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Singapore's worst economic recession in more than three decades didn't stop the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) from routing the opposition in the November 2001 parliamentary elections. In power since independence in 1965, the PAP campaigned on the theme that no other party had the experience and skills to revive the economy. The opposition, meanwhile, criticized what it called the government's lax policy on foreign workers in a year that saw thousands of Singaporeans lose their jobs. With unemployment rising, exports plunging, and output falling, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's government boosted spending and eased monetary policy. However, Singapore's small, export-oriented economy is unlikely to be restored to health until demand for electronics goods picks up in the United States and other major trading partners.
Located along major shipping routes in Southeast Asia, Singapore became a British colony in 1867. Occupied by the Japanese during World War II, the city-state became self-governing in 1959, entered the Malaysian Federation in 1963, and became fully independent in 1965 under Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Under Lee, the PAP transformed a squalid port city into a technology hub and regional financial center while restricting individual freedoms.
The PAP won every seat in every election from 1968 to 1981, when the Workers' Party's J. B. Jeyaretnam won a seat in a by-election. Lee, now 78, handed power in 1990 to Goh Chok Tong, an economist by training. Goh, 60, has largely continued Lee's conservative policies and maintained the PAP's dominance in parliament. In the January 1997 elections, the PAP won 81 out of parliament's then 83 seats.
The nine-day campaign, however, featured a rare airing of diverse views on policy issues. Opposition calls for greater freedom of expression and criticism of rising costs of living seemed to resonate among young professionals. Goh responded by warning that neighborhoods voting against the PAP would be the lowest priority for upgrades of public housing estates, where some 85 percent of Singaporeans live.
During the campaign for the November 3, 2001, parliamentary elections, opposition parties criticized the government for not doing more to help Singaporeans hurt by the economic downturn. They called for a minimum wage and a policy of hiring locals before foreign workers. By some estimates, 750,000 of the four million people living in Singapore hold temporary work permits. Repeating a tactic from the 1997 election campaign, the PAP linked priority for public housing upgrades to support for the ruling party. Going one step further, Goh promised priority for any ward in Hougang, an opposition district, that gave more than 45 percent of its votes to the PAP. In the event, the PAP increased its vote share to 75 percent from 65 percent in 1997. Its victory was a foregone conclusion because opposition parties contested only 29 of parliament's 84 seats. The leftist Workers' Party and the centrist Singapore People's Party won one seat apiece.
Veteran opposition politician Jeyaretnam was barred from contesting the elections after the court of appeal in July declared him bankrupt for being a day late in paying an installment on a damages award to PAP politicians who had won a defamation suit. As a bankrupt, Jeyaretnam, 75, was thrown out of parliament, barred from practicing law, and prevented from running for office. The S$265,000 damages award stemmed from a 1995 article in the Workers' Party newsletter that described as "government stooges" eight people who had organized a Tamil cultural festival. Jeyaretnam estimates that in his four decades in opposition politics he has paid out more than S$1.5 million ($860,000) in damages and costs to PAP members and others, the Far Eastern Economic Review reported in September. The former Workers' Party head also said that he still owes more than S$500,000 in defamation judgment awards.
Goh has pledged to step down before the next elections, due in 2006. His heir apparent is one of Lee Kuan Yew's two sons, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. A brigadier general and the central bank chairman, Lee Hsien Loong, 49, has taken a leading role in recent years on banking liberalization and other financial policy matters.
Singapore's economy was hit hard in 2001 as recessions in the United States, Japan, and other key trading partners reduced demand for the city-state's computer chips and other electronics exports. These make up about two-thirds of non-oil exports, which in turn account for 154 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Preliminary data showed that the economy shrank by an estimated 2.2 percent in 2001 after growing by 9.9 percent in 2000. As many as 25,000 Singaporeans lost their jobs during the year.
The government uses civil defamation laws, strict electoral rules, curbs on civil liberties, patronage, and its influence over Singapore's media to undermine the opposition's prospects in elections. Ordinary Singaporeans, meanwhile, are generally free to live, work, and socialize as they choose but face some restrictions on their rights to speak openly and enjoy arts and entertainment that are outside the mainstream.
The 1959 constitution vests executive power in a prime minister and created a parliament that is directly elected for a five-year term. Two amendments authorize the government to appoint additional members of parliament to ensure that the opposition has at least three seats. Separately, a 1993 amendment provided for direct presidential elections and gave the president budget-oversight powers and some authority over civil service appointments and internal security matters. The government has used a strict vetting process to prevent any real competition for the office. The current president, S. R. Nathan, 77, a PAP veteran and former ambassador, won the August 1999 election by default after the Presidential Election Commission barred three other candidates on the grounds that they lacked the requisite competence or integrity.
The PAP runs an efficient, competent, and largely corruption-free government and appears to enjoy genuine popular support. It chalks up its electoral success to its record of having built Singapore into a modern, wealthy society and, it says, the opposition's lack of credible candidates and ideas. Opposition parties, however, say that the playing field is uneven because of the government's control over the press and use of an array of laws to limit dissent.
Another factor holding back the opposition is its difficulty in fielding viable slates for parliament's multimember districts. Each Group Representation Constituency (GRC) has between three and six seats, and each GRC candidate slate must include at least one Malay, Tamil, or other ethnic minority candidate. The party with a plurality in the district wins all the seats. The current parliament has 15 GRCs and only 9 single-member districts. Moreover, the government requires candidates for all seats to pay deposits of S$13,000 (US $7,123) that are forfeited if the candidates don't win a certain percentage of votes.
Notwithstanding the difficulty posed by electoral rules, perhaps the most severe constraint on Singapore's opposition is the PAP's filing of civil defamation and other lawsuits against political foes. "The misuse of defamation suits by PAP leaders has contributed to a climate of self-censorship in Singapore," Amnesty International said the day before the November election. No PAP leader has ever lost a defamation suit against an opposition figure, the London-based group said. Courts have, however, reduced monetary damages in defamation suits and acquitted defendants in other types of cases. Outside observers have criticized many of the convictions. For example, Amnesty International has noted that a 1997 defamation conviction against Worker's Party leader Jeyaretnam was based on the alleged "innuendo" of his statement rather than on Jeyaretnam's actual words.
It is not clear whether the government pressures judges or simply appoints judges who share its conservative philosophy. In any case, government leaders' use of the courts against political opponents and critics and "consistent awards in favor of government plaintiffs" have "led to a perception that the judiciary reflects the views of the executive in politically sensitive cases," according to the U.S. State Department's February 2001 report on Singapore's human rights record in 2000. The president appoints supreme court judges on the recommendation of the prime minister with the advice of the chief justice. He appoints lower court judges on the recommendation of the chief justice. Chaired by the chief justice, the Legal Services Commission sets the terms of appointment for judges, many of whom have close ties to PAP leaders.
Faced with the government's record of suing critics, journalists sometimes refrain from publishing stories about alleged government corruption and nepotism or the supposed compliance of the judiciary, the U.S. State Department report said. Editorials and domestic news coverage tend to reflect the PAP's views. Some newspapers, however, are increasingly offering frank editorials, columns, and letters to the editor on political issues.
The government last filed serious legal charges against the media in the mid-1990s. A court fined two journalists and three economists under the Official Secrets Act in 1994 for publishing advance GDP figures. Courts also handed down contempt-of-court and libel rulings in 1995 against the International Herald Tribune and fined it $892,000. The government has not wielded the harsh Internal Security Act (ISA) against the press in recent years, but its broad provisions leave the press unclear about what may be published. The colonial-era ISA allows the government to restrict publications that incite violence, might arouse tensions among racial or religious groups, or might threaten national interests, national security, or public order.
Most journalists work for media outlets that are linked to the government. The privately held Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), which owns all general-circulation newspapers, has close ties to the PAP. By law, the government must approve the owners of key "management shares" in SPH. The government-linked Singapore International Media Pte, Ltd. operates all 4 free television stations and 10 of Singapore's 15 domestic radio stations. Four of the remaining 5 radio stations are run by government-affiliated agencies. Companies with close ties to the government also run Internet service providers and Singapore's cable television service.
Foreign newspapers and magazines are available, although authorities have at times temporarily restricted the circulations of Time, Far Eastern Economic Review, The Economist, and other foreign publications that carried articles on Singapore the government found offensive. The Newspaper and Printing Presses Act allows authorities to "gazette," or restrict circulation of, any foreign periodical that publishes an article allegedly interfering in domestic politics. The government censors films, television, videos, music, magazines, and books mainly for excessive amounts of sex, violence, and drug references. However, authorities have in recent years loosened some restrictions on the arts.
Though the government avidly promotes Internet use for shopping and other daily affairs, 1996 regulations forbid airing of information over the Internet that is against the "public interest" or "national harmony" or "offends against good taste or decency." In practice, authorities prevent access to some Internet sites, most of them pornographic. Several sites host forums for political chat.
The PAP government also prohibits public discussion of sensitive racial and religious issues and closely regulates public speech. Singaporeans must get police permits to hold public talks or make political speeches or else face fines of S$10,000 under the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act. Chee Soon Juan of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party served jail terms of 7 and 12 days in 1999 for making a pair of speeches without licenses in December 1998 and January 1999. Chee opted to serve the sentences rather than pay the fines. He alleged that on previous occasions authorities had denied or delayed granting him licenses until it was too late to make arrangements to speak. The only place where Singaporeans can make public speeches without licenses is "Speakers' Corner," which is located in a downtown park. Speakers, however, must register with the police at least 30 days in advance.
In one of the few public events since independence with anti-government undertones, some 2,000 people attended an April fundraising rally for the Workers' Party's Jeyaretnam. Police must approve any public assembly of more than five people.
The government has used the 1966 Societies Act to deny registration to groups it considers threats to public order. In recent years, however, authorities have allowed activists to set up several politically oriented nongovernmental groups, including Think Centre, a civil rights group. The act requires most organizations of more than ten people to be registered and restricts political activity to political parties. Despite this latter restriction, however, the PAP has close ties to seemingly nonpolitical associations such as neighborhood groups. Meanwhile, authorities generally prevent opposition parties from forming similar groups.
The government has not used the ISA to hold suspects on political charges since 1989, although it has detained at least six people under the act for alleged espionage since 1997. Most have been released. Historically used mainly against suspected Communist threats, the ISA allows authorities to detain suspects without charges or trials for an unlimited number of two-year periods. A 1989 constitutional amendment prohibits judicial review of the substantive grounds of detentions under the ISA and the constitutionality of the law. Another law allows the government to detain suspects without trials for renewable one-year periods, although the accused can appeal to the courts for their release. The government uses the Criminal Law Act to detain each year several hundred mainly organized crime or drug-trafficking suspects. Meanwhile, the Misuse of Drugs Act allows authorities to commit without trials suspected drug users to rehabilitation centers for up to three years. In any given year, several thousand people are in mandatory treatment and rehabilitation.
Police reportedly at times abuse detainees, the U.S. State Department report said. It added that courts have jailed several officers convicted of such abuses. Authorities use caning to punish some 30 offenses, including certain immigration violations.
Women are active in the professions but are underrepresented in government and politics. Singaporeans of most faiths can worship freely. Jehovah's Witnesses, however, are banned under the Societies Act from practicing their faith because of their refusal to serve in the military. The government also bars meetings of Jehovah's Witnesses and Unification Church members. The government actively promotes racial harmony and equity in a society where race riots between Malays and the majority Chinese killed scores of people in the late 1960s. Ethnic Malays, however, have not on average achieved the schooling and income levels of ethnic Chinese or Tamils and reportedly face unofficial discrimination in employment. Several government programs aim to boost educational achievement among Malay students.
Most unions are affiliated with the National Trade Unions Congress, which acknowledges freely that its interests are closely aligned with those of the PAP. The law prevents uniformed employees from joining unions. Around 15 percent of Singapore's workers are unionized. There have been no strikes since 1986, in part because labor shortages have helped employees secure regular wage increases and have given them a high degree of job mobility.