Freedom in the World
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Singapore’s parliamentary political system has been dominated by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and the family of current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong since 1959. The electoral and legal framework that the PAP has constructed allows for some political pluralism and considerable economic prosperity, but it effectively limits opportunities for the growth of credible opposition parties and constrains freedoms of expression, assembly, and association.
- In November, Parliament approved constitutional changes that set new candidacy requirements for presidential elections. Critics said the revisions would block the candidacy of a government critic who had narrowly lost the last presidential race in 2011.
- The courts continued hand down jail terms for critical online speech, with defendants in at least two prominent cases pleading guilty during the year.
Government-backed constitutional amendments adopted by Parliament in November 2016 tightened the eligibility rules for presidential candidates ahead of the next election for head of state, expected in 2017. One change established that none of Singapore’s three main ethnic groupings—Malays, Chinese, and Indians or others—may be excluded from the presidency for more than five consecutive terms. Since the office has been held by ethnic Indian or Chinese presidents for the past five terms, the next president would apparently have to be a Malay. Critics of the measure noted that this would exclude Tan Cheng Bock, a government critic who had narrowly lost the 2011 race.
Another revision included in the package will require that presidential candidates from the private sector—as opposed to senior officials with at least three years of service—have experience leading a company with at least S$500 million ($370 million) in shareholder equity, up from S$100 million in paid-up capital. The amendments would also grant greater oversight powers to the Council of Presidential Advisers, particularly with respect to the country’s financial reserves.
The prime minister in January had proposed additional constitutional changes that would increase the minimum number of opposition representatives in Parliament from 9 to 12, strengthen the voting powers of the opposition representatives who are appointed to meet that minimum figure, and raise the number of single-member constituencies at the expense of group constituencies. However, these proposals had yet to be adopted at year’s end.
Although Singapore is often praised for a perceived lack of corruption, transparency and accountability remained concerns. Ministers in the government can serve in several capacities simultaneously, and legislators often serve on the boards of private companies, including as chairpersons, which creates conflicts of interest. Singapore was the fourth-worst-ranked country in the Economist’s 2016 “crony-capitalism index,” which aims to measure the degree to which accumulation of private wealth depends on political connections.
Bloggers increasingly risk civil suits or criminal charges in connection with their work. The founders of a news portal that had been closed down in 2015, Ai Takagi and Yang Kaiheng, were sentenced to 10 months and 8 months in prison in March and June, respectively, after pleading guilty to sedition charges. In September, 17-year-old blogger Amos Yee Pang Sang was sentenced to six weeks in prison after pleading guilty to wounding religious feelings; he had received a similar penalty in 2015. Yee sought political asylum in the United States in December.
This country report has been abridged for Freedom in the World 2017. For background information on political rights and civil liberties in Singapore, see Freedom in the World 2016.