Freedom in the World
The long rule of the People’s Action Party (PAP) was perpetuated by the results of general elections held in early May 2006. The party retained the same number of seats in Parliament, although the opposition made a stronger showing than in past elections. While peaceful, the balloting reflected the extent to which opposition candidates remain disadvantaged. Freedom of the press and freedom of association were further compromised by the extension of regulations on foreign media in August and the government’s heavy-handed approach to civil society activism surrounding World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings in September.
Singapore, located along major shipping routes in Southeast Asia, was established as a British trading center in 1819 and eventually became a separate British colony. Occupied by the Japanese during World War II, the city-state became self-governing in 1959, entered the Malaysian Federation in 1963, and gained full independence in 1965. Under Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) transformed the port city into a regional financial center and an exporter of high-technology goods. At the same time, Lee restricted individual freedoms and stunted political development.
In 1990, Lee handed power over to Goh Chok Tong, who largely continued his conservative policies and kept the PAP dominant in Parliament. In the 10 general elections that have been held since independence, the PAP has never won less than 95 percent of the parliamentary seats, and in recent years a large number of PAP candidates have run unopposed.
In the November 2001 elections, the PAP received 75 percent of the vote and captured 82 of Parliament’s 84 seats. Opposition parties contested only 29 seats. Veteran opposition politician J. B. Jeyaretnam of the Workers’ Party was barred from running. Judicial authorities also declared him bankrupt for being a day late in paying an installment on a damages award to PAP politicians who had successfully sued him for defamation. In 2004, opposition politician Chee Soon Juan found himself in a similar predicament when he failed to fend off a defamation lawsuit brought against him by two leaders of the PAP.
Lee Hsien Loong, the son of Lee Kuan Yew, became Singapore’s prime minister in August 2004 as part of a planned transfer of power. His inauguration ended the 14-year tenure of Goh Chok Tong, but he has done little to change the country’s political climate. Although he made concerted efforts to appear more approachable, Lee is still regarded as being more conservative and potentially more authoritarian than his predecessor.
In September 2005, President Sellapan Ramanathan (S R Nathan) was sworn in for a second term as Singapore’s largely ceremonial head of state. He was reinstalled unopposed after authorities judged all three of his potential challengers to be unfit for office.
While not obligated to hold elections until 2007, Lee called a general election in May 2006 to secure a mandate for his economic reform agenda, since he had effectively inherited his office. In the months ahead of the announcement, a series of moves by the government suggested that elections were imminent. The electoral rolls were prepared in February, redrawn electoral boundaries were unveiled in March, and the PAP named its candidates in April. However, the fact that the prime minister has the power to call elections at any time resulted in a campaign period of just nine days for the opposition parties. Elections continued to serve more as a referendum on the prime minister’s popularity than as an actual contest for power, with opposition candidates hampered by defamation lawsuits and lack of fair access to a government-dominated media.
The May 2006 elections brought no significant change to the PAP’s firm grip on power, with the party ultimately retaining its 82 out of 84 elected seats in Parliament. Still, the opposition made some progress by contesting more than half of the seats, meaning the PAP was not automatically returned to power on nomination day. The opposition also secured 33 percent of the vote, compared with 25 percent in the 2001 elections. Moreover, for the first time, the PAP came close to losing a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) in Aljunied, where the Workers’ Party—the opposition party that made the greatest showing—secured 44 percent of the vote. Nevertheless, the 66 percent support secured by the PAP overall enhanced the standing of the prime minister and secured his mandate, effectively reducing the chances for political reform in the near term.
Also in 2006, new restrictions were imposed on foreign media following a July interview of Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) leader Chee Soon Juan in the Far Eastern Economic Review . The article referred to Chee as a “martyr” and included his criticism of the prime minister, who then, along with his father, sued the publication for libel. The government subsequently banned it in September for failing to comply with media regulations. The country’s lack of freedom of association was also brought to light in September when Singapore hosted the annual International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank meetings. The government prohibited all protests related to the meetings and even warned civil society activists that they would be caned, claiming that such measures were necessary to prevent terrorist attacks. A three-day stand-off between Chee and the police developed when the opposition leader tried to march to the meetings in protest of Singapore’s restrictions on free speech. More broadly, the government continued to invoke security concerns to justify its firm restrictions on social freedoms during the year.
A recent economic acceleration continued in 2006, with gross domestic product (GDP) growth in the third quarter in particular far surpassing consensus expectations. There was also a notable increase in both domestic demand and exports. GDP growth rates reached 7.9 percent for the year as a whole.
In January, the government’s investment arm, Temasek Holdings, bought Shin Corp., a Thailand-based telecommunications and media company previously owned by then-Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, for $1.9 billion. The highly controversial transaction strained relations between the two countries throughout the year and provoked public protests in Thailand in the spring. The protesters were infuriated that the Singapore government had gained control of critical Thai assets and allowed Thaksin’s family to avoid paying taxes on the sale. Prime Minister Lee came out in defense of Temasek in October, maintaining that it did not violate any Thai laws.
Singapore’s most important foreign relationships remained those with the United States and neighboring Malaysia. Ties with Malaysia, traditionally strained, have generally improved since the accession of new figures to political leadership in both countries (in Malaysia, Abdullah bin Ahmad Badawi had replaced Mahathir Mohamed as prime minister in October 2003). In April 2006, the Malaysian government announced that it was abandoning plans, adopted under Mahathir, to build a new bridge across the Johor Strait between the two countries. The bridge had previously been advocated by Malaysia and opposed to some extent by Singapore; the change in course might suggest an effort by Malaysia to secure other concessions from Singapore.
Singapore is not an electoral democracy. The 1959 constitution created a parliamentary system of government, and periodic elections are held on the basis of compulsory universal suffrage. In practice, however, the ruling PAP dominates the government and the political process, using a variety of methods to handicap opposition parties.
The largely ceremonial president—currently S R Nathan—is the head of state, elected by popular vote for six-year terms; a constitutionally mandated committee is empowered to vet presidential candidates. The prime minister, the head of government, is not chosen through elections; like the cabinet, the prime minister is appointed by the president. Singapore has had only three prime ministers since it gained independence in 1965. Lee Kuan Yew governed for 31 years, after which he appointed Goh Chok Tong as his successor. Goh named Lee’s eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, deputy prime minister in 2003, and the younger Lee assumed the post of prime minister in August 2004.
The legislature is a unicameral parliament with 84 elected members. The PAP currently holds 82 elected seats, and two are held by opposition party members (the Workers’ Party holds one and the Singapore Democratic Alliance, or SDA, holds one). Nine of the 84 are directly elected from single-member constituencies, while 75 are elected in GRCs, a mechanism established in 1988 to help foster minority representation in the ethnic Chinese–dominated country. Up to nine additional, nonpartisan members can be appointed by the president, and up to three members can be appointed from among opposition parties to ensure a minimum of opposition representation. The PAP received 66 percent of the vote in the May 2006 parliamentary elections, while among the main opposition parties, the Worker’s Party received 16.3 percent, the SDA received 13 percent, and the SDP took 4.1 percent.
Though general elections are free from irregularities and vote rigging, the PAP’s manipulation of the political system and the significant disadvantages experienced by opposition candidates mean that they cannot be termed fair. Opposition parties are constrained by a ban on political films and televised programs; expressions of political opinion are curtailed by the threat of libel or slander suits; there are strict regulations and limitations on associations, including political associations; and the PAP’s influence on the media and in the courts remains strong. The net result is that opposition efforts to attain power are effectively futile.
The run-up to the May 2006 elections generally reflected these conditions, with the PAP widely expected to retain its hold on power and the opposition severely constrained by a short campaign period. The prime minister officially called the elections nine days prior to the actual balloting, preventing voters from learning about their candidates, and electoral boundaries were redrawn just weeks before the voting, preventing candidates from establishing themselves in their constituencies. Commentators noted that the mechanics of voting—in assigned lines and with serialized ballots—left voters generally unconvinced that the process was secret and thus afraid to vote as they pleased.
A progovernment media environment forced opposition parties to resort to the internet for campaigning, but the PAP’s hard-line campaign tactics extended to that realm as well when the Elections Department ordered the SDP to remove a podcast that allegedly violated campaign advertising rules. Other typical PAP tactics were employed, including the party’s notorious use of defamation lawsuits to bankrupt leading opposition candidates. For example, James Gomez, a Workers’ Party candidate credited with driving the opposition’s use of the internet as a tool for mobilization, was specifically targeted. The PAP also brought legal actions against SDP leader Chee Soon Juan and 11 other SDP central committee members on the day after the election was called.
The winner-take-all nature of the GRC system meant that the opposition failed to gain any additional seats in Parliament despite securing a greater percentage of the popular vote than in the past. The system also limits the extent to which GRCs actually facilitate minority representation and, in effect, helps perpetuate the return of incumbents. The prime minister retains control over the Elections Department, and the country lacks a structurally independent election authority. Twenty-two women contested the 2006 elections, and overseas voting was allowed.
The government is known for its transparency and relative lack of corruption. There is no special legislation facilitating access to government information, but many government websites make such information available. Singapore was ranked 5 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Singapore’s press is somewhat freer than in the past, but the country’s media market remains tightly constrained, and the authorities clamped down particularly hard on the foreign press in 2006. Two companies own all of the newspapers in the city-state: one is government controlled, and the other has close ties to the government. Although editorials and news coverage generally support government policies, newspapers occasionally publish letters, columns, and editorials that are critical of the government. The U.S. State Department’s 2006 human rights report noted that there was a moderate level of debate in newspapers and on the internet on some public issues, such as rising income inequality and the role of foreign workers.
More generally, journalists face pressure from the ruling party not to oppose the government’s goals, leading them to practice self-censorship and avoid reporting on sensitive topics like alleged government corruption or nepotism, and the supposed complicity of the judiciary. All television channels and radio stations, except for the British Broadcasting Corporation’s World Service, are operated by government-linked companies. The Newspaper and Printing Presses Act allows authorities to restrict the circulation of any foreign periodical whose news coverage has been deemed to interfere in domestic politics, while the Broadcasting Act entitles the minister for information, communication, and the arts to place formal restrictions on any foreign broadcaster deemed to be engaging in domestic politics. The Sedition Act, in effect since the days of British colonial rule, makes it an offense to commit an act with “seditious tendency;” to utter seditious words; or to print, publish, or distribute seditious materials.
Foreign newspapers and magazines are available, although authorities can restrict their circulation if they carry articles that the government finds offensive. The government used those powers and launched several defamation suits against foreign news organizations in an effort to curb critical media in 2006. Its response to the Far Eastern Economic Review ’s July article on SDP leader Chee Soon Juan, perhaps the country’s most antagonistic opposition figure and a regular target of PAP attacks, garnered world attention. The prime minister and his father filed a civil defamation lawsuit against the publication in August, and in September, the government revoked the magazine’s right to distribute in the city-state when it failed to comply with new regulations on foreign media that were imposed in the wake of the July story. International media watchdogs largely interpreted the government’s new requirements that all foreign publications appoint legal representatives and provide significant financial deposits—regulations from which many foreign publications had been exempt—as a reaction to the Review ’s portrayal of Chee as a “martyr.” Ruling party members in Singapore regularly use defamation suits and the revoking of licenses to threaten, silence, and bankrupt political opponents and (especially foreign) critical media outlets. In another incident, the prime minister and his father teamed up in May to file criminal defamation charges against the politicians and company responsible for publishing the New Democrat , an opposition-run newspaper. On several occasions, publications apologized for critical statements or paid undisclosed amounts in damages for commentary perceived as negative or skeptical. While internet access is unrestricted in Singapore, all content is subject to the same regulations as traditional media, and the government closely monitored internet material, especially podcasts and blogs, during the run-up to the May 2006 elections. In April, the government prohibited the use of podcasts as campaign tools for these particular elections.
The government monitors and sometimes censors films, television programs, videos, music, books, and magazines, mainly for excessive amounts of sex, violence, and drug references, although all films with a political purpose are banned unless they are sponsored by the government. Officials in recent years have eased censorship restrictions on the arts, particularly plays, and the prime minister has vowed to make some moves in the direction of liberalization.
Singapore’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion as long as its practice does not violate any other state regulations, and Singaporeans of most faiths can worship freely. However, religious actions perceived as threats to racial or religious harmony are not tolerated, and the government has banned unconventional groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unification Church. Restrictions on the Jehovah’s Witnesses stem from the fact that the group’s roughly 2,000 members in Singapore refuse to perform compulsory military service. The 1966 Societies Act stipulates that all religious groups must register with the government.
Faculty members of public universities and political research institutions are not entirely free from government influence, since all such institutions have direct government links. The authorities prohibit public discussion of sensitive racial and religious issues and closely regulate political speech. While academics engage in political debate, their publications rarely deviate from the government line.
The government restricts freedom of association through the Societies Act, which includes a provision that permits only groups registered as political parties or associations to engage in organized political activities. The Societies Act covers most organizations of more than 10 people, and these groups must also register with the government. Singaporeans need police permits to hold public talks or make political speeches, and public assemblies of more than five people must have police approval. In 2005, the prime minister issued a decree stating that people no longer needed a permit for private, indoor gatherings as long as the topic of discussion was not race or religion. Freedom of association and assembly declined further in 2006, however, due to the government’s preparations for expected protests during the IMF and World Bank meetings hosted by Singapore in September. In what was portrayed as an effort to protect the city-state against the kinds of terrorist attacks that have occurred in other Southeast Asian countries, the government tightly regulated the activities of nongovernmental organizations and civil society groups in the period surrounding the meetings. It permitted foreign groups to participate in peaceful protests, but prohibited local groups from doing so. Authorities told 27 foreign activists accredited by the IMF and World Bank to attend the meetings that they would not be allowed entry to the country on security grounds. Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng reportedly threatened “severe punishment, including caning and imprisonment,” for violators of the country’s strict controls, garnering strong public criticism from World Bank head Paul Wolfowitz. Twenty-two foreign activists were ultimately allowed entry after significant pressure from the financial institutions.
A “Speaker’s Corner” is designated as the only area in the country where free public speaking is permitted. SDP leader Chee staged a three-day sit-in there after police stopped him from marching toward the venue of the IMF and World Bank meetings.
Unions with generally broad rights are permitted under the Trade Unions Act, albeit with some notable restrictions (government employees may not join unions, for example). Almost all unions are affiliated with the National Trade Union Congress, which freely acknowledges that its interests are closely aligned with those of the PAP. Collective bargaining is commonplace, and strikes are legal—except for workers in the water, gas, and electricity sectors—but rare. Singaporean families employ approximately 160,000 domestic workers, primarily from the Philippines, Indonesia, India, and Sri Lanka. They are excluded from the Singapore Employment Act, and are regularly exploited. A new standard contract for migrant domestic workers, established in 2006, addresses the problem of food deprivation and requires employers to allow replaced workers to seek other employment in Singapore rather than being immediately repatriated; however, according to Human Rights Watch, the contract fails to provide other basic worker protections, such as rest days and limits on recruitment fees.
The judiciary’s independence has been called into question by the government’s overwhelming success in court proceedings, particularly defamation suits against political opponents. It is not clear, however, whether the government pressures judges or simply appoints judges who share its conservative philosophy. Many judges have ties to the PAP and its leaders. Still, the judiciary is efficient, and defendants in criminal cases enjoy a presumption of innocence, the right to confront witnesses, and other due process rights.
The government generally respects citizens’ right to privacy. However, the issue is not specifically addressed in the constitution, and the Internal Security Act (ISA) and the Criminal Law Act (CLA) give the government the power to search a person or property without a warrant in the interest of preserving national security, public safety and order, and the public interest. The government can also detain suspects without trial under both laws. The ISA was previously applied against suspected Communist security threats, but the government has recently used the law to detain suspected Islamist terrorists. It allows authorities to detain suspects without charge or trial for an unlimited number of two-year periods. A 1989 constitutional amendment prohibits judicial review of the substantive grounds for detention under the ISA and of the constitutionality of the law itself. At year’s end, 26 suspected terrorists were held in detention. The government uses the CLA to detain mainly organized crime and drug-trafficking suspects; the act includes provisions for a one-year, extendable, preventive detention period. Meanwhile, the Misuse of Drugs Act allows authorities to commit suspected drug users, without trial, to rehabilitation centers for up to three years.
Security forces are not known to commit serious abuses. Police occasionally mistreat detainees, and the government has in recent years jailed officers convicted of such abuses. The penal code mandates caning, in addition to imprisonment, for about 30 offenses; it is discretionary for certain other crimes involving the use of force. Caning is reportedly common in practice. The U.S. State Department’s 2006 human rights report stated that Singaporean prisons are spartan, but generally within international standards.
The government actively promotes racial harmony and equity in Singapore’s diverse society, and there is no legal discrimination. Despite government efforts to boost their educational achievement, ethnic Malays have not on average reached the schooling and income levels of ethnic Chinese or ethnic Indians, and they reportedly face unofficial discrimination in private sector employment. All citizens enjoy freedom of movement, although the government occasionally infringes on citizens’ rights to choose their residence by enforcing its policy of ethnic balance in public housing, in which most Singaporeans live.
Women enjoy the same legal rights as men in most areas, and many are well educated and hold professional jobs. Relatively few women, however, hold top positions in government and the private sector. There are currently 19 female members of Parliament, including 17 out of the 84 elected members (all of whom are from the PAP), plus 2 nominated members.