How Do Singapore Courts Decide on the Right Punishment in Criminal Cases?

How Do Singapore Courts Decide on the Right Punishment in Criminal Cases?

Many of us have balked at the heavy sentences meted out in some cases involving offences which we consider minor. We also compare these sentences to similar cases where offenders were let off relatively lightly. We ask, ‘Why this sentence and not something lighter?’ Sometimes, it is only too easy to assume that the sentences given out are random and even arbitrary.

However, it is important to keep in mind that in Singapore, where the rule of law holds sway, judges do not mete out sentences in Singapore based on their whims and fancies, or undirected personal judgment or discretion. Sentencing in Singapore criminal law is based on clear principles which the judges have to adhere to. At the end of the day, each sentence must be fair and just.

In this article, we seek to discuss the principles behind all sentencing in criminal cases in Singapore and the types of sentences meted out.

What is a Sentence?

Every judge presiding over a criminal matter has to decide on 2 matters – is the alleged offender actually guilty of the offence (and to what degree), and what sentence does the alleged offender actually deserve. Sentencing is the second matter decided upon, and in many cases, separate arguments are mounted and additional hearings are held just to decide which sentence would be appropriate.

A sentence is thus the punishment a court imposes on an offender after a successful conviction has been secured by the prosecution.

The 4 Sentencing Principles

Each judge considers the following matters when deciding upon the appropriate sentence in a criminal matter:

  • The facts of the case – the harm or damage caused, the blameworthiness (culpability) of the offender, the seriousness of the crime, etc;
  • The arguments on sentencing mounted by both the prosecution and the defence;
  • The sentence laid out in the legislation regarding the offence (there is normally a range of punishments available to the judge); and
  • The sentencing guidelines and precedents laid out on earlier judgments.

Underpinning all of these are 4 key sentencing principles, to which the judge accords relative weights before deciding on the sentence.

The 4 key principles are as follows:

  • Deterrence: The sentence should deter the offender from re-offending, and deter others from committing the same offence.
  • Prevention: The sentence should prevent the offender from causing further harm (to himself, the victim, others and society as a whole).
  • Rehabilitation: The sentence should assist and encourage in the reformation of the offender (this principle is generally accorded more weight when the offender is below 21 years of age).
  • Proportionality: The sentence must fit the offence committed – both in terms of how serious the offence committed is, and how blameworthy the offender was for the commission of the offence.

Another Important Principle

Of late, there have been cases where there was public outcry over the perceived light sentences given out to certain individuals of educated or privileged backgrounds. Given the increasingly educated and rights-conscious nature of Singaporeans, this is only to be expected. After all, the law must treat all offenders equally before the law, regardless of status or educational qualifications.

Recent decisions show that the Singapore legal system and the judiciary are keenly aware of the important principle of equality before the law. In some cases, the judiciary has overturned sentencing judgments of lower courts in adherence to this principle. We welcome such developments, and are confident that they will be part of the rule of law for years to come.

Types of Sentences

The types of sentences normally meted out in Singapore criminal matters are as follows:

  • Imprisonment – the offender is deprived of his or her liberty and placed in a secure facility away from society.
  • Fine – the offender is made to pay money to the state for breaking the laws.
  • Caning – this applies to serious offences like rape and armed robbery.
  • Death Penalty – this life-ending punishment may only be imposed by the High Court or the Court of Appeal.
  • Community-Based Sentences – this a is a relatively new development in Singapore sentencing, promulgated in 2010. Considered more lenient than regular sentences, community-based sentences allow the offenders to lead a life without stigma, because their criminal records are spent (or wiped clean) once they successfully complete their community-based sentences. Do take note, however, that community-based sentencing is not available in certain situations and for certain offences. Community-Based Sentences may include one or more of the following:
    • Short Detention Order: The offender will be detained in prison for a period not exceeding 14 days. This is deterrent in nature as the offender will experience prison life. At the same time, the relatively short duration of incarceration, and the lack of a criminal record when the sentence is successfully completed, means that this order is less disruptive and stigmatising than an imprisonment term.
    • Day Reporting Order: This requires the offender to regularly report to a reporting centre for supervision and to undergo counselling and rehabilitation programmes, for a period between 3 and 12 months. The offender may also be electronically monitored via e-tagging and placed under curfew at home. This order aids in the rehabilitation of the offender as their progress is monitored closely.
    • Community Service Order: The offender will perform community service to make amends to the community.
    • Community Work Order: The offender will perform community work associated with the offence, to take responsibility for and acknowledge the harm caused by their offending.
    • Mandatory Treatment Order: If an offender suffers from a treatable psychiatric condition which contributed to the commission of the offence, the Court may order the offender to undergo psychiatric treatment for a period of up to 36 months.
  • Corrective Training / Preventive Detention – this is not considered imprisonment in the technical sense of the word, and usually involves long sentences imposed on recalcitrant offenders who commit serious offences. This punishment has a strong element of the prevention principle outlined above.
  • Probation – the offender is supervised by a probation officer for between 6 months to 3 years, and may include community service, electronic monitoring and curfews. This is more commonly chosen by judges for young offenders below the age of 21. Breaking of any probation rules may result in revocation of probation and re-sentencing.
  • Reformative Training – this applies to offenders below the age of 21. Offenders are detained in a Reformative Training Centre for a minimum period of 6 or 12 months, followed by supervision in the community. The total period taken for detention and supervision may last up to 54 months.


We hope this article has shed some light on what judges consider before deciding on the appropriate sentence in criminal cases. At the end of the day, the judge is under a duty to balance the rights of the state, the society at large, and the victim against the rights of the accused to be punished only to the extent that he is guilty. This is never an easy exercise, and there may be situations where the wrong judgment, or overly rigorous punishment was meted out.

Whether you are facing criminal charges, or you are considering mounting an appeal against a sentence meted out to a loved one, IRB Law has a distinguished panel of specialist criminal lawyers to advise you appropriately.

Contact us today for advice on criminal matters. We are honoured to be of service.

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