The right to chew therapeutic gum: Uniquely Singaporean

Asian Centre for Human Rights
26 May 2004

After 12 years, Singapore has now lifted its notorious ban on chewing gum. But only the registered users can chew it. Gum became a sticking point months ago in Singapore’s free trade talks with the United States, when Representative Philip Crane of the US State of Illinois – home of chewing gum giant Wrigley – pressed the issue. Singapore as a compromise agreed to allow only the sale of therapeutic gum in pharmacies. The customers have to submit their names and ID card numbers. If they don’t, pharmacists who sell them gum could be jailed up to two years and fined 5,000 Singapore dollars (US$ 2,940).

The worlds gilded cage, Singapore, in fact faces few criticisms despite its abominable human rights record. In a country where human lives are regulated and most freedoms are banned, Singapore’s movement towards democracy has been characterised by the legalisation of bungee jumping, table-top dancing, oral sex with opposite sex only (homosexuality is prohibited) and now, the use of chewing gum for therapeutic purposes.

No freedom after expression

The Constitution of Singapore provides for freedom of expression, subject to limitations imposed by the government. The joke goes, there is freedom of expression but No Freedom After Expression.

In September 2001, the government set up a Speakers Corner, modelled on the more famous version in London’s Hyde Park. However, anyone brave enough to mount a soapbox and let off some steam from the Speakers Corner, a luxury not allowed elsewhere in the country, is required to get permission in advance from the local police to comply with strict, Singapore-style limits on what people can actually say. Any criticism of the domineering government or the long-ruling People’s Action Party of Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, is outlawed, as it is throughout the country. Sensitive topics such as race and religion are too prohibited. Offenders are likely to be hauled off to government-friendly courts to face libel suits or jail or both.

The speeches are recorded by the government, preserved for six years and can be used in defamation and criminal proceedings in courts of law. In 2002, opposition leader Chee Soon Juan spoke at the Corner to criticize the Government’s enforcement of a ban on Malay schoolgirls wearing the “tudung,” a headscarf that some Muslims considered a religious requirement. When he registered to speak, police called Chee’s attention to the ban on any discussion of sensitive religious or ethnic issues then did so again after he began his speech. Chee was allowed to finish his remarks. However, he was later charged with violation of the notorious Public Entertainment and Meetings Act and convicted. The $1,715 (S$3,000) fine imposed on Chee affected his ability to participate in politics. Under the Constitution, individuals who are fined more than $1,140 (S$2,000) cannot run for Parliament for 5 years. Speakers Corner the symbol of Lee Kuan Yew type freedom of expression is today a largely forgotten concept in Singapore.

Bankrupting political opponents

Since its divorce from Malaysia in 1965, Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, virtually silenced all political dissent. While dynastic rule across Asia is questioned, the succession of Lee Hsien Loong, son of Singapores senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew as the next Prime Minister is accepted without any whisper. Lee Kuan Yew who popularised the idea of “Asian values” as a counter to the universality of human rights, certainly believes in dynastic rule which has become a feature of political life in Asia. However, unlike in other Asian countries, Lee Hsien Loong does not have to pass through the litmus test at elections.

Singapore has become synonymous of one party rule by the Peoples’ Action Party (PAP). The number of opposition members of parliament has always been less than five. In the election of November 2001, 55 out of the 84 parliamentary seats were won unopposed, unimaginable in any democratic country. In any democratic country, even the village councils or local municipal council elections cannot be won uncontested. The PAP holds 82 of 84 elected parliamentary seats and all ministerial positions

The government of Singapore used defamation and libel suits to silence political dissent. In January 2001, J.B. Jeyaretnam lost his parliamentary seat after being declared a bankrupt for not paying the massive damages awarded to PAP members in a series of defamation suits. In a statement of 4 May 2004, Mr Jeyaretnam stated that he submitted an application for his discharge from bankruptcy at the end of March this year i.e. 2004, offering to pay a total of twenty percent (20%) of all the debts. But, the Official Assignee, eight of the plaintiffs in the suit brought against him, Prime Minister Mr Goh Chok Tong and Mr. S. Jeyakumar, the Minister for Law under whose ministry the Official Assignee comes, have been opposing the petition. In total, damages of amounting to $166,666-00 – $100,000-00 was paid by the Party and $66,666-00 – personally by J.B.Jeyaretnam.

Executions: Top in the world

According to the UN Secretary-General’s quinquennial report on capital punishment (UN document: E/CN.15/2001/10, para. 68), for the period 1994 to 1999 Singapore had a rate of 13.57 executions per one million population, representing by far the highest rate of executions in the world. This is followed by Saudi Arabia (4.65), Belarus (3.20), Sierra Leone (2.84), Kyrgyzstan (2.80), Jordan (2.12) and China (2.01). The largest overall number of executions for the same period took place in China, followed in descending order by the Islamic Republic of Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States of America, Nigeria and Singapore.

Drug addicts are particularly vulnerable. Many were hanged after being found in possession of relatively small quantities of drugs. Singapore’s Misuse of Drugs Act contains several clauses which conflict with the universally guaranteed right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and provides for a mandatory death sentence for at least 20 different drug-related offences. For instance, any person found in possession of the key to anything containing controlled drugs is presumed guilty of possessing those drugs and, if the amount exceeds a specified amount, faces a mandatory death penalty for “trafficking”. This goes against fair trial and increases the risk of executing the innocent.

More than 400 prisoners have been hanged since 1991 in Singapore.

Caning: Retribution as a part of justice

Apart from draconian legislation such as the Internal Security Act, the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act (CLA), the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA), and the Undesirable Publications Act (UPA), caning, in addition to imprisonment, is a routine punishment for numerous offenses. The Penal Code mandates caning, in addition to imprisonment, as punishment for approximately 30 offenses involving the use of violence or threat of violence against a person, such as rape and robbery, and for nonviolent offenses such as vandalism, drug trafficking, and violation of immigration laws. Caning is discretionary for convictions on other charges involving the use of force, such as kidnapping or voluntarily causing grievous hurt. On 24 May 2004, Selvaraju Satippan, who was found guilty of kidnapping a 22 years old women was sentenced to life imprisonment and 24 strokes of the cane by the High Court of Singapore.

There is little sign of democratisation of Singapore under next Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong who is said to have opposed even the Speakers Corner. Singapore will continue remain an authoritarian state in which political opposition is silenced, the media is muzzled, films like Titanic are censored and thousands of websites are banned.