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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, eg 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.

As a rule, the investigation of offences is dealt with by the police. Besides the police officers, there are also custom officers, immigration officers and narcotic officers who are empowered to investigate limited offences in contravention of custom, immigration and drug laws. The police operate under the supervision of the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Criminal prosecution in Singapore is instituted by the state which is represented by the Attorney General's Department, with some exceptions like private summons which are brought by individuals for certain minor offences or nuisances. The Attorney General's Department is headed by the Attorney General, assisted by the Solicitor General and a staff of deputy public prosecutors, all of whom are legally qualified and recruited through the Legal Service Commission. The Attorney General is appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister from among persons qualified as Supreme Court judges.

The prosecuting department of each investigative agency mentioned above is also empowered to prosecute only minor cases not involving points of law or complex legal issues under its jurisdiction. The Attorney General who is also the Public Prosecutor, controls and directs prosecutions in Singapore, with the assistance of several Deputy Public Prosecutors. The Attorney General initiates proceedings and can also terminate proceedings at pre-prosecution stage and even during the trial, if for good reasons, he deems it unnecessary to proceed further with the case. Proceedings can also be terminated or discontinued by the Attorney General even though the proceedings were not initiated by him in the first instance.

The court system in criminal matters consists of the Supreme Court and the Subordinate Court. The Supreme Court consists of the Chief Justice and the judges of the Supreme Court and divided into the High Court, Court of Appeal and the Court of Criminal Appeal.

The High Court exercises unlimited original jurisdiction in criminal cases. Generally, the High Court sits with one judge, but since the abolition of the jury system in 1969, offences in which the punishment of death is authorised by law are now triable by a court of two judges, one of whom presides. The Court of Criminal Appeal hears appeals by persons convicted by the High Court.

Lower courts, known as Subordinate Courts, consist of the nine District Courts, eleven Magistrates' Courts, one Juvenile Court, one Coroners Court and the Small Claims Tribunal. The District Courts try all offences for which the maximum term of imprisonment provided by law does not exceed seven years or which are punishable by a fine only. A District Court has one judge sitting. Magistrates' Courts have the power to hear, try, determine and dispose of offenders in summary prosecution for offences where the maximum term of imprisonment provided by law does not exceed three years or which are punishable by a fine only. The procedure and functions of criminal courts are defined mainly by the Criminal Procedure Code, the Supreme Court Judicature Act, the Subordinate Courts Act, and the Children and Young Persons Act.

The minimum age of criminal responsibility is seven. In addition, a child above seven years of age and under twelve, is not criminally responsible if he/she has not attained sufficient maturity of understanding to judge the nature and consequence of his/her conduct on that occasion.

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Punishments prescribed under the Penal Code are: death; imprisonment; forfeiture of property; fine; and caning. Apart from these penalties, habitual offenders may be sentenced to corrective and reformative training, preventive detention.

In spite of the decrease of total convictions, there was a striking increase in prison population. This may suggest that judges in Singapore have preferred to use imprisonment more or that they have chosen longer terms of imprisonment. Singapore, however, is not facing overcrowding in prisons, since Singapore prisons have sufficient capacity and the proportion of remand prisoners is not large in the total prison population.

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