Singapore | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Singapore's civil liberties rating improved from 5 to 4 due to modest increases in personal autonomy.


Singapore's worst economic recession in more than three decades failed to prevent the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) from once again routing the opposition in parliamentary elections held late last year. 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 government remained committed to aggressively fighting terrorism in 2002, with a further round of arrests of suspected al-Qaeda sympathizers taking place in August. It also continued to use the legal process to clamp down on critical opposition politicians.

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 technological hub and regional financial center. At the same time, he restricted 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 handed power in 1990 to Goh Chok Tong, who has largely continued Lee's conservative policies and maintained the PAP's dominance in parliament. Although the PAP swept the 1997 elections, the campaign featured a rare airing of diverse views on policy issues. 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 2001 parliamentary elections, opposition parties criticized the government for not doing more to help Singaporeans hurt by the economic downturn. Repeating a tactic from the 1997 election campaign, the PAP linked priority for public housing upgrades to support for the ruling party. In the event, the PAP increased its vote share to 75 percent of the popular vote. 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 1 seat apiece, while the PAP won 82 seats.

Veteran opposition politician Jeyaretnam was barred from contesting the 2001 elections after the court of appeal 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 was thrown out of parliament, barred from practicing law, and prevented from running for office. Two prominent opposition politicians, Chee Soon Juan and Gandhi Ambalam of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), refused to pay a fine for holding a rally in May 2002 and were briefly jailed in October. While Ambalam's family paid his fine, Chee opted to serve out a five-week sentence rather than pay the penalty.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

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 they 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 stipulates 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 provides for direct presidential elections and gives 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, 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 either 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 its 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 three to six seats, and each GRC candidate slate must include at least one 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 a deposit of US$13,000 (US$7,123) that is forfeited if the candidate does not 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 shortly before the November 2001 election. No PAP leader has ever lost a defamation suit against an opposition figure. In April, the BBC reported that opposition leader Chee Soon Juan was being sued for defamation for comments he made during last year's election campaign.

The media is also subject to governmental influence and restriction. 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. Government-affiliated agencies operate all domestic broadcast media. Companies with close ties to the government also run Internet service providers and Singapore's cable television service.

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 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 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.

Foreign newspapers and magazines are available, although authorities have at times restricted the circulations of Time, the Far Eastern Economic Review, The Economist, and other foreign publications that carried articles the government found offensive. The Newspaper and Printing Presses Act allows authorities to restrict the circulation of any foreign periodical that publishes an article allegedly interfering in domestic politics. Last year this provision was extended to cover foreign broadcast services as well.

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 that "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.

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 bans meetings of Jehovah's Witnesses and Unification Church members.

The PAP government 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 under the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act. Chee Soon Juan of the opposition SDP has served a number of jail terms in recent years for making speeches without the necessary license and refusing to pay the resulting fines. The only place where Singaporeans can make public speeches without a license is Speakers' Corner, which is located in a downtown park. Speakers, however, must register with the police at least 30 days in advance, and their speeches are recorded by the government and kept for six years. 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. The act requires most organizations of more than 10 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. In recent years, authorities have allowed activists to set up several nongovernmental civil society groups. However, Amnesty International reported that in 2001, two such groups that had been critical of the government--the Think Centre and the Open Singapore Centre--were re-classified as political associations. They thus became ineligible for foreign funding and were subjected to other restrictions.

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.

The president appoints Supreme Court justices on the recommendation of the prime minister with the advice 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. 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 report on Singapore's human rights record in 2001.

The government has not used the ISA to hold suspects on political charges since 1989. Historically used mainly against suspected Communist threats, the ISA 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 of detentions under the ISA and the constitutionality of the law. In December 2001, the authorities arrested 15 suspected terrorists under the provisions of the ISA (13 of whom remain under arrest), and during another sweep conducted in August, 21 members of the Jemaah Islamiyah group were detained on suspicion of having links with the al-Qaeda terrorist network. The government uses the Criminal Law Act to detain several hundred mainly organized-crime or drug-trafficking suspects each year. Meanwhile, the Misuse of Drugs Act allows authorities to commit without trial 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. 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 governmental programs aim to boost educational achievement among Malay students. In February, three Muslim schoolgirls were suspended from school after they defied a government ban on the wearing of headscarves during lessons. The BBC reported in September that authorities had barred a prominent Malaysian lawyer, representing the families of the girls in a lawsuit challenging the school uniform code, from working in Singapore.

Women enjoy the same legal rights as men in most areas, including civil liberties, employment, commercial activity, and education. They are active in the professions but remain underrepresented in government and politics.