“… freedom of men under government is to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power erected in it. A liberty to follow my own will in all things where that rule prescribes not,
not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man, …”
– John Locke, Second Treatise, Ch 4 para 21
The Constitution of Singapore
The Constitution is a complex document. Though we have tried to simplify some of the explanation to make it understandable to the average reader, at times this would mean accuracy may be compromised. We also have not exhaustively covered the various topics, because that might result in a book rivalling the length of ‘War and Peace’. Here we just want to give you a general flavour of what the Constitution is about. For a better understanding of the Constitution, there are a number of books available for reading.
The Constitution of the Republic of Singapore is a document that sets out the manner in which political power is organised in Singapore. It provides for:-
- The structure and function of the various organs of the state, ie the executive, the legislature and the judiciary;
- Fundamental liberties, ie the rights and freedoms of every citizen; and
- The acquisition and deprivation of citizenship.
The Constitution is regarded as the supreme law of the land. Any lesser law or government action that contravenes the Constitution is unconstitutional and thus illegal.
The Constitution is divided into 14 parts. Each part is further divided into Articles which are in turn divided into sub-Articles or paragraphs. Each part deals with different aspects in the administration of Singapore and her citizens.
The Constitution and You
How does the Constitution affect you?
On 10th December 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many countries had enshrined the principles in this Declaration in their own constitution. In Singapore, these rights are found in Part IV of the Constitution entitled “Fundamental Liberties”.
One noticeable absence in the Singapore Constitution is the “right to property”. This could be because land in Singapore is scarce and for the good of the general population, land may have to be compulsorily acquired by the Singapore government.
These Fundamental Liberties ensure that you have the same rights as any other citizen of Singapore. However, almost all of these liberties are not absolute. These liberties can be denied if it is done according to specific provisions in the Constitution. As an example, if there is a National Emergency.
These fundamental liberties are set out in brief below. They are:-
- Liberty of the Person
- Slavery and Forced Labour Prohibited
- Protection Against Retrospective Laws and Repeated Trials
- Prohibition Of Banishment And Freedom Of Movement
- Freedom of Speech, Assembly and Association
- Freedom of Religion
- Rights in Respect of Education
Liberty of the person
No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty save in accordance with law.
– Article 9(1) of the Constitution
Basically this means you cannot be arrested without a lawful reason.
If you believe that your detention is unlawful, you can make a complaint and the High Court can look into this. If the judge is not satisfied that the arrest is lawful, the judge can order that you be produced before the Court and set free.
You have to be told as soon as possible, the reasons for your arrest and you can choose a lawyer to represent you. If you are arrested and not released, you have to be brought before a magistrate with 48 hours of your arrest. You can only be detained further if the magistrate says so. However, the rights in this paragraph do not apply to:-
- an enemy alien (that’s an enemy of Singapore);
- a person arrested for contempt of Parliament;
- a person arrested and detained in the interest of public safety, peace and good order; and/or
- a person arrested and detained for drug treatment and rehabilitation.
Slavery and Forced Labour Prohibited
- No person shall be held in slavery.
- All forms of forced labour are prohibited.
– Article 10 of the Constitution
The Constitution doesn’t allow any form of slavery or forced labour. However, there are 2 exceptions when forced labour is permitted. Firstly, where it concerns National Service and secondly, where it is a form of punishment imposed by the court.
Protection against retrospective criminal laws
- No person shall be punished for an act or omission which was not punishable by law when it was done or made, and no person shall suffer greater punishment for an offence than was prescribed by law at the time it was committed.
- A person who has been convicted or acquitted of an offence shall not be tried again for the same offence except where the conviction or acquittal has been quashed and a retrial ordered by a court superior to that by which he was convicted or acquitted.
– Article 11 of the Constitution
Under the Constitution, you cannot be punished for anything you do that is not illegal at the time when you did it. As an example, if you roller-blade along Orchard Road today when it is permitted, you cannot be punished 1 month later when the law is changed.
Further, the law cannot give a more severe punishment for a crime committed than that prescribed by the law at the time when the crime was committed. For example, if at present the maximum fine for spitting in public is S$200.00 and you were caught by the police today, then if the law is changed tomorrow and the maximum fine increased to S$2,000.00, you can only be fined up to S$200.00 and not S$2,000.00.
Also, if you have been convicted or acquitted for an offence, you cannot be tried again for the same offence. You can only be tried again if a higher court quashes (removes) that conviction or acquittal and orders a new trial.
All persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law.
… there shall be no discrimination against citizens of Singapore on the ground only of religion, race, descent or place of birth in any law or in the appointment to any office or employment under a public authority or in the administration of any law relating to the acquisition, holding or disposition of property or the establishing or carrying on of any trade, business, profession, vocation or employment.
– Article 12 of the Constitution
Under this Article, all persons (whether citizens or non-citizens) are to be treated equally in the eyes of the law.
As a citizen of Singapore, you cannot be discriminated against on the ground only of religion, race, decent or place of birth in:-
- any law;
- any job in the public sector;
- the administration of any law relating to property rights; and
- the administration of any law relating to doing business, carrying out a profession or in employment.
The Constitution allows for differences where:-
- personal law is involved (ie laws or rules that you accept because of your personal beliefs or religion); and
- religious organisations are involved.
What this Article leaves unclear is whether discrimination by sex or age is allowed.
Prohibition of banishment & freedom of movement
- >No citizen of Singapore shall be banished or excluded from Singapore.
- Subject to any law relating to the security of Singapore or any part thereof, public order, public health or the punishment of offenders, every citizen of Singapore has the right to move freely throughout Singapore and to reside in any part thereof.
– Article 13 of the Constitution
As Singapore citizens, we have the constitutional right not to be forced out of the country. We also have the right to move about freely and live anywhere in Singapore provided national security, public order, public health are not compromised. Criminals under punishment of course do not have the right to move about freely.
Freedom of speech, assembly and association
- every citizen of Singapore has the right to freedom of speech and expression;
- all citizens of Singapore have the right to assemble peaceably and without arms; and
- all citizens of Singapore have the right to form associations.
– Article 14 of the Constitution
The right to free speech, assembly and association is available to every Singapore citizen.
However, the right to free speech may be restricted if it is necessary for:-
- national security;
- friendly relations with other countries;
- public order or morality;
- the protection of Parliamentary privilege; or
- laws concerning contempt of court, defamation or incitement to any offence.
Thus you cannot make use of the right to free speech to say bad things about another person.
The right to assembly may be restricted if it is necessary for:-
- national security; or
- public order.
The right to association may be restricted if it is necessary for:-
- national security;
- public order or morality; or
- laws concerning labour or education.
Freedom of religion
Every person has the right to profess and practise his religion and to propagate it.
– Article 15 of the Constitution
A person is free to practise and spread his religion. He cannot be forced to pay taxes that is used by any religion not his own.
Religious groups can:-
- manage its own religious affairs;
- start and run institutions for religious or charitable purposes; and
- use and owned property to hold and administer their religion as long as it’s done legally.
Rights in respect to education
- … there shall be no discrimination against any citizen of Singapore on the grounds only of religion, race, descent or place of birth …
- in the administration of any educational institution maintained by a public authority, and, in particular, the admission of pupils or students or the payment of fees; or
- in providing out of the funds of a public authority financial aid for the maintenance or education of pupils or students in any educational institution (….).
- Every religious group has the right to establish and maintain institutions for the education of children and provide therein instruction in its own religion, and there shall be no discrimination on the ground only of religion in any law relating to such institutions or in the administration of any such law.
- No person shall be required to receive instruction in or to take part in any ceremony or act of worship of a religion other than his own.
– Article 16 of the Constitution
All citizens of Singapore have a right not to be discriminated against on the ground of religion, race, descent or place of birth when:-
- being admitted to, receiving education from or paying fees to any educational institution (school) funded by the government; and
- financial aid is being provided by the government to any educational institution. This includes schools outside Singapore.
Religious groups can set up their own religious schools where religious instructions are given. No student can be forced to receive instruction in or to take part in any ceremony or act of worship of a religion other than his own.
The next part of this article concerns the Constitution and the Government.