Freedom in the World
Singapore’s political rights rating improved from 5 to 4 due to parliamentary and presidential elections that featured more active campaigning and increased support for opposition parties.
After a campaign period that featured a more open media environment and greater freedom of assembly than in previous years, opposition parties made unprecedented gains in May 2011 parliamentary elections, though the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) remained comfortably in control of the legislature. In another indication of the opposition’s increased ability to compete, a PAP-backed candidate won the presidency by an extremely narrow margin in August.
The British colony of Singapore obtained home rule in 1959, entered the Malaysian Federation in 1963, and gained full independence in 1965. During his 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.” In 2005, President Sellapan Ramanathan, also known as S. R. Nathan, began a second term as the largely ceremonial head of state.
The 2006 parliamentary elections 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. The PAP retained 82 of 84 elected seats, though the opposition offered candidates for a greater number of seats and secured a larger percentage of the vote than in previous years.
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 Far Eastern Economic Review, owned by the U.S.-based News Corporation, was forced to pay some US$300,000 in 2009 to settle a defamation case brought by the Lees. Similarly, in March 2010, the International Herald Tribune apologized and paid US$122,400 in fines for an article on dynastic politics in Asia that the Lees considered defamatory.
The May 2011 parliamentary elections featured a more vigorous and coordinated campaign effort by the opposition, which fielded 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, 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. That left the PAP with 81 seats, 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, 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.
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 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 2011, 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, and was ranked 5 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index. However, issues of transparency remain a concern.
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.
Recent high-profile cases illustrate the reach of Singapore’s defamation and censorship laws, and the government’s broader efforts to restrict speech. In November 2010, British author Alan Shadrake was convicted of defamation for a book in which he questioned the judicial system’s impartiality in meting out capital punishment. He was sentenced to six weeks in prison, fined approximately US$16,000, and charged for legal fees of more than US$38,000. His appeal was rejected by Singapore’s highest court in May 2011, and he was deported in July.
The internet is widely accessible, but the authorities monitor online material and block some content through directives to licensed service providers. Singaporeans’ increased use of Facebook and Twitter, among other social-networking websites, has sparked interest in social activism and opposition parties, contributing to opposition electoral gains in 2011. Enforcement of internet restrictions was eased in the run-up to the voting, allowing broader online discussion of political issues.
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 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.
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. 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 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. 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 Internal Security Act (ISA) and Criminal Law Act (CLA) allow 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, though the punishment 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, though 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. Twenty women won seats in the 2011 parliamentary elections, though Lim Hwee Hua, who became the first female cabinet minister in 2010, lost her seat. Despite the presence of an open gay community, acts of “gross indecency” between men are punishable by up to two years in prison.