OUR CONSTITUTION

Magna Carta and Us

Our Constitution

This section traces the origins of the Singapore Constitution as Singapore was thrust into nationhood with the sudden separation from the Federation of Malaysia in August 1965. We also look at the work of the 1966 Constitutional Commission chaired by Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin.

In 1970, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew asked the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to recommend some constitutional experts to produce a complete redraft of the Singapore Constitution. Lee felt that this “mess” had to be “polished up”.

The draft was completed in April 1971. Although Lee felt that the FCO had done a “first-rate job”, he rejected it upon further reflection. Lee preferred to retain the constitutional arrangements that had worked for Singapore since its separation from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965.


Separation from the Federation of Malaysia

Proclamation of Singapore dated 9 August 1965
The Straits Times, 10 August 1965, page 1

The Straits Times, 10 August 1965, page 1

Reprinted with permission from Singapore Press Holdings

“… Now I LEE KUAN YEW Prime Minister of Singapore, DO HEREBY PROCLAIM AND DECLARE on behalf of the people and the Government of Singapore that as from today the ninth day of August in the year one thousand nine hundred and sixty-five Singapore shall be forever a sovereign democratic and independent nation, founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of her people in a more just and equal society. ”
9 August 1965

Singapore’s “Temporary Constitution”

Singapore’s “Temporary Constitution” that was passed by Parliament on 22 December 1965 was a conglomeration of three separate documents:

  • The Constitution of the State of Singapore Act 1963
  • The Republic of Singapore Independence Act 1965 (RSIA)
  • Provisions of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia as made applicable by the RSIA
THE NEW CONSTITUTION FOR SINGAPORE The Straits Times, 22 December 1965, page 12

The Straits Times, 22 December 1965, page 12

Reprinted with permission from Singapore Press Holdings

The late Tan Sri Datuk Professor Ahmad Ibrahim (1916-1999) was Singapore’s first State Advocate General in 1959. He became Singapore’s first Attorney-General in 1966.

Inche Ahmad bin Mohammed Ibrahim (1916-1999)

The late Tan Sri Datuk Professor Ahmad Ibrahim was Singapore’s first State Advocate General in 1959. He became Singapore’s first Attorney-General in 1966. He also served as Singapore’s ambassador to the United Arab Republic and the Republic of Egypt.

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reprinted with permission.

The late David Marshall (1908-1995) was Singapore’s first elected chief minister between 1955 and 1956. He also served as Singapore’s first ambassador to France, Spain, Portugal and Switzerland between 1978 and 1993.
SINGAPORE’S ‘UNTIDY’ CONSTITUTION The Straits Times, 21 December 1965, page 12

The Straits Times, 21 December 1965, page 12

Reprinted with permission from Singapore Press Holdings


Establishment of the 1966 Constitutional Commission

On 14 December 1965, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew announced in Parliament that a Constitutional Commission, chaired by Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin, would be convened.

At the first session of the first Parliament on 22 December 1965, Minister for Law and National Development, E W Barker, announced:

“One of the cornerstones of the policy of the government is a multi-racial Singapore. We are a nation comprising peoples of various races who constitute her citizens, and our citizens are equal regardless of differences of race, language, culture and religion …

To ensure this bias in favour of multi-racialism and the equality of our citizens, whether they belong to majority or minority groups, a Constitutional Commission is being appointed to help formulate these constitutional safeguards …

The Government has given this matter careful consideration and has decided that this Commission shall consist of legally qualified persons, who will know what is feasible and practical of constitutional guarantee. They represent various communities in the legal profession.”

Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin presenting the Report of the 1966 Constitutional Commission to President Yusof Ishak at the Istana on 27 August 1966.

Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin presenting the Report of the 1966 Constitutional Commission to President Yusof Ishak at the Istana on 27 August 1966.

Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

Front cover of the Report of the 1966 Constitutional Commission

Front cover of the Report of the 1966 Constitutional Commission

Report of the 1966 Constitutional Commission signed by Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin

Report of the 1966 Constitutional Commission signed by Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin

Report of the 1966 Constitutional Commission signed by members

Report of the 1966 Constitutional Commission signed by members


Equality Before the Law

One of the recommendations in the Report of the 1966 Constitutional Commission was the creation of a 'Council of State'. This Council would be a non-elected advisory body consisting of members appointed by the President irrespective of race, colour or creed:

"We believe such a body can play an effective and vital part in the affairs of the nation in many ways. It will be able in its debates to focus the attention of the public on any matter originating from Parliament which may adversely affect the interests of any minority group."

— Report of the 1966 Constitutional Commission, page 4 , paragraph 16.

In 1970, the proposed 'Council of State' was established as the Presidential Council, with Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin as the Chairman.

Members of the newly-formed Presidential Council waiting to take their oath of office at the Istana.

Members of the newly-formed Presidential Council waiting to take their oath of office at the Istana. Among them were, seated in the front row from left to right, Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin (Chairman), Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Labour S Rajaratnam, lawyer David Marshall, educationist Francis Thomas, president of the Muslim Religious Council Haji Ismail bin Abdul Aziz, and Attorney-General Tan Boon Teik.

Yusof Ishak Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore


Minority Rights and Religious Harmony

The Presidential Council was renamed the Presidential Council for Minority Rights in 1973 to better reflect its role. Its main function is to ensure that any new laws passed by Parliament do not discriminate against any racial or religious community.

On 9 November 1990, the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony was established. Its main tasks are to advise the Minister for Home Affairs on matters affecting the maintenance of religious harmony, and to recommend to the Minister whether a restriction order should be made against anyone threatening religious harmony.

President Tony Tan and his wife Mary Tan, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, with Chairman and several members of the Presidential Council For Minority Rights at the Istana on 16 July 2012

President Tony Tan and his wife Mary Tan, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, with Chairman and several members of the Presidential Council For Minority Rights at the Istana on 16 July 2012

Courtesy of Ministry of Communications and Information Singapore

President Tony Tan with Chairman and members of the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony at the Istana on 15 September 2014

President Tony Tan with Chairman and members of the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony at the Istana on 15 September 2014

Courtesy of Ministry of Communications and Information Singapore


The Singapore Constitution

Instead of drafting a new Constitution, in 1979, the government decided to empower the Attorney-General to rearrange the existing provisions of the 1963 State Constitution, the Republic of Singapore Independence Act and the Federal Constitution of Malaysia into a single document known as an authorised reprint.

The Attorney-General issued the first Reprint of the Singapore Constitution in 1980. The version of the Singapore Constitution currently in force is the 1999 Reprint, which is the third reprint.

Speaking in Parliament in 1984, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said:

“From my experience, Constitutions have to be custom-made, tailored to suit the peculiarities of the person wearing the suit. Perhaps, like shoes, the older they are, the better they fit. Stretch them, soften them, resole them, repair them. They are always better than a brand new pair of shoes.

Our people have got used to and understand the present system. It takes a long time … Any fundamental change takes a long time. But most important of all, the Constitution works. Many countries have tried and gone through several Constitutions since independence … They have not brought stability or legitimacy. I believe it is better to stretch and ease an old shoe when we know that the different shape and fit of a younger generation requires a change.”

Reprints of the Singapore Constitution

Reprints of the Singapore Constitution

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