How Long Is Life Imprisonment in Singapore? And Other FAQs

Last updated on February 1, 2021

man holding onto jail cell bars

A term of life imprisonment is one of the sentences that an offender can receive by the High Court for committing a serious offence. What exactly is a sentence of life imprisonment, and what are the offences for which an offender can be sentenced to life imprisonment?

In this article, we will answer frequently asked questions about life imprisonment in Singapore, such as:

What is Life Imprisonment?

Life imprisonment is a sentence of imprisonment for prescribed criminal offences where the convicted offender is sentenced to remain in prison for the rest of their natural life.

A sentence of life imprisonment is usually reserved for offences that are more serious in nature (e.g. where there is severe physical harm to the victim, for example, grievous injury or death is caused).

Although life imprisonment calls for an offender to be imprisoned for the duration of their natural life, remission orders, more commonly known as parole, may be made for offenders who have been sentenced to life imprisonment.

Such orders allow the offender to be released from prison at an earlier date, but they are subject to certain conditions. These conditions will be explained in further detail below.

What are the Offences for which an Offender Can be Sentenced to Life Imprisonment in Singapore?

The Penal Code sets out the various offences for which an offender may be sentenced to life imprisonment. These include:

  • Culpable homicide not amounting to murder (Section 299, Penal Code)
  • Abetting the suicide or attempted suicide of a minor or a person who lacks mental capacity (Section 305, Penal Code)
  • Voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means (Section 326, Penal Code)
  • Gang robbery with murder (Section 396, Penal Code).

Under What Circumstances Can an Offender be Sentenced to Life Imprisonment Instead of Receiving Other Penalties for an Offence? 

There have been cases where an offender has been sentenced to life imprisonment instead of the death penalty for the offences that had been committed.

At the same time, for offences that carry a possible term of life imprisonment, there are also other penalties that the offender may be sentenced to instead. For example, under section 304(a) of the Penal Code, an offender who is convicted of culpable homicide not amounting to murder shall be punished with either imprisonment for life and caning, or imprisonment for a term of up to 20 years and be liable to a fine or caning.

Generally, the court will consider the factual circumstances and evidence in each case, and the available sentencing options that would apply, in deciding what would be the most appropriate penalty to be given to an offender.

Below are some case studies of cases where the offenders, who had committed serious offences, were sentenced to life imprisonment.

In 2013, a 23-year-old National Serviceman who had stabbed his victim to death was sentenced to life imprisonment for culpable homicide not amounting to murder. The offender was found to be suffering from an adjustment disorder with depressed mood as a result of stress from serving National Service. His charge was reduced from murder to culpable homicide, and he had pleaded guilty to the charge of culpable homicide.

In another case, in 2019, a 51-year-old laundry shop manager who had strangled his lover in his car and subsequently burned her body, was sentenced to life imprisonment. In sentencing the offender, the High Court noted that the case did not warrant the imposition of the death penalty, which is typically imposed in cases where the offender is found to have exhibited viciousness or a blatant disregard for human life. Instead, the evidence in the case did not show that the offender had planned to kill the victim.

Do note that under section 315(2) of the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC), a woman convicted of an offence that is punishable with death who is found to be pregnant will be sentenced to life imprisonment instead of death.

Can Children be Sentenced to Life Imprisonment in Singapore?

Currently, Singapore’s laws do not stipulate a minimum age for which a child or young person may be sentenced to life imprisonment in Singapore. Nevertheless, there are legislative provisions which set out restrictions on the punishment by law of children and young persons.

Section 37 of the Children and Young Persons Act (CYPA) provides that a child below the age of 14 years shall not be sentenced to be imprisoned for any offence.

A young person who is 14 years of age or older but below 16 years of age, shall likewise not be ordered to be imprisoned for any offence, unless the court certifies that the offender’s character is such that he or she cannot be detained in a place of detention or a juvenile rehabilitation centre. These laws imply that such young offenders cannot be sentenced to life imprisonment either.

However, if a child or young person is convicted of a very serious crime that potentially requires a sentence of life imprisonment, such as culpable homicide not amounting to murder, and the court is of the opinion that there is no suitable sentencing option but to sentence the offender to life imprisonment, section 38 of the CYPA provides that the offender may be detained for a period of time as specified in the sentence.

This means that the offender may be detained for the remainder of his life in a place and on such conditions as directed by the authorities, and may at any time be released by the authorities on licence.

Do also note that under section 314 of the CPC the court will sentence an offender, who was below the age of 18 years at the time the offence was committed, to life imprisonment instead of a sentence of death (if the offence committed calls for the death penalty).

A case in point is the infamous Anthony Ler case, where Anthony Ler had instigated a group of teenagers to kill his estranged wife. The youngest of the group had agreed to do so and carried out the deed.

Although the then-15-year old teenager was found guilty of murder, he was spared the death penalty and detained indefinitely at the President’s pleasure. In November 2018, President Halimah Yacob granted his petition for clemency on the advice of the Cabinet, after he had served about 17 years in prison.

How Can an Offender Sentenced to Life Imprisonment be Released on Parole?

Where the offender sentenced to life imprisonment has served at least 20 years of his sentence, the authorities will review the prisoner’s case. At their discretion, they may direct the Commissioner of Prisons to make a remission order to release the offender from prison early.

Offenders who are released under a remission order must ensure that they adhere strictly to the following conditions:

  • They must not commit any offence while the remission order is in effect; and
  • They must not be convicted of that offence and sentenced to any of the following:

If an offender is unsuccessful in obtaining a remission order immediately after serving at least 20 years of his sentence, his case can still be reviewed periodically to assess if he is eligible for parole.

For more information on remission orders, you may refer to our article on parole.

What If an Offender has been Sentenced to Serve Consecutive Terms of Imprisonment (Apart from Life Imprisonment)?

Suppose X has been sentenced by the High Court to 2 years’ imprisonment for offence A, 3 years’ imprisonment for offence B, and life imprisonment for offence C.

Under section 307(2) of the CPC, the other sentences of imprisonment for offences A and B will run concurrently with the sentence of life imprisonment. This means that the sentences for the three offences will overlap, and X will be taken to serve the sentences for offences A and B together with the sentence of life imprisonment for offence C.

However, if on appeal, the Court of Appeal sets aside or reduces the sentence of life imprisonment to any shorter term of imprisonment, then the Court of Appeal may order any of the other sentences of imprisonment – that is, the sentences for offence A and offence B – to run consecutively, under section 307(1) of the CPC.

This means that the sentences for the offences committed by X will run one after the other. So, X will first serve the 2 years’ imprisonment for offence A, followed by 3 years’ imprisonment for offence B. If the sentence of life imprisonment is set aside, then X will serve a total of 5 years’ imprisonment.

On the other hand, if the sentence of life imprisonment is reduced to 10 years’ imprisonment for offence C, then X will serve a total of 15 years’ imprisonment for the three offences.

Offences which carry the possibility of a sentence of life imprisonment are very serious. If you have been charged with committing such an offence in Singapore, you are strongly encouraged to seek legal representation.

A criminal defence lawyer can help you navigate and understand the laws and legal processes involved, whether you wish to plead guilty or claim trial against the charge.

You may consult one of our criminal defence lawyers for legal advice on how to proceed with your case.

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