Academic journal article Washington International Law Journal

The Islamic Legal System in Singapore

Academic journal article Washington International Law Journal

The Islamic Legal System in Singapore

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

Unlike its larger neighbors-Indonesia and Malaysia-Singapore has a non-Muslim majority 1 The legal system nevertheless provides for a Muslim to be governed by Muslim law-at least in some areas of Islamic law2 Among Singaporeans today, a Muslim is in a unique legal position. Whereas Muslims stand together with other Singaporeans under article 12(1) of the Constitution of Singapore as being equal before the law,3 and thus come under the umbrella jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Singapore, they also have the privilege of invoking Islamic law when it comes to some matters of personal law. Furthermore, for other matters of personal law, Islamic law may apply to them automatically even if they do not choose to invoke it.4

II. The Evolving Role of Islamic Law in Singapore

The roots of Singapore's plural legal system can be traced back to when Singapore was a British colony.5 Until 1880, the British embraced a policy of laissez-faire with respect to Muslim ritual and Muslim personal law in Singapore.6 This was encapsulated in a set of rules promulgated by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1823 before he left Singapore: "In all cases regarding the ceremonies of religion and marriages and the rules of inheritance, the laws and custom of the Malays will be respected, where they shall not be in contrary to reason, justice or humanity."7 In keeping with this general principle, the Second Charter of Justice of 1826 contained a caveat that, while English Law was to be applied in Singapore, it could be modified to suit the religious beliefs and customs of the local inhabitants.8

Over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, laws governing Muslims in Singapore and the Straits Settlements more broadly developed out of a complex combination of judicial precedent and statutory intervention.9 Hawah v. Daud is the earliest reported judicial decision in which a court refused to apply British common law to Muslims in Singapore and instead applied what that court understood to be "Islamic law."10 In this case, the Court of Judicature of Prince of Wales Island, Singapore and Malacca modified the English common law rule under which a woman's property automatically became her husband's upon marriage, as she no longer possessed capacity to hold property, thus allowing Muslim women to retain the capacity of holding property in their own names upon marriage as well as entitling them to a share of property in the event of divorce.11

The subsequent enactment of the 1880 Mahomedan Marriage Ordinance in Singapore was a landmark in that "for the first time, the British colonial authorities officially recognized, through legislation, the status of Muslim personal law within the colony."12 This Ordinance formally provided for the registration of Muslim marriages and divorces and explicitly empowered the Governor of Singapore to appoint kathis or kadis (iqadis or Islamic judges) to facilitate the administration of Islam. 13 Important amendments were made to the Ordinance in 1908, 1923, and 1957-the last of which provided for the establishment of a separate Syariah14 Court of Singapore.15

When Singapore became an independent nation in 1965, it thus inherited a particular mode of integrating Islamic law into the law of the state-and of applying it to its Muslim population.16 It had the opportunity, however, to further evolve its method of regulating Muslim affairs and family law in a manner that was appropriate to Singapore's new situation. Article 153 of the Singapore Constitution provides that "the Legislature shall, by law, make provision for regulating Muslim religious affairs and for constituting a Council to advise the President [of Singapore] in matters relating to the Muslim religion."17

III. The Islamic Legal System in Contemporary Singapore

The 1966 Administration of Muslim Law Act ("AMLA") is the primary statute that sets out the provisions for regulating Muslim religious affairs and the framework of how Islamic law in Singapore is applied. …

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