Singapore is not an electoral democracy. The country is governed through a parliamentary system, and elections are free from irregularities and vote rigging, but the ruling PAP dominates the political process. The prime minister retains control over the Elections Department, and the country lacks a structurally independent election authority. Opposition campaigns are 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 84 elected members, who serve five-year terms, 9 are elected from single-member constituencies, while 75 are elected in Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs), a mechanism intended to foster minority representation. However, the winner-take-all nature of the system limits the extent to which GRCs actually facilitate minority representation and effectively helps perpetuate the return of incumbents. Up to nine additional, nonpartisan members can be appointed by the president, and up to three members can be appointed to ensure a minimum of opposition representation.
Singapore has traditionally been lauded for its relative lack of corruption, and was ranked 3 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index. However, since 2007, questions have arisen over the management of state funds and the revolving door between politics and state entities, particularly the state’s investment agencies.
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. 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.
Several high-profile cases in 2010 illustrated the reach of Singapore’s defamation and censorship laws, and the government’s broader efforts to restrict speech. Vincent Cheng, a social worker and Catholic activist who was arrested in 1987 for Marxist activity, was invited to participate in a history conference held at the National Library in June, but the state-affiliated National Library Board intervened, insisting that he be removed from the speakers list. In July, Martyn See’s short film Ex-Political Prisoner Speaks Out in Singapore was banned by the Media Development Authority (MDA) for being “against public interest.” The film, in which leftist dissident Lim Hock Siew discusses his arrest and 18-year detention under the Internal Security Act (ISA), was widely circulated online after See complied with the MDA’s order to remove copies within his control from the internet.In November, British author Alan Shadrake was convicted of defamation for his book Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock, which questions the judicial system’s impartiality in meting out capital punishment. The book, while not banned outright, is unavailable in Singapore’s libraries or major bookstores, but is widely available online. Shadrake was sentenced to six weeks in prison, fined approximately US$16,000, and held accountable for the opposing council’s fees of more than US$38,000. His appeal was pending at year’s end.
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 leadership’s practice of using defamation suits and license revocations to silence critical media is often applied to foreign-owned outlets.
The internet is widely accessible, but the authorities monitor online material and block some content through directives to licensed service providers. Recent cases have signaled the government’s concern about the internet’s potential as a forum for political dissent and other controversial speech. In 2010, pastor Rony Tan of the Lighthouse Evangelical Church made insulting statements against Buddhists and Taoists, and his remarks circulated on the web through the video-sharing site YouTube and other outlets. The Internal Security Department, citing a need to maintain racial and religious harmony, forced Tan to retract his statements and issue a public apology. Political activists are hopeful that youths’ increased use of Facebook and Twitter, among other social-networking websites, will spark interest in social activism and opposition parties, such as the SDP and the Workers’ Party.
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 their fellow practitioners in China.
All public universities and political research institutions have direct government links that bear at least some influence. Academics engage in political debate, but their publications rarely deviate from the government line on matters related to Singapore.
The Societies Act restricts freedom of association by requiring most organizations of more than 10 people to register with the government, and only registered parties and associations may engage in organized political activity. Political speeches are tightly regulated, and 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 private, indoor gatherings as long as the topic of discussion does not relate to race, politics, or religion.
Unions are granted fairly broad rights under the Trade Unions Act, though restrictions include a ban on government employees joining unions. A 2004 amendment to the law prohibits union members from voting on collective agreements negotiated by union representatives and employers. Strikes are legal for all except utility workers, but they 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. All but five of the country’s 64 unions are affiliated with the National Trade Union Congress, which is openly allied with the PAP. Singapore’s 180,000 domestic workers are excluded from the Employment Act and regularly exploited. A 2006 standard contract for migrant domestic workers addresses food deprivation and entitles replaced workers to seek other employment in Singapore, but it fails to provide other basic protections, such as rest days.
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. Many judges have ties to PAP leaders, but it is unclear whether the government pressures judges or simply appoints those who share its conservative philosophy. The judiciary is efficient, and defendants in criminal cases enjoy most due process rights.
The government generally respects citizens’ right to privacy, but the ISA and the Criminal Law Act (CLA) permit the authorities to conduct warrantless searches and arrests to preserve national security, order, and the public interest. 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. Caning is reportedly common in practice, including for offenses like overstaying a visa, though it is applied inconsistently.
There is no legal racial discrimination. Despite government efforts, ethnic Malays have not on average reached the schooling and income levels of ethnic Chinese or ethnic Indians,and they reportedly face discrimination in both private- and public-sector employment.
Citizens enjoy freedom of movement, although the government occasionally enforces its policy of ethnic balance in public housing, in which most Singaporeans live, and 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. Few women hold top positions in government and the private sector. Of the current Parliament’s 84 elected seats, 17 are held by women, all of whom belong to the PAP. Lim Hwee Hua became the first woman to serve as a full cabinet minister in April 2010. Despite the presence of an open gay community,Parliament voted in 2007 to maintain provisions of the penal code that make acts of “gross indecency” between men punishable by up to two years in prison.