Singapore: The legal rights we don’t have
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Singapore: The legal rights we don’t have

PARLIAMENT will convene on Monday (Feb 29) to discuss the death of 14-year-old Benjamin Lim following an unrecorded and unaccompanied police interrogation. So far, the questions tabled appear to limit the discussion to minors.

Nonetheless, many of the challenges adult suspects face are the same ones minors face, and there is a significant degree of overlap. It would thus be useful to consider how Singaporeans lack the necessary legal protections against police misconduct.

Here is a summary of what happens to suspects arrested in Singapore.

In Singapore, a person who is arrested has the right to consult a lawyer within a reasonable time after his arrest. This means that the police may prevent him from consulting a lawyer for as long as they deem necessary or “reasonable”.

To put it another way, he may only consult his lawyer after the police agree that allowing him to do so will not hamper their investigation or prevent him from giving a confession. Even if the meeting with the lawyer were to take place in front of the prosecutor and the investigating officer, the police may deny that request on the grounds that it might result in the accused “shutting up”.

In fact, the police do not even have to inform him of his right to counsel. His ignorance of the law on this matter cannot subsequently be used in his defense.

Even after the suspect has engaged legal counsel, the police is still not required to let counsel be present during subsequent interviews. This means that he can be questioned without his lawyer. Any incriminating statements that he gives can then be used to convict him, regardless of whether or not the statements were obtained unfairly.

In fact, even if he chooses to remain silent on the grounds that he is waiting for his lawyer, his silence can be used against him. The judge may make what is called an adverse inference from his silence.

The purpose of this is, as outlined by a High Court judge in 1998, to “to compel the accused to outline the main aspects of his defence immediately upon being charged so as to guard against the accused raising defences at trial which are merely afterthoughts.” Indeed, the purpose is to compel.

In addition, the suspect has no right to contact third parties to discover and ask about into his right to counsel, and he has no right to contact family and friends to ask about the legal consequences of his arrest.

In other words, the right to counsel is severely limited and is subject to near-absolute police discretion, judges may draw adverse inferences from a suspect’s silence, and suspects have no right to contact friends or family until the police approve of it.


Ho, Hock Lai. The Privilege against Self-incrimination and Right of Access to a Lawyer: A Comparative Assessment. (2013). Singapore Academy of Law Journal.

Lee, Jack Tsen-Ta. Reforming the Right to Legal Counsel in Singapore. (2012). Research Collection School Of Law.

Tham, Lijing. Access to Counsel – A Multi-faceted Enquiry. (2014). Singapore Law Gazette.

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