The Straits Settlements Penal Code was enacted in 1871 by the British colonists to administer criminal justice in the Straits Settlements comprising Prince of Wales Island (Penang), Singapore and Malacca. The Code was practically a re-enactment of the Indian Penal Code which came into force in British India in 1862.
Prior to that, for most of the 19th century, the criminal law which applied in the Straits Settlements was that of the United Kingdom, insofar as local circumstances permitted. There was little doubt at the time that English common law crimes were recognised in these territories.
From 1852 to 1871, the law relating to criminal procedure in force in Singapore was found mainly in the Indian Criminal Procedure Act 1852 which was applicable because the Supreme Government of India had power to legislate for the Straits Settlements.
Owing to concerns regarding the applicability of English and Indian law in the local region, the Straits Settlements Penal Code was enacted. It came into operation on 16 September 1872.
After the enactment of the Straits Settlements Penal Code, the Indian Criminal Procedure Act 1852 was replaced by the Criminal Procedure Ordinance. However, in general, it continued to apply the English system of criminal procedure to the Straits Settlements Penal Code. This was subsequently found to be impracticable as the Straits Settlements Penal Code had done away with the division of crimes into felonies and misdemeanours. Accordingly, the Criminal Procedure Ordinance 1873 was passed to remedy the situation. The Ordinance also did away with the procedure for indictments in favour of charges for all criminal offences; and abolished the grand jury, and special and common juries.
A new Code of Criminal Procedure was enacted in 1902. The present Criminal Procedure Code was passed by the Legislative Council of the Colony of Singapore on 28 January 1955. All criminal offences under the Penal Code or other statutes are inquired into and tried according to the Criminal Procedure Code.
Dissolution of Straits Settlements
During World War II, the Japanese invaded Malaya and the Straits Settlements by landing in Kelantan on 8 December 1941. On 16 December 1941, Penang became the first Straits Settlement to fall into Japanese hands. Malacca fell on 15 January 1941 and Singapore fell on 15 February 1941, following the Battle of Singapore. The Straits Settlements, along with the rest of the Malay Peninsula, remained under Japanese occupation until the August 1945.
After the war, the Straits Settlements were dissolved with effect from 1 April 1946, with Singapore becoming a separate Crown colony (and ultimately an independent republic), while Penang and Malacca joined the new Malayan Union (a predecessor of modern-day Malaysia).
Section 377A (Outrages on decency) was added to the sub-title "Unnatural offences" in the Straits Settlements Penal Code in 1938. Both Sections were absorbed unchanged into the Singapore Penal Code when the latter was passed by Singapore's Legislative Council on 28 January 1955.
This article was written by Roy Tan.