Singapore | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2013

2013 Scores


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Freedom Rating
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Civil Liberties
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Political Rights
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In 2012, journalists, academics, and others gathered at Nanyang Technological University to discuss the question of reviewing the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act, of which participants were highly critical. The government created a Media Literacy Council in August to provide advice on media policy, though critics feared that the council would be use to restrict internet freedom. The opposition Workers’ Party of Singapore won a by-election in May by a large margin. In November, Singapore saw its first strike in more than two decades when over 100 public bus drivers walked off the job to protest wage discrimination.

The British colony of Singapore obtained home rule in 1959, entered the Malaysian Federation in 1963, and gained full independence in 1965. During three decades as prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew and his People’s Action Party (PAP) transformed the port city into a regional financial center and exporter of high-technology goods but restricted individual freedoms and stunted political development.

Lee transferred the premiership to Goh Chok Tong in 1990 but stayed on as “senior minister,” and the PAP retained its dominance. Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, became prime minister in 2004, and the elder Lee assumed the title of “minister mentor.” The 2006 parliamentary elections, in which the PAP took 82 of 84 elected seats, resembled past elections in serving more as a referendum on the prime minister’s popularity than as an actual contest for power, with both the electoral framework and the restrictive media environment favoring the ruling party.

Lee Hsien Loong continued to pursue economic growth while using the legal system and other tools to keep media criticism and the opposition in check. The government maintained that racial sensitivities and the threat of Islamist terrorism justified draconian restrictions on freedoms of speech and assembly, but such rules were repeatedly used to silence criticism of the authorities.

The May 2011 parliamentary elections featured a more vigorous and coordinated campaign effort by the opposition. Candidates ran for 82 of the 87 directly elected seats, the highest number since independence. The opposition Workers’ Party took an unprecedented six directly elected seats, plus two under a system that guarantees the opposition at least nine seats in Parliament. Another party, the Singapore People’s Party (SPP), was awarded the remaining seat allocated to the opposition. The PAP took 81 seats, even though it had secured only 60 percent of the overall vote. Shortly thereafter, Lee Kuan Yew resigned from his “minister mentor” position, ending over half a century in government.

The first contested presidential election since 1993 was held in August 2011, with all candidates running as independents in keeping with the constitution. Former deputy prime minister Tony Tan, the PAP-backed candidate, won with 35.2 percent of the vote, narrowly defeating three opponents. His closest challenger, former PAP lawmaker Tan Cheng Bock, took 34.9 percent, and the opposition-backed Tan Jee Say placed third with 25.1 percent. Businessman Tan Kin Lian, a former PAP district official, secured the remainder. The results confirmed the growing strength of the opposition, and the increased willingness of the electorate to vote against the ruling party. In a May 2012 by-election for the Hougang single-member constituency, Png Eng Huat of the Workers’ Party defeated the PAP candidate, 62 percent to 38 percent.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Singapore is not an electoral democracy. Elections are free from irregularities and vote rigging, but the ruling PAP dominates the political process. The country lacks an independent election authority. Opposition campaigns have typically been hamstrung by a ban on political films and television programs, the threat of libel suits, strict regulations on political associations, and the PAP’s influence on the media and the courts.

The largely ceremonial president is elected by popular vote for six-year terms, and a special committee is empowered to vet candidates. The prime minister and cabinet are appointed by the president. Singapore has had only three prime ministers since independence. Of the unicameral legislature’s 87 elected members, who serve five-year terms, 12 are elected from single-member constituencies, while 75 are elected in Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs), a mechanism intended to foster minority representation. Historically, the top-polling party in each GRC won all of its four to six seats, so the system effectively bolstered the majority of the dominant party. However, the 2011 election demonstrated that this system could be challenged. Notably, the opposition Workers’ Party captured a five-seat GRC in the May 2011 elections. As of 2012, up to nine members can be appointed from among leading opposition parties to ensure a minimum of opposition representation, up from three in previous years, though only three of these seats needed to be awarded in the latest elections. Up to nine additional, nonpartisan members can be appointed by the president.

Singapore has traditionally been lauded for its lack of corruption, though issues of transparency remain a concern. The country was ranked 5 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Singapore’s media remain tightly constrained. All domestic newspapers, radio stations, and television channels are owned by companies linked to the government. Although editorials and news coverage generally support state policies, newspapers occasionally publish critical pieces. Mainstream media offered more balanced coverage of the opposition ahead of the 2011 elections. Self-censorship is common among journalists. The Sedition Act, in effect since the colonial period, outlaws seditious speech, the distribution of seditious materials, and acts with “seditious tendency.” Popular videos, music, and books that reference sex, violence, or drugs are also subject to censorship. Foreign broadcasters and periodicals can be restricted for engaging in domestic politics, and all foreign publications must appoint legal representatives and provide significant financial deposits.

The internet is widely accessible, but authorities monitor online material and block some content through directives to licensed service providers. Singaporeans’ increased use of social-networking websites has sparked interest in social activism and opposition parties, contributing to opposition electoral gains in 2011. The enforcement of internet restrictions was eased in the run-up to the 2011 voting, allowing broader online discussion of political issues. A panel organized at Nanyang Technological University in the summer of 2012 brought together activists, journalists, and academics to discuss the question of reviewing the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act; panelists were largely critical of requirements such as shareholders of newspaper companies being appointed by the government and the government’s role in issuing permits for newspapers and magazines. In August, the government set up a 21-member Media Literacy Council, intended to provide advice on appropriate policy responses to the country’s increasingly complex media landscape. Critics criticized the council as a potential additional tool for restricting internet freedom.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion as long as its practice does not violate any other regulations, and most groups worship freely. However, religious actions perceived as threats to racial or religious harmony are not tolerated, and unconventional groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unification Church are banned. All religious groups are required to register with the government under the 1966 Societies Act. Adherents of the Falun Gong spiritual movement have been arrested and prosecuted on vandalism charges in recent years for displaying posters in a public park that detail the persecution of fellow practitioners in China.

All public universities and political research institutions have direct government links that exercise at least some influence. Academics engage in political debate, but their publications rarely deviate from the government line on matters related to Singapore.

Public assemblies must be approved by police. A 2009 law eliminated a previous threshold requiring permits for public assemblies of five or more people, meaning political events involving just one person could require official approval. Permits are not needed for indoor gatherings as long as the topic of discussion does not relate to race or religion. In the 2011 campaign period, opposition parties held rallies without significant interference.

The Societies Act restricts freedom of association by requiring most organizations of more than 10 people to register with the government, and the government enjoys full discretion to register or dissolve such groups. Only registered parties and associations may engage in organized political activity, and political speeches are tightly regulated. Singaporeans for Democracy, a civil society organization active in promoting greater political and civil rights, dissolved in August 2012, asserting that government rules and regulations had made their activities increasingly impossible; by dissolving the group, its leaders sought to call attention to the restrictive laws.

Unions are granted fairly broad rights under the Trade Unions Act, though restrictions include a ban on government employees joining unions. Union members are prohibited from voting on collective agreements negotiated by union representatives and employers. Strikes must be approved by a majority of a union’s members, as opposed to the internationally accepted standard of at least 50 percent of the members who vote. In practice, many restrictions are not applied. Nearly all unions are affiliated with the National Trade Union Congress, which is openly allied with the PAP. Singapore’s 180,000 household workers are excluded from the Employment Act and regularly exploited. A 2006 standard contract for foreign household workers addresses food deprivation and entitles replaced workers to seek other employment in Singapore, but it fails to provide other basic protections, such as vacation days. Workers in “essential services” are required to give 14 days’ notice to an employer before striking. In November 2012, Singapore saw its first strike in more than two decades when 171 migrant Chinese public bus drivers went on strike to protest wage discrimination. The action was regarded as illegal because public transportation is considered an essential service, and the strikers had not provided 14 days’ notice. Three of the strikers were dismissed from their jobs, 29 were deported, and one was sentenced to six weeks in prison.

The government’s overwhelming success in court cases raises questions about judicial independence, particularly because lawsuits against opposition politicians and parties often drive them into bankruptcy. It is unclear whether the government pressures judges or simply appoints those who share its conservative philosophy. Defendants in criminal cases enjoy most due process rights. Prisons generally meet international standards.

Citizens generally have the right to privacy, but the Internal Security Act (ISA) and Criminal Law Act (CLA) allow warrantless searches and arrests to preserve national security, order, and the public interest. Government agencies, including the Internal Security Department, conduct surveillance using extensive networks and sophisticated methods to monitor telephone and other private conversations. The ISA, previously aimed at communist threats, is now used against suspected Islamist terrorists. Suspects can be detained 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. The CLA is mainly used to detain organized crime suspects; it allows preventive detention for an extendable one-year period. The Misuse of Drugs Act empowers authorities to commit suspected drug users, without trial, to rehabilitation centers for up to three years. The penal code mandates caning, in addition to imprisonment, for about 30 offenses, though the punishment is applied inconsistently.

There is no legal racial discrimination, though ethnic Malays reportedly face discrimination in both private- and public-sector employment.

Citizens enjoy freedom of movement, though the government occasionally enforces its policy of ethnic balance in public housing, in which most Singaporeans live. Opposition politicians have been denied the right to travel.

Women enjoy the same legal rights as men on most issues, and many are well-educated professionals. There are no explicit constitutional guarantees of equal rights for women, and no laws that mandate nondiscrimination in hiring practice on the basis of gender. Few women hold top positions in government and the private sector. Twenty women won seats in the 2011 parliamentary elections. Section 377A of the Penal Code criminalizes mutually consensual sex between adult men, which is punishable by up to two years in prison. In August 2012, Singapore’s Court of Appeal reversed a previous High Court decision regarding a challenge to Section 377A, saying that it “affects the lives of a not insignificant portion of our community in a very real and intimate way.”