Chief Justice

Singapore Infopedia


The chief justice of Singapore presides over the judiciary – a system of courts that upholds the law and ensures justice is accessible to all.1 Besides being responsible for the overall functioning of the Singapore judiciary, he or she plays a role in numerous appointments and has other duties outside of the court system.

Method of appointment, qualifications and tenure
The president appoints the chief justice on the prime minister’s recommendation. As with all Supreme Court judges, the chief justice is required to have at least 10 years’ experience as either a member of the Singapore legal service or as a “qualified person” as defined in section two of the Legal Profession Act.2

There is a retirement age of 65 for Supreme Court judges, but extensions are possible upon the direction of the president.3 Former chief justices Wee Chong Jin and Yong Pung How were regularly reappointed until the ages of 73 and 80, respectively.4 If a nominee is already aged 65 or older, and either qualified for appointment as a judge of the Supreme Court or has ceased to be a judge of the Supreme Court, he is appointed for a specified period,5 as was the case with Chan Sek Keong, who served as the chief justice until he retired in 2012.6

Responsibilities and powers
On the bench
The chief justice is responsible for the operation of the entire judicial system. He is president of the Court of Appeal, the apex of Singapore’s judicial hierarchy, which, together with the High Court, forms the Supreme Court.7 He has the discretion to transfer cases from the High Court to the District Court (part of the State Courts) and vice versa if he believes it would be more efficient or applicable.8 The chief justice and judges of appeal can be invited to preside at High Court cases and vice versa.9 Until 2006, the chief justice alone heard magistrates’ appeals from the State Courts, but now shares this duty with other High Court judges.10

Powers of appointment
The chief justice is jointly or wholly responsible for numerous appointments:

– He or a judge of the Supreme Court nominated by him hears and determines all proceedings related to the election of the president, regulated by rules made by the Rules Committee.11
– He submits nominations to the president for district judges, coroners magistrates of the State Courts, which hear 95 percent of all cases.12
– He is consulted by the prime minister on Supreme Court appointees before the latter makes his recommendation to the president.13
– He recommends to the president all registrars for the Supreme Court and the State Courts.14
– He is empowered to designate judges of appeal as vice-presidents of the Court of Appeal and to invite High Court judges to hear cases with the Court of Appeal.15
– He selects the members and chairman of the Law Society’s inquiry panel, which handles complaints against practising advocates. (He personally handles the disciplining of non-practising advocates, solicitors and legal officers).16
– He serves on the committee that confers the distinction of “senior counsel” on eminent advocates.17
– Outside the court system, he nominates one of the six members of the Council of Presidential Advisers for a renewable six-year term.18

Other responsibilities
The chief justice serves on various bodies in an official capacity:

– He heads the Legal Service Commission, which oversees appointments to civil service jobs requiring legal qualifications.19
– He is president of the Singapore Academy of Law’s Senate.20
–The chief justice typically chairs the Presidential Committee for Minority Rights. The chairmanship is renewed triennially.21

Special duties
– Should a dispute arise over a presidential election, the chief justice hears the case or names another judge to do so.22

– If Parliament wishes to remove a president from office, the chief justice appoints and serves on a judicial panel to recommend whether the members of Parliament can proceed with his removal.23

In 2008, Chan Sek Keong became the first chief justice of any country to appear before the International Court of Justice when he was part of Singapore’s legal team in the Pedra Branca case. He had taken up the Pedra Branca case as the attorney-general in 1994; after his promotion to chief justice in 2006, the government decided to keep him on the team due to his extensive knowledge and experience on the case.24

Evolution of the office
The position of chief justice of the Straits Settlements was created from the role of Recorder under the Judicial Duties Act of 1867, making the then Recorder of Singapore, Peter Benson Maxwell, the first chief justice of the Straits Settlements. When Singapore became a separate colony with the resumption of civilian rule in 1946 after World War II, the Supreme Court of Singapore was established. Its first three chief justices were colonial officials who had served elsewhere in the British Empire. In 1963, Wee Chong Jin became the first Asian, as well as the first member of the Singapore Bar, to reach this position.25

Judicial union with Malaysia
After the Federation of Malaysia was formed in 1963 with the merger of Singapore and the Federation of Malaya, North Borneo and Sarawak, Wee became chief justice of the High Court of Malaysia in Singapore. He was a member of the Federal Court, the new federation’s highest court, alongside his counterparts from Malaya and Borneo, two other federal judges and the Lord President as chairman, although only three to five sat at once.26 The arrangement proved somewhat uneasy, as there was a lot of friction between Wee and the Lord President.27 Singapore became independent in 1965, but the countries’ legal systems remained united until the Supreme Court of Singapore was re-established with the passing of the Supreme Court of Judicature Act in 1969.28

Later developments
Wee occasionally served as acting president during presidential illnesses or vacancies, but the drafters of the Constitutional Amendment of 1991 creating an elected presidency felt that this arrangement could create conflicts of interest.29 The resulting procedure for filling presidential vacancies, while not explicitly precluding a current or former chief justice from doing so under certain circumstances, was designed to prevent a similar occurrence.30

Wee was succeeded by Yong Pung How, who came to the bench after a long and successful career in the private sector.31 With his business experience and outsider’s perspective, Yong was conscious of the need to reform the courts and well qualified to deliver a better legal service to the public.32 The extensive reforms he implemented transformed a High Court burdened with a six-year backlog of some 2000 cases into one of the most efficient in the world.33 The 1990s also saw a reformatting of the existing appellate court – composed of the Court of Appeal and the Court of Criminal Appeal – into a single Court of Appeal for both civil and criminal appeals.34 The Court of Appeal became Singapore’s final appellate court, and all rights of appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council were abolished.35

Chief justices36
Charles Murray-Aynesley

1955–1958: John Whyatt
1959–1963: Alan Rose
1963–1990: Wee Chong Jin
1990–2006: Yong Pung How
2006–2012: Chan Sek Keong
2012–present: Sundaresh Menon


Duncan Sutherland

1. “Structure of the Courts,” Supreme Court Singapore, accessed 19 April 2017.
2. “Justices,” Supreme Court Singapore, accessed 29 May 2017.
3. Kevin Y. L. Tan, An Introduction to Singapore’s Constitution (Singapore: Talisman, 2005), 24–26. (Call no. RSING 342.595702 TAN)
4. Chao Hick Tin and Koh Juat Jong, Speeches and Judgements of Chief Justice Yong Pung How, vol. 1 (Singapore: SNP Reference, 2006), 17. (Call no. RSING 347.595703534 YON)
5. Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, 2020, rev. ed. Singapore Statues Online, section 95 (2).
6. Wee Teck Hian, “Chief Justice for Another Three Years,” Today, 14 April 2009, 10; K. C. Vijayan and Tham Yuen-C, “Legal Community Gives Retiring CJ a Rousing Farewell… and a Birthday Cake,” Straits Times, 6 November 2012, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, Singapore Statutes Online.
8. State Courts Act 1970, 2020 rev. ed., Singapore Statutes Online, section 54B–C.  
9. Kevin Y. L. Tan, ed., The Singapore Legal System (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1999), 255. (Call no. RSING 349.5957 SIN)
10. “Magistrate’s Appeal,” Supreme Court Singapore, accessed 11 April 2017.
11. Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, Singapore Statutes Online.
12. Tan, An Introduction to Singapore’s Constitution, 126; Chao and Koh, Speeches and Judgements, 28–29.
13. Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, Singapore Statutes Online, section 95.
14. Chao and Koh, Speeches and Judgements, 24, 29.
15. Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, Singapore Statutes Online, section 94(6)(b).
16. Tan, Singapore Legal System, 379.
17. “Senior Counsel,” Singapore Academy of Law, accessed 18 April 2017.
18. “Council of Presidential Advisers,” President’s Office, Singapore, accessed 8 April 2017.
19. Chao and Koh, Speeches and Judgements, 35.
20. “Senate & Committees,” Singapore Academy of Law, accessed 18 April 2017
21. Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, Singapore Statutes Online, section 69(1)(a)
22. Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, Singapore Statutes Online, section 93A.
23. Parliament of Singapore, Report of the Select Committee on the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment no. 3) Bill (Bill no. 23/90) (Singapore: Singapore National Printers, 1990), xvii, E.19. (Call no. RSING 342.595703 SIN)
24. S. Jayakumar and Tommy Koh, Pedra Branca: The Road to the World Court (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009), 54–55. (Call no. RSING 341.448095957 JAY)
25. “Judicial History,” Supreme Court Singapore, accessed 21 February 2016.
26. “Federal Court of Malaysia Opens on Tuesday,” Straits Times, 29 September 1963, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
27. Wee Chong Jin, oral history interview by Elisabeth Eber-Chan, 15 November 1994, transcript and MP3 audio, 31:28, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 001629 – 6), 70–75.
28. Supreme Court Singapore, “Judicial History”; Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1969, 2020 rev. ed., Singapore Statutes Online, Legistative History.  
29. Huang Jianli, “The Head of State in Singapore: An Historical Perspective,” in Managing Political Change in Singapore: The Elected Presidency, ed. Kevin Tan and Lam Peng Er (London: Routledge, 1997), 23 (Call no. RSING 320.95957 MAN); Parliament of Singapore, Report of the Select Committee, xviii, E19.
30. Parliament of Singapore, Report of the Select Committee, xviii, E19.
31. Christie Loh, “Era Ends as CJ Steps Down,” Today, 1 April 2006, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
32. Waleed Haider Malik, Judiciary Led Reforms in Singapore: Framework, Strategies and Lessons (Washington, DC: The World Bank, 2007), 62. (Call no. RSING 340.3095957 MAL)
33. Loh, “Era Ends as CJ Steps Down”; Chan Sek Keong, “Overcoming Backlogs: Speech to the 12th Conference of Chief Justices of Asia-Pacific,” assessed 17 April 2017; Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story 1965–2000 (Singapore: Times Editions, 2000), 248–9. (Call no. RSING 959.57092 LEE-HIS])
34. Supreme Court Singapore, “Judicial History.”
35. Chao and Koh, Speeches and Judgements, 20.
36. “Judges of the Past,” Supreme Court Singapore, accessed 20 April 2017.

The information in this article is valid as of 2017 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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