Using Your Right to Self-Defence When Attacked in Singapore

Last updated on July 30, 2020

Man trying to attack girl, girl using hands to protect herself

Singapore is known for its relatively low crime rates which gives citizens and visitors a sense of safety and security.

Yet, the popular saying that “low crime doesn’t mean no crime” still holds true, and it remains important for individuals to know how they can defend themselves if they find themselves in a dangerous situation where they might fall victim to a crime.

This article will explain what you need to know about exercising your right of self-defence, also known as the right of private defence, in Singapore.

What is the Right of Private Defence?

The law on when individuals can exercise the right of private defence is set out in Chapter IVA of the Penal Code.

The right of private defence is a form of legal defence that can absolve, or excuse, a person of any legal liability, if that person hurt or killed another individual in order to defend himself or another person or his property against any offence.

When Can I Exercise My Right of Private Defence?

In relation to the circumstances surrounding the offence

While the right of private defence is available to all individuals, there are certain limitations on when and how this right can be exercised. These are set out in section 98 of the Penal Code, namely:

  • That any harm caused to the person who was committing the offence (the “offender”) must not be excessive in the circumstances. This means if the offender has been defeated or has stopped attacking or harming you, it is not reasonable for you to continue attacking him.
  • There must also have been no reasonable opportunity for you to seek protection from a public authority, such as the police (and therefore, you had to resort to your right of private defence).

To illustrate the latter, suppose X is ambushed by Y in a secluded area and Y attempts to kill X. In fending off Y’s attack, X kills Y. In this scenario, X would not be guilty of an offence as he was unable to seek protection from the public authorities.

However, X’s right of private defence would no longer exist if a police patrol car had arrived on the scene while Y was attempting to kill X, as X would then have had reasonable opportunity to seek help from the police.

The right of private defence also exists in cases of misconception. For example, A, enters a house at night which he is legally entitled to enter. B, in good faith, mistakes A for a housebreaker and attacks A.

In this scenario, B has not committed any offence. Similarly, A would also have the same right of private defence against B, even if B was not acting under the misconception that A was a housebreaker.

In relation to the (personal) circumstances surrounding the offender 

The right of private defence also exists under the following circumstances where the offender was:

  • Of unsound mind;
  • Intoxicated; or
  • Where the offence was committed by a child under 7 years of age or a child above 7 years of age and under 12, who is not mature enough to understand the nature and consequences of their actions.

In these cases, the offender would not have been found guilty of an offence by reason of the above characteristics. However, the person against whom the offence was being committed would still be entitled to exercise their right of private defence.

Moreover, under section 100 of the Penal Code, the right of private defence can apply even where there is a risk that an innocent person would be harmed or even killed if the right was exercised.

For example, an individual, B, is being attacked by a mob who attempt to murder him. The only way for B to exercise his right of private defence is by firing on the mob, but he risks harming a group of young children who are mingled with the mob. In this case, B’s right of private defence extends to him firing at the mob with the risk of harming the children.

Can I Exercise the Right of Private Defence If I Had Been the Aggressor?

The Singapore courts have held that if the defender was the initial aggressor, he or she is less likely to be successful in relying on the right of private defence.

Take for example the following scenario: D approaches V, grabs a baseball bat and waves it, shouting threats to kill V. To protect himself, V punches D in D’s stomach and grabs the bat.

As the aggressor in this scenario, it is unlikely that D can rely on the right of private defence if he in turn tries to defend himself against V’s exercise of private defence to protect himself.

Whether or not the initial aggressor can exercise the right of private defence would ultimately depend on the facts of the particular case. For example, D insults a t-shirt that V is wearing. V retrieves a gun and points it as if to shoot D. In this situation, D can exercise his right of private defence to prevent the shot and himself from getting killed.

Where There May Be No Right of Private Defence

Under section 106A of the Penal Code, there is generally no right of private defence against a public servant carrying out his duties in good faith.

However, the right would still exist if the individual did not know or had no reason to believe that the “offender” in such a case was in fact a public servant.

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What Can I Do Under the Right of Private Defence?

Defending yourself/another person

Under section 97(a) of the Penal Code, every individual has the right to defend himself or any other person, against any offence that could cause physical harm to the human body.

For example, X is ambushed in a lift by Y who is committing a robbery and holds a knife against X’s throat. In this illustration, X can exercise the right of private defence to fend off Y’s attack as he could have been physically harmed by Y.

Under section 101 of the Penal Code, the right of private defence of a body arises as soon as you believe that there is danger to you or any other person as a result of an offence being committed, or an attempt to commit the offence. The right continues as long as you believe that you or any other person remain in danger.

In certain circumstances, the individual can kill the offender when exercising the right of private defence. Section 102 of the Penal Code states that the right of private defence of body can extend to voluntarily causing the death of the offender if:

  • The individual is assaulted and reasonably believes that he/she will die or be grievously hurt as a result of the assault;
  • The assault is done with the intention of committing rape or other forms of non-consensual penile penetration;
  • The individual is being kidnapped;
  • The individual has been wrongfully confined and reasonably believes that he/she will have no opportunity for a recourse to a public authority for his/her release.

Defending property

Under section 97(b) of the Penal Code, the right of private defence can be exercised to defend your property, such as your car or house, against any offence, or an attempt to commit an offence, that falls under the definition of theft, robbery, mischief or criminal trespass.

For example, an individual who sees someone breaking into his car and attempting to steal it can exercise the right of private defence to defend his property i.e. his car, from being stolen.

Under section 104(1) of the Penal Code, the right of private defence of property arises when you reasonably believe that there is a danger posed to your property or that of another person, arising from the offences of theft, robbery, mischief, or criminal trespass.

How long does the right of private defence of property last?

Against theft The right of private defence continues until:

  • The offender has returned with the property that was stolen;
  • Help is obtained from a public authority (e.g. the police); or
  • The property has been recovered.
Against robbery The right of private defence continues so long as:

  • The offender causes or attempts to cause to any person death, hurt or wrongful restraint; or
  • If the fear of instant death, instant hurt or instant personal restraint continues.
Against criminal trespass or mischief The right of private defence continues as long as the offender continues to commit the offence of criminal trespass or mischief.
Against house-breaking The right of private defence continues as long as the house-breaking continues.

Under section 105 of the Penal Code, the right of private defence of property also extends, under certain restrictions, to the individual voluntarily causing the death of the offender in defending his property. However, this only applies where there is danger to the property or that of another person in any of the following circumstances:

  • In the case of a robbery;
  • Where the house-breaking occurs after 7pm and before 7am;
  • The offender sets fire to property where people are residing; or
  • Where the individual reasonably believes that death or grievous hurt will result from the theft, mischief or house-breaking if the right of private defence is not exercised.

If you have been charged with an offence in Singapore and want to know whether you may be able to rely on the right to private defence as a defence against the charge(s) you face, you should seek legal advice from a criminal lawyer.

You can get in touch with experienced criminal lawyers here.

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