Children's rights

How young can you be locked up in Southeast Asia?

The Philippines’ House this week approved a bill that would lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility to just 12 years, as the government bids to crack down on gangs using children for illegal activities. Here, we look at the laws in the rest of Southeast Asia to see how the Philippines compares

Written By:
January 24, 2019
How young can you be locked up in Southeast Asia?
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The Philippines

Philippines’ divisive President Rodrigo Duterte has backed a bill that would see the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) lowered from its current 15 years.

The original bill would have seen the age dropped to nine years, but at the last minute this was changed to 12 years and was subsequently approved by the House of Representatives on second reading.

House justice committee chairman Doy Leachon said in a statement that “this bill was brought about by the alarming increase in the number of criminal syndicates using minors to carry out criminal acts based on recent news reports.”

The bill has come under fire from a number of senators and human rights groups.

“This will only push [children] to further discrimination, abuse and eventually into more anti-social behaviour,” a statement from Save the Children read.

Senator Benigno “Bam” Aquino IV said in a statement that he doubts the bill, which still must be approved by the senate, will be sufficiently backed there. 

The current law in the Philippines stipulates that while the MACR is 15, children of ages 12 and over can be held in youth care centres for serious crimes such as rape or murder.


The MACR in Brunei is seven. Children over the age of seven but under 12 can only be held criminally responsible “where they have sufficient maturity of understanding to judge the nature and consequences of their actions at the time of the offence,” according to the Child Rights International Network (CRIN).

In 2014, Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah began a three-year introduction of a tough Islamic penal code which included punishments such as amputations, whippings, floggings and the death penalty, all of which could be applied to children over the age of seven. The law has yet to be fully implemented, although no reason has been given.


Children as young as 14 can be convicted of crimes in Cambodia. In 2016, the country’s first Juvenile Justice Law was introduced and was seen as a positive step in aiding children in conflict with the law. Before it was passed, children who had been convicted of crimes were typically treated as adults.  


In Indonesia the minimum age of criminal responsibility is eight. According to the country’s law on Juvenile Justice, children under eight years who commit a crime will be “subject to an examination by an investigator,” to determine if they are able to continue living with their parents. In 2012, a bill that would raise the age was proposed, but was never enacted.


Laos has one of the highest ages of criminal responsibility in the region at 15, the same age as the Philippines under its current law.


In Malaysia the MACR is ten, which is just below Southeast Asia’s average of 10.91.


In a similar case to Brunei, the MACR is seven, while children aged between seven and 12 may be held criminally responsible if they are deemed to have “attained sufficient maturity” to understand the committed crime. In 2006, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child noted the country’s intention to increase the age to ten, but no such amendment was made.


Singapore is another country in the region with a MACR of seven years. In September 2018, a proposal by the Penal Code Review Committee was made to increase the age to ten, in keeping with neighbouring Malaysia. The Committee also recommended that children above ten and below 12 years who are not sufficiently mature are not held accountable for crimes. The change is yet to occur.


In Thailand the age is also seven, but anyone under the age of 14 cannot be “punished”, and instead is “subjected to a number of sentences including detention in a school or place of training and instruction,” according to CRIN.


The small nation of Timor-Leste boasts the highest MACR in the region at 16. Before the country’s Penal Code came into force in 2009, the age was 12 years for a serious crime and 17 for a minor crime.


Vietnam’s MACR is 14, which is significantly higher than the global average of 11.79. Children between the ages of 14 and 16 – the age of majority in the country – can only be prosecuted on a case-by-case basis for particularly serious crimes.

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