Freedom in the World

Singapore

Singapore

Freedom in the World 2014

2014 Scores

Status

Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

4.0

Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

4

Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

4
Overview: 


There were several signs in 2013 that the ruling party’s monopoly on power was weakening. The opposition Workers’ Party increased its presence in Parliament by winning a January by-election, and citizens mounted a number of demonstrations—some of them unusually large—on issues including government plans on immigration, new internet regulations, and gay rights. Separately, in a rare case of unrest, hundreds of migrant workers briefly rioted and clashed with police in early December after an Indian worker was struck and killed by a bus. The incident has also raised debate online by Singaporeans on the issues of overcrowding and increasing numbers of migrant workers in the country. It also highlighted ongoing ethnic tensions within Singapore, rising income inequality, the country's heavy reliance on foreign labor, and the working conditions of migrants.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

 

Political Rights: 19 / 40 [Key]

A. Electoral Process: 4 / 12

The president, whose role is largely ceremonial, 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. 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 ethnic minority representation. The top-polling party in each GRC wins all of its four to six seats, so the system has historically bolstered the majority of the dominant People’s Action Party (PAP). Up to nine Parliament members can be appointed from among leading opposition parties to ensure a minimum of opposition representation, 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. The GRC system is now being questioned as the best way to ensure minority representation.  Maruah, a human rights NGO, has proposed replacing the GRC with a reversion to single member constituencies nation-wide, combined with a requirement that all parties contesting multiple constituencies maintain a minimum share of minority candidates. 

Elections are free from irregularities and vote rigging, but the PAP dominates the political process. The country lacks an independent election authority. The May 2011 parliamentary elections featured a more vigorous and coordinated campaign effort by the opposition, which put forward candidates for 82 of the 87 directly elected seats, the highest number since independence. The opposition Workers’ Party took an unprecedented six directly elected seats, including a five-seat GRC, demonstrating that the PAP’s advantage in the GRC system could be challenged. The Workers’ Party also received two seats under the system guaranteeing the opposition a representation of at least nine seats. 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.

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. 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, retaining the seat for the opposition. In a January 2013 by-election, Workers’ Party candidate Lee Li Lian defeated the PAP nominee to win the party’s seventh elected seat, reducing the PAP to 80.

 

B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 8 / 16

Although the opposition has been gaining ground in recent years, its campaigns and activities have historically 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 PAP has governed without interruption since the British colony of Singapore obtained home rule in 1959, entered the Malaysian Federation in 1963, and gained full independence in 1965. Moreover, the country has had only three prime ministers. Lee Kuan Yew, the first of the three, governed for more than three decades, transforming the port city into a regional financial center and exporter of high-technology goods, but restricting individual freedoms and political competition. Lee transferred the premiership to Goh Chok Tong in 1990 but stayed on as “senior minister.” Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, became prime minister in 2004, and the elder Lee assumed the title of “minister mentor.” After the 2011 elections, Lee Kuan Yew resigned from that position, ending over half a century in government.

 

C. Functioning of Government: 7 / 12

Singapore has traditionally been lauded for its lack of corruption, though issues of transparency remain a concern. The country was ranked 5 out of 177 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index. However, there is increasing concern over the deeply entrenched position of the country’s political elites.

 

Civil Liberties: 32 / 60 (-1)

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 9 / 16 (-1)

The government maintains that racial sensitivities and the threat of Islamist terrorism justify draconian restrictions on freedoms of speech, but such rules have been used to silence criticism of the authorities. 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. The enforcement of internet restrictions was eased in the run-up to the 2011 voting, allowing broader online discussion of political issues.

In May 2013, the Media Development Authority issued new regulations requiring news websites to apply for individual licenses that will be subject to annual renewal. The sites will also be obliged to post a financial bond with the regulator, and respond to government take-down orders within 24 hours. The new rules drew strong objections from bloggers and civil liberties activists, who organized a “free my internet” protest event. Bloggers increasingly risk being charged with defamation, the Straits Times changed editorship, and in December, the independent Breakfast Network news website decided to shut down after the government imposed burdensome registration requirements and required them to show that they received no foreign funding. Another regulation banned major websites in Singapore from “advocating homosexuality or lesbianism.” These are examples of increasing control over print and internet information.  

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. The government in 2013 faced renewed calls to allow Muslim women to wear headscarves (‘tudong’ in Malay) in all workplaces, including public-sector fields like nursing.

All public universities and political research institutions have direct government links that enable at least some influence. Academics engage in political debate, but their publications rarely deviate from the government line on matters related to Singapore. Scholars who do address issues related to Singaporean politics have been denied tenure in recent years.

 

E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 4 / 12

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. Protests mounted during 2013 included one in February in which participants voiced opposition to a government plan to increase the population and workforce through further large-scale immigration, which had already put pressure on the country’s infrastructure, job market, and cost of living. The rally drew some 4,000 people, reportedly making it the largest political protest since independence.

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.

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. 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.

 

F. Rule of Law: 7 / 16

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.

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 death penalty applies to drug trafficking as well as murder, but reforms that took effect in 2013 grant judges the discretion to impose lighter sentences under some circumstances. 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. The LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community in Singapore faces significant legal obstacles. Section 377A of the penal code criminalizes consensual sex between adult men, which is punishable by up to two years in prison. The law is not actively enforced, however, and a number of court challenges seeking to overturn it were pending at the end of 2013. Over time, there have been more attempts to promote tolerance and acceptance of LGBT Singaporeans. In June 2013, Singapore Democratic Party treasurer Vincent Wijaysingha came out as gay and attended the “Pink Dot” gay pride event that month, which drew about 20,000 people, the largest crowd to date. Wijeysingha later resigned from the party to pursue LGBT activism.

 

G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 12 / 16

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 practices 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.

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. A new law that took effect in January 2013 requires that all new contracts grant household workers one day off per week.  However, the law allows employers to offer compensation in place of the day off if the worker agrees.

 

Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

Full Methodology