The Meaning of Life Imprisonment in the Context of a Presidential Commutation Order

Siyuan CHEN, Singapore Management University


The Plaintiff had been convicted for murder with common intention and suffered to sentence death. The crime was committed in May 1996. He made a clemency petition and it was granted in April 1998 by President Ong Teng Cheong, who passed a commutation order for the plaintiff to be “imprisoned for life” instead. In November 2002, the Singapore Prison Service wrote to the Singapore Armed Forces, stating that the Plaintiff’s tentative date of release was 28 August 2011. This suggested that the Plaintiff’s sentence was not for imprisonment for his remaining natural life.

However, when the Plaintiff sought clarification from the Singapore Prison Service (who sought advice from the Attorney-General’s Chambers) and Minister for Law, he was told that “life imprisonment” as stated in the commutation order should be construed as imprisonment for his remaining natural life. He thus filed a criminal motion, seeking a declaration that his sentence, based on a proper interpretation of the commutation order, should be for 20 years instead.

To put matters in perspective, there had been a longstanding practice that “life imprisonment” meant 20 years’ imprisonment, with the possibility of remission. This only changed in August 1997, when the Court of Appeal in Abdul Nasir bin Ameh Hamsah v Public Prosecutor (“Abdul Nasir”) held that a term of “life imprisonment” ought to be accorded its natural and ordinary meaning, ie, imprisonment for the duration of the prisoner’s natural life. Notably, the Court of Appeal said that its ruling would only have prospective effect, in that it would affect “only those offences which carry a life sentence committed after the date of delivery of this judgment”; it added that “should the offence be committed before the date of this judgment, the old practice of 20 years imprisonment would continue to apply to those offenders.”