Laws in Singapore are generally strict and aimed at instilling a self-disciplined society with restrictions and harsh punishments, for example caning and execution. Even the idea has been poked fun at by its citizens by using the saying "Singapore is a fine country", where "fine" actually refers to a monetary fine.
Currently, pornography, oral sex (except as a precursor to regular intercourse), and anal sex are illegal in Singapore. Magazines, movies and TV shows have to undergo government classification before being released to the general public and sales of several kinds of newspapers and magazines has been banned or restricted. Various minor offences could lead to heavy fines and caning while conviction of first-degree murder and drug trafficking cases instantly leads to the death penalty. The end result of these policies has been the hanging of more than 400 people in Singapore between 1991 and 2004, mostly for drug trafficking; due to this, Singapore has one of the highest execution rates in the world relative to population. Chewing gum has been recently legalized as part of a U.S trade agreement. Bans on bar top dancing and bungee jumping have also been lifted.
For most of the 19th century the criminal law which was applied in the Three Straits Settlement of Singapore, Penang and Malacca was that of England, in so far as local circumstances were permitted. There was little doubt that English common law crimes were recognised in these territories at the time. Certain problems, such as the application of certain Indian Acts, however, arose in 1871 and the Straits Settlements Penal Code was passed. It came into operation on 16 September 1872. The Code is practically a re-enactment of the Indian Penal Code.
The original Code, as amended on numerous occasions, presently states the law of Singapore. The most recent amendment was made by the Penal Code (Amendment) Act 1984 which came into effect on 31 August 1984. The effect of this amendment was that minimum penalties were provided for certain offences. The last major amendment of the Code prior to 1984 took place in 1973 when punishments for certain offences were enhanced.
Prior to 1870 the law relating to Criminal Procedure in force in Singapore was mainly found in the Indian Act XVI of 1852. As a consequence of the passing of the Straits Settlements Penal Code in 1871, the Criminal Procedure Ordinance V of 1870 was passed which replaced the Criminal Procedure Act XVI of 1852 but continued the English system of Criminal Procedure and made it applicable to the Penal Code. This was found impracticable as the Penal Code did away with the division of crimes into felonies and misdemeanours and the Criminal Procedure Ordinance VI of 1873 was passed accordingly. The Ordinance VI of 1873 marked the passage of the English Criminal Law in favour of the Indian. The Ordinance did away with indictments and instituted charges for all criminal offences; it abolished the Grand Jury and Special and Common Juries.
A new Code of Criminal Procedure was enacted in 1902. The present Code was passed by the Legislative Council on 28 January 1955. It repeals and re-enacts with the amendments the previous Code. All offences under the Penal Code are inquired into and tried according to the Criminal Procedure Code. Source: Electric Law Library
Examples of current laws
Here are some examples of laws currently in effect:
- The sale of chewing gum was forbidden for 12 years until May 2004, where the sale of chewing gum for medical purposes from a pharmacist only was approved by the government, gum sold as candy still remains prohibited. However, those who buy chewing gum must present identification and have a doctor's prescription. If the pharmacist does not take the name of the buyer, they could face a SGD 3,000 fine.
- Heavy fines and Corrective Work Order are levied on people who spit or litter in public areas.
- Eating and drinking on public transit also carry heavy fines.
- Car ownership is curbed through a government scheme in which car owners must bid for a Certificate of Entitlement (COE).
- Pornography is not allowed;, e.g. Playboy and certain other 'adult/porno' magazines are not allowed, however other magazines containing "mature content" like Cosmopolitan Magazine is free to be distributed at all stores with a "Parental Warning/not suitable for the young" logo on its covers.
- Foreign newspapers and magazines may have their sales or circulation restricted. These include the Asian Wall Street Journal and the Far Eastern Economic Review, either only being available in "gazetted" form (photocopied to a limited number of subscribers, with advertising blanked out) or unavailable.
- The sale of Malaysian newspapers in Singapore is prohibited; a similar ban on the sale of newspapers from Singapore applies in Malaysia.
- Certain political material is not allowed.
- Material which may outrightly disturb religious and racial harmony is not allowed.
Films and videos
Depiction of sex and nudity is restricted at the various mature ratings (NC16,M18,R21); movies containing graphic nudity, explicit sex or high levels of strong graphic violence are usually categorised as Restricted 21 (R21). Any outright denigration of race or religion, matters that threaten national interest, or depictions of hardcore pornographic, offensive or deviant sexual activites are banned.
There was a specific case where a 15-min documentary called "A Vision of Persistence" on J. B. Jeyaretnam was also banned for being a "political film". The makers of the 15-minute documentary, all lecturers at the Ngee Ann Polytechnic, later submitted written apologies and withdrew it from being screened at the 2001 Singapore International Film Festival in April, being told they could be charged in court.
In a more recent case, a 26-mins documentary called "Sinagpore Rebel" by Martyn See Tong Ming, which documented the target Dr Chee Soon Juan 's (from the Singapore Democratic Party) acts of civil disobedience, was banned from the 2005 Singapore International Film Festival for being a "political film".
However Channel News Asia's 5-part documentaries on Singapore's PAP ministers in 2005 are not considered as "political films". Notably this is due to the fact that Channel News Asia is in part controlled by the state.
Two major companies SPH Holdings and MediaCorp (both recently merged) have a virtual monopoly of the media industry. Mediacorp is a state owned company, while SPH is partly owned by Temasek Holdings, government-backed investment company. Private ownership of satellite dishes is banned, though international TV broadcasts (such as CNN, BBC, etc) are available by cable.
Owing to the Government's policy of promoting Mandarin Chinese, for many years local television was not allowed to show programmes in Cantonese, meaning that popular TV serials from Hong Kong had to be dubbed into Mandarin. Similarly, local newspapers were not allowed to carry lisitings for Malaysia's TV3, which showed programmes in Cantonese. However, these programmes, shown on Hong Kong's TVB are now available on cable.
Internet services provided by the three major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are not restricted in any form.
The Ministry of Education, Singapore, does however block access to pornographic and similar objectionable internet sites on its proxy servers, but this practice is common throughout the world's educational establishments.
- Narcotics laws are very strict.
- Anyone caught with more than or equal to 13 g (0.5 ounces) of heroin, 28 g (1 ounce) of morphine or 480 g (17 ounces) of cannabis faces mandatory capital punishment. From 1991-2004, 400 people have been hanged in Singapore, mostly for drug trafficking, the highest execution rate in the world relative to population. See Singapore Government's response to accusations regarding its use of capital punishment.
Sex deemed by the Government to be "against the order of nature", including anal sex (except as a precursor to conventional intercourse) is illegal, though this is hardly (if ever) enforced.
Prostitution is tolerated at red-light district areas.
Homosexuality in Singapore is not illegal, but homosexual acts are considered as "against the order of nature" as well. This issue is being actively addressed, however, by the Singapore gay movement. The Singaporean government is trying to shed its homophobic image and indeed, gay parties are beginning to be organised with the discreet approval of the government. These parties are now advertised throughout Southeast Asia and attract a large audience.
In recent years, the Singaporean government has relaxed some of the stricter laws. For example, bungee jumping is no longer illegal. Film censorship has also been strongly relaxed. There are also several signs that the government is considering relaxing a number of laws concerning sex.
It is of note that while some archaic laws do remain from British common law, the judiciary usually does not deliberately enforce these laws. For instance, while possession of pornography is illegal, no known checks have been made. However, in 2004, Chief Justice Yong Pung How sentenced a 25-year-old former policeman, Annis Abdullah, to jail for 12 months for receiving oral sex from a teenage girl. In his statement he said that despite growing permissiveness in some countries there were "certain offences that are so repulsive in Asian culture".
An American teenager, Michael Fay, aroused passionate media interest from the United States after he was caught vandalising Singaporean cars in 1994. There was a formal request by the American government not to carry out the sentence, which was caning. Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew called American practices "soft" and denied the appeal, although the number of strokes given was lessened. Fay was caned and interest in the incident has fallen since.
However, the government has relaxed censorship laws plentifully. For example, in 2002, it introduced a new movie rating category allowing 18-year-olds to view more mature content (M18), besides the old,outdated NC-16 and R(A) ratings.More Sexually explicit Content can be viewed in the respective R-ratings (NC16, M18, R21). DVDs and VCDs are rated up to M18 currently. Also, the country's only cable TV network, StarHub, has allowed a number of programmes (e.g Sex and the City) containing restricted content to be viewed under the ratings 16 and 18 after 10 pm. However, the films/series shown still have to be cut in order to prevent minors from being exposed to the edited, but nevertheless, presence of adult content/themes.