Freedom in the World
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Lee Hsien Loong, the son of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, was sworn in as Singapore's new prime minister in August 2004, but he is not expected to alter significantly the government's current policies. Meanwhile, the country's economy rebounded during the year.
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 him, the ruling PAP transformed a squalid port city into a regional financial center and an exporter of high-tech goods. At the same time, Lee restricted individual freedoms and stunted political development.
In 1990, Lee Kuan Yew handed power to Goh Chok Tong, who largely continued Lee's conservative policies and kept the PAP dominant in parliament. In the nine general elections that have been held since independence, the PAP has never won fewer than 95 percent of parliamentary seats.
During the campaign for the last parliamentary elections, held in November 2001, opposition candidates criticized the government for not doing more to help Singaporeans hurt by the country's first recession since independence. The PAP campaigned on the theme that no other party had the skills and experience to revive the economy. Repeating a tactic from the 1997 election campaign, the PAP also linked priority for public housing upgrades to support for the ruling party. On election day, the PAP received 75 percent of the vote and won 82 of parliament's 84 seats. Opposition parties contested only 29 seats, with the leftist Workers' Party and centrist Singapore People's Party winning 1 seat apiece. Veteran opposition politician J.B. Jeyaretnam of the Workers' Party was barred from contesting the elections after the court of appeal declared him bankrupt for being one day late in paying an installment on a damages award to PAP politicians who had successfully sued him for defamation. As a bankrupt individual, Jeyaretnam was barred from practicing law, thrown out of parliament, and prevented from running for office.
Lee Hsien Loong, the son of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, became Singapore's new prime minister on August 12, 2004, as part of a planned handover of power. His inauguration ended the 14-year tenure of Goh Chok Tong, but he is not expected to alter significantly the government's current policies. His primary challenges will be maintaining Singapore's economic recovery and endearing himself to his electorate. Although he has made concerted efforts to appear more approachable, he is still regarded as being more conservative and potentially more authoritarian than his predecessor.
The economy rebounded strongly in 2004 after being hit hard in 2003 by the global economic downturn and the onset of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in Asia. It is expected to continue performing strongly, but factors such as continued high oil prices and rising global interest rates could undermine growth.
Singapore's most import foreign relations remain those with the United States and with neighboring Malaysia. Ties with Malaysia are expected to improve if only because of the accession to political leadership of new figures in both countries within the space of one year (in Malaysia, Abdullah Badawi replaced Mahathir Mohamad as prime minister in October 2003).
Citizens of Singapore cannot change their government democratically. Singapore's 1959 constitution created a parliamentary system of government and allowed for the right of citizens to change their government peacefully. Periodic elections are held on the basis of universal suffrage, and voting is compulsory. In practice, however, the ruling PAP dominates the government and the political process, and uses a variety of indirect methods to handicap opposition parties. The head of government is not chosen through elections; the prime minister, like the cabinet, 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 his successor. Goh named Lee's eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, deputy prime minister in 2003; the younger Lee acceded to the post of prime minister in August 2004. The legislature has just one house, with 94 members. Members of parliament are either elected (84 in the current parliament), appointed by opposition political parties (up to three members; there is one in the current parliament), or appointed by the president (nine in the current parliament).
Though general elections are free from irregularities and vote rigging, the PAP's manipulation of the political system means that they cannot be termed fair. Opposition parties are constrained by the ban on political films and televised programs; the curtailing of expressions of political opinion by the threat of libel or slander suits; strict regulations and limitations on associations, including political associations; and the PAP's influence of the media and in the courts, among other things. The net result is that there is no effective opposition. The ruling party is quick to counter that its success is due to its strong track record concerning the economy, as well as opposition parties' disorganization and lack of credible candidates and ideas.
The government is known for its transparency and its relative lack of corruption. Singapore was ranked 5 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Singapore's press is somewhat freer than in past years, although serious restrictions on freedom of speech and expression remain. Two companies own all newspapers in the city-state; one is government-controlled, and the other, though private, has close ties to the government. Although editorials and news coverage generally reflect governmental policies, newspapers increasingly are carrying letters, columns, and editorials critical of governmental policies. Journalists face pressure from the ruling party not to oppose the government's goals, and so often avoid reporting on sensitive topics, including alleged government corruption or nepotism or on the supposed compliance of the judiciary. All television channels and all radio stations, except for the BBC 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 allegedly interferes in domestic politics. Foreign newspapers and magazines are available, although authorities at times have restricted the circulation of foreign publications that carried articles that the government found offensive.
The government screens and sometimes censors films, television programs, videos, music, books, and magazines, mainly for excessive amounts of sex, violence, and drug references. The PAP has, however, loosened some restrictions on the arts in recent years, and the censorship boards' standards were developed taking into account the views of a citizen advisory panel. In any case, censorship of sex and violence has strong public support. The government controls the Internet by licensing Internet service providers, which filter and may even block material that the government considers objectionable.
Singaporeans of most faiths can worship freely, but meetings of Jehovah's Witnesses are banned because the group's roughly 2,000 members refuse to perform compulsory military service. Jehovah's Witnesses adherents can still practice their faith, however. The Societies Act stipulates that all religious groups 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 PAP prohibits public discussion of sensitive racial and religious issues and closely regulates political speech.
The government restricts freedom of association through the strict provisions of the 1966 Societies Act, including one 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 ten people, and these groups are required to register with the government. Singaporeans must get police permits to hold public talks or to make political speeches, and public assemblies of more than five people must receive police approval. The government has historically denied registration to groups it considered a threat to public order. In March, the police rejected an application for public lectures by a gay rights organization on the grounds that "the content was contrary to public interest."
Unions are permitted under the Trade Unions Act, and restrictions on their formation are relatively narrow (government employees may not join unions, for example). Almost all unions are affiliated with the National Trade Unions 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.
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. In any case, the judiciary is efficient, and in criminal cases, defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence and the right to confront witnesses and other due process rights.
The government generally respects citizens' right to privacy, but the issue is not specifically addressed in the constitution and the government does maintain the right to search a person or property without a warrant if it deems the search necessary to preserve evidence. The government is also believed to monitor telephone and Internet communications, though this is not confirmed.
The government has the power to detain suspects without trial under both the Internal Security Act (ISA) and the Criminal Law Act (CLA). The ISA historically has been applied mainly against suspected Communist security threats, but the government has recently used the law to detain suspected Islamic 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 of detentions under the ISA and of the constitutionality of the law itself.
The government uses the CLA to detain mainly organized crime and drug-trafficking suspects. Under the law, authorities may place a suspect in preventive detention for an initial one-year period, which the president can extend for additional one-year periods, subject to habeas corpus appeal to the courts. Meanwhile, the Misuse of Drugs Act allows authorities to commit without trial suspected drug users to rehabilitation centers for up to three years.
Security forces are not known to commit serious abuses. Police occasionally mistreat detainees, although 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.
The government actively promotes racial harmony and equity in Singapore's multiethnic society, and there is no legal discrimination. All citizens enjoy freedom of movement; however, the government occasionally infringes on citizens' right to choose housing by enforcing its policy of assuring ethnic balance in public housing, in which most Singaporeans live. Men can be conscripted for two years of compulsory military service upon turning 18. Despite government efforts to boost their educational achievement, ethnic Malays have not on average achieved the schooling and income levels of ethnic Chinese or Indians and reportedly face unofficial discrimination in private sector employment.
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.