Singapore’s Freedom in the World (2006)

Freedom House
21 Jan 07

Polity: No polity available
Political Rights: 5
Civil Liberties: 4
Status: Partly Free
Population: 4,300,000
GNI/Capita: $21,230
Life Expectancy: 79
Religious Groups: Buddhist (42.5 percent), Muslim (14.9 percent), Taoist (8.5 percent), Hindu (4 percent),Catholic (4.8 percent), other Christian (9.8 percent), other (15.5 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Chinese (77 percent), Malay (14 percent), Indian (8 percent), other (1 percent)
Capital: Singapore

Additional Information:
Freedom in the World 2005
Freedom of the Press 2005
Nations in Transit 2004
Countries at the Crossroads 2005


In 2005, Sellapan Ramanathan (SR Nathan) was reelected president of Singapore after authorities judged that all three of his potential opponents were unsuitable for the office. In January, Singapore and Malaysia agreed to settle a recent dispute over Singapore’s land reclamation project in the Johor Straits.

Singapore, located along major shipping routes in Southeast Asia, became a British colony in 1867. Occupied by the Japanese during World War II, the city-state became self-governing in 1959, entered the Malaysian Federation in 1963, and became fully independent in 1965. Under Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) transformed a squalid port city into a regional financial center and an exporter of high-tech goods. At the same time, Lee restricted individual freedoms and stunted political development.

In 1990, Lee handed power over to Goh Chok Tong, who largely continued Lee’s conservative policies and kept the PAP dominant in parliament. In the nine general elections that have been held since independence, the PAP has never won fewer than 95 percent of parliamentary seats, and in recent years an increasing number of PAP candidates have run unopposed.

During the campaign for the last parliamentary elections, held in November 2001, the PAP received 75 percent of the vote and captured 82 of parliament’s 84 seats. Opposition parties contested only 29 seats. Veteran opposition politician J. B. Jeyaretnam of the Workers’ Party was barred from contesting the elections. Judicial authorities also declared him bankrupt for being a day late in paying an installment on a damages award to PAP politicians who had successfully sued him for defamation. In 2004, opposition politician Chee Soon Juan found himself in a similar predicament when he failed to fend off a defamation lawsuit brought against him by two leaders of the PAP.

Lee Hsien Loong became Singapore’s prime minister on August 12, 2004, as part of a planned turnover of power. His inauguration ended the 14-year tenure of Goh Chok Tong, but he has done little to change the country’s political climate. Although he made concerted efforts to appear more approachable, he is still regarded as being more conservative and potentially more authoritarian than his predecessor.

In September 2005, President Sellapan Ramanathan (SR Nathan) was sworn in for a second term as Singapore’s largely ceremonial head of state. SR Nathan was reelected unopposed after authorities judged all three of his potential challengers to be unfit for office.

The economy in 2005 continued a two year growth spurt, reflecting expansion of global electronics market, biomedical products, and transportation technology. GDP growth rates reached 5.7 percent in 2005, with strong projections for 2006.

Singapore’s most important foreign relations remain those with the United States and with neighboring Malaysia. Ties with Malaysia, traditionally strained, have improved since the accession of new figures to political leadership in both countries (in Malaysia, Abdullah bin Ahmad Badawi replaced Mahathir Mohamed as prime minister in October 2003). In January, Singapore and Malaysia settled an 18-month row over a Singaporean land reclamation project in the shared Johor Straits; while Singapore is allowed to continue the project, it must cooperate with Malaysia to ensure navigation rights and environmental protection.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens of Singapore cannot change their government democratically. Singapore’s 1959 constitution created a parliamentary system of government and allowed for the right of citizens to change their government peacefully. Periodic elections are held on the basis of universal suffrage, and voting is compulsory. In practice, however, the ruling PAP dominates the government and the political process and uses a variety of indirect methods to handicap opposition parties.

The largely ceremonial president-currently SR Nathan-is the head of state and elected by popular vote for six-year terms; a constitutionally mandated committee is empowered to vet presidential candidates. The prime minister, the head of government, is not chosen through elections; like the cabinet, the prime minister is appointed by the president. Singapore has had only three prime ministers since it gained independence in 1965. Lee Kuan Yew governed for 31 years, after which he appointed Goh Chok Tong as his successor. Goh named Lee’s eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, deputy prime minister in 2003; the younger Lee assumed the post of prime minister in August 2004.

The legislature has just one house, with 94 members. Members of parliament are elected (84 in the current parliament), appointed by opposition political parties (up to 3 members, though there is currently only 1), or appointed by the president (9 in the current parliament).

Though general elections are free from irregularities and vote rigging, the PAP’s manipulation of the political system means that they cannot be termed fair. Opposition parties are constrained by the ban on political films and televised programs; expressions of political opinion are curtailed by the threat of libel or slander suits; there are strict regulations and limitations on associations, including political associations; and the PAP’s influence on the media and in the courts remains strong. The net result is that there is no effective opposition.

The government is known for its transparency and its relative lack of corruption. Singapore was ranked 5 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Singapore’s press is somewhat freer than in past years, but it remains a tightly constrained media market. Two companies own all of the newspapers in the city-state: one is government-controlled, and the other has close relations to the government. Although editorials and news coverage generally reflect governmental policies, newspapers are increasingly publishing letters, columns, and editorials critical of the government.

Journalists face pressure from the ruling party not to oppose the government’s goals, and thus often avoid reporting on sensitive topics, including alleged government corruption or nepotism or the supposed compliance of the judiciary. All television channels and all radio stations, except for the BBC World Service, are operated by government-linked companies. The Newspaper and Printing Presses Act allows authorities to restrict the circulation of any foreign periodical whose news coverage has been deemed to interfere in domestic politics.

Foreign newspapers and magazines are available, although authorities can restrict their circulation if they carry articles that the government finds offensive. In 2005, foreign news organizations, including The Economist, the International Herald Tribune, the Far Eastern Economic Review, and The Wall Street Journal Asia, paid large fines or had their circulation restricted in lawsuits filed by ruling party stalwarts. In 2005, Reporters Without Borders rated Singapore 140 out of 167 countries worldwide, which represents a slight improvement over 2004’s 147 rating. This rating continues to make Singapore the lowest rated industrialized country on the index. Nevertheless, the U.S. State Department’s 2005 human rights report noted that limited space for political debate in the press seems to have expanded slightly over the past year.

The government screens and sometimes censors films, television programs, videos, music, books, and magazines, mainly for excessive amounts of sex, violence, and drug references. The PAP has loosened some restrictions on the arts, and the prime minister has vowed to make some moves in the direction of liberalization, partly as a result of input from a citizen advisory panel. In 2005, a series of half-hour “reality shows” about sex began to air on television, and an all-nude theater review visited Singapore for a performance run. In September, despite a lawsuit and an injunction, authorities allowed an opposition documentary to be aired on television. The internet is regulated via state control of access points and site surveillance. Still, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports that some news bloggers set up sites from undisclosed locations, making the internet an increasingly viable forum for alternative political perspectives.

Singaporeans of most faiths can worship freely. However, the government has banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unification Church. Restrictions on the Jehovah’s Witnesses stem from the fact that the group’s roughly 2,000 members refuse to perform compulsory military service. The Societies Act stipulates that all religious groups register with the government.

Faculty members of public universities and political research institutions are not entirely free from government influence, since all such institutions have direct government links. The PAP prohibits public discussion of sensitive racial and religious issues and closely regulates political speech. Foreign speakers and academics fall under particular scrutiny; for example, one visitor was allowed to attend a public forum on the death penalty, but prevented from speaking.

The government restricts freedom of association through the strict 1966 Societies Act, which includes a provision that permits only groups registered as political parties or associations to engage in organized political activities. The Societies Act covers most organizations of more than 10 people, and these groups are required to register with the government.

Singaporeans must get police permits to hold public talks or to make political speeches, and public assemblies of more than five people must have police approval. Still, in 2005, the prime minister issued a degree stating that people no longer need a permit for private, indoor gatherings as long as the topic of discussion is not race or religion. Nevertheless, this past year, a private party for homosexuals was prevented on the grounds that holding such a gathering would be contrary to the public interest. The October “White Elephant” saga-where police investigated, but declined to prosecute, those responsible for posting cardboard “white elephant” signs to signal popular frustration at the mothballed Buangkok Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) station-underscored the limits on freedom of association and expression.

Unions are permitted under the Trade Unions Act, and restrictions on their formation are relatively narrow (government employees may not join unions, for example). Almost all unions are affiliated with the National Trade Unions Congress, which freely acknowledges that its interests are closely aligned with those of the PAP. Collective bargaining is commonplace, and strikes are legal-except for workers in the water, gas, and electricity sectors-but rare. According to the BBC, there are some 140,000 women, primarily from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, employed as domestic servants in Singapore; exploitation and physical abuse of these workers is a problem.

The judiciary’s independence has been called into question by the government’s overwhelming success in court proceedings, particularly defamation suits against political opponents. It is not clear, however, whether the government pressures judges or simply appoints judges who share its conservative philosophy. Many judges have ties to the PAP and its leaders. In any case, the judiciary is efficient, and in criminal cases, defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence and the right to confront witnesses and other rights of due process.

The government generally respects citizens’ right to privacy. However, the issue is not specifically addressed in the constitution, and the government does maintain the right to search a person or property without a warrant if it deems the search necessary to preserve evidence. The government is also believed to monitor telephone and internet communications, though this is not confirmed.

The government can detain suspects without trial under both the Internal Security Act (ISA) and the Criminal Law Act (CLA). The ISA was once applied mainly against suspected Communist security threats, but the government has recently used the law to detain suspected Islamist terrorists. It allows authorities to detain suspects 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 government uses the CLA to detain mainly organized crime and drug-traf-ficking suspects; the act includes provisions for a one-year, extendable, preventive detention period. Meanwhile, the Misuse of Drugs Act allows authorities to commit suspected drug users, without trial, to rehabilitation centers for up to three years. In November, the impending execution of an Australian citizen convicted of trafficking heroin received substantial global media attention and prompted some Australians to call for their government to intervene.

Security forces are not known to commit serious abuses. Police occasionally mistreat detainees, and the government has in recent years jailed officers convicted of such abuses. The penal code mandates caning, in addition to imprisonment, for about 30 offenses; it is discretionary for certain other crimes involving the use of force. Caning is reportedly common. The U.S. State Department’s 2005 human rights report stated that Singaporean prisons are Spartan, but generally within international standards.

The government actively promotes racial harmony and equity in Singapore’s multiethnic society, and there is no legal discrimination. All citizens enjoy freedom of movement, although the government occasionally infringes on citizens’ rights to choose housing by enforcing its policy of assuring ethnic balance in public housing, in which most Singaporeans live. Men can be conscripted for two years of compulsory military service on turning 18. Despite government efforts to boost their educational achievement, ethnic Malays have not on average reached the schooling and income levels of ethnic Chinese or ethnic Indians and reportedly face unofficial discrimination in private sector employment.

Women enjoy the same legal rights as men in most areas, and many are well educated and hold professional jobs. Relatively few women, however, hold top positions in government and the private sector.

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