287, 2006, p 11,

[6] Randall T Shepard, “The Judiciary’s Role in Economic Prosperity” (2011) 44 Indiana Law Review 987, 987.

[7] Simon Chesterman, “Do Better Lawyers Win More Often? Measures of Advocate Quality and Their Impact in Singapore’s Supreme Court,” NUS Law Working Paper 2020/010, April 2020,

[8] James L Gibson, “Public Images and Understandings of Courts” in Peter Cane and Herbert M Kritzer (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Empirical Legal Research (Oxford University Press, 2010) 836-844

[9] Jack Knight and Lee Epstein, “The Norm of Stare Decisis,” American Journal of Political Science 40, no. 4 (1996): 1018–35,

[10] James B White, “The Study of Law as an Intellectual Activity,” Journal of Legal Education 32, no. 1 (1982): 1–10,

[11] S. Sivakumar, “Judgment or Judicial Opinion: How to Read and Analyse,” Journal of the Indian Law Institute 58, no. 3 (2016): 273–312,

[12] Jon ST Quah, “Why Singapore works: five secrets of Singapore’s success,” Public Administration and Policy 21, no. 1 (2018) 5-21,

[13] Role and Structure of the Supreme Court – Structure,” February 7, 2022,

[14] “NUS law ranked 8th globally,” National University of Singapore, November 4, 2021,

[15] Philip Kirby, “The Educational Backgrounds of the UK Professional Elite,” (2016),

[16] “Oral Answer by Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law, Mr K Shanmugam, to Parliamentary Question on Attracting Legal Talent to the Singapore Judiciary,” March 21, 2018,

[17] “Oral Answer by Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law, Mr K Shanmugam, to Parliamentary Question on Attracting Legal Talent to the Singapore Judiciary,” March 21, 2018,

[18] “Oral Answer by Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law, Mr K Shanmugam, to Parliamentary Question on Attracting Legal Talent to the Singapore Judiciary,” March 21, 2018,

[19] “Contempt of Court: Scandalising the Court,” Law Commission Consultation Paper No 207, 2012,

[20] Amy E Nivette, “Cross-national predictors of crime: A meta-analysis” Homicide Studies 15, no. 2 (2011): 103–131.

[21] Michael Teo, “Singapore’s policy keeps drugs at bay,” The Guardian, June 5, 2010,

[22] Zachary Reynolds, “Intertwining Public Morality, Prosecutorial Discretion, and Punishment: Low Crime and Convictions in Singapore,” International Immersion Program Papers 61 (2021),

[23] Maurice Bun, Richard Kelaher, Vasilis Sarafidis and Don Weatherburn, “Crime, deterrence and punishment revisited” Empirical Economics 59 (2020): 2303–2333,

[24] Tham Yuen-C, “Parliament: Statistics, studies show death penalty deterred drug trafficking, firearms use and kidnapping, says Shanmugam,” The Straits Times, October 5, 2020,

[25] Lydia Lim, “Surveys show death penalty seen as a more effective deterrent than life imprisonment for some offences: Shanmugam,” ChannelNewsAsia, October 5, 2020,

[26] “Yong Pung How struck fear in criminals and their lawyers who appealed their sentences before him. Here’s why,” Todayonline, January 10, 2020,

[27] Lydia Lam, “Man admits posing as agent for 'sugar daddies' to lure 11 women into sex acts,” ChannelNewsAsia, March 18, 2021,

[28] Lynne Peeples, “What the data say about police brutality and racial bias — and which reforms might work,” Nature, July 2, 2020,

[29] Jarmal Singh, “Community Policing in the Context of Singapore,” 112th International Training Course Visiting Experts’ Papers, Resource Material Series No. 56 (December 2020): 126-139,

[30] Jarmal Singh, “Community Policing in the Context of Singapore,” 112th International Training Course Visiting Experts’ Papers, Resource Material Series No. 56 (December 2020): 126-139,

[31] Jarmal Singh, “Community Policing in the Context of Singapore,” 112th International Training Course Visiting Experts’ Papers, Resource Material Series No. 56 (December 2020): 126-139,

[32] Mark Armstrong, “The World’s Safest Cities,” Statista, August 24, 2021,


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