Singapore slips further in Freedom House survey

Freedom House

On January 12, Freedom House released the findings from the latest edition of Freedom in the World, the annual survey of global political rights and civil liberties.

Freedom in the World – Singapore (2008)

Capital: Singapore
Population: 4,600,000
Political Rights: 5 (1-the most free to 7-the least free)
Civil Liberties: 4 (1-the most free to 7-the least free)
Status: Partly Free
(A Partly Free country is one in which there is limited respect for political rights and civil liberties. Partly Free states frequently suffer from an environment of corruption, weak rule of law, ethnic and religious strife, and often a setting in which a single political party enjoys dominance despite the façade of limited pluralism.)
Ranking Down: Singapore received a downward trend arrow due to the politically motivated handling of defamation cases, which cast doubt on judicial independence.


Thousands of Singaporeans signed an online petition against a proposed salary hike for government ministers in 2007. The government prevented six members of the European Parliament from attending an opposition-hosted public forum on the issue in February. Meanwhile, planned revisions to the media code of conduct threatened to impose restrictions on Singapore’s traditionally open internet media.

Singapore was established as a British trading center in 1819 and became a separate British colony. It obtained home rule in 1959, entered the Malaysian Federation in 1963, and gained full independence in 1965. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and the ruling 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 in the process.

Lee transferred the premiership to Goh Chok Tong in 1990 but stayed on as “senior minister,” and the PAP retained its dominance. The party captured 82 of Parliament’s 84 seats in the 2001 elections, with opposition parties contesting only 29 seats.

Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, became prime minister in August 2004; the elder Lee assumed the title of “minister mentor.” In September 2005, President Sellapan Ramanathan began a second term as the largely ceremonial head of state.

Despite his expressed desire for a “more open society,” Lee Hsien Loong has done little to change the authoritarian political climate. He called elections in May 2006, a year early, to secure a mandate for his economic reform agenda. With a nine-day campaign period and defamation lawsuits hampering opposition candidates, the polls resembled past elections in serving more as a referendum on the prime minister’s popularity than as an actual contest for power. The PAP retained its 82 seats with 66 percent of the vote, although the opposition contested a greater number of seats and secured a larger percentage of the vote than in previous years.

In 2007, Lee continued to pursue his economic agenda while keeping the opposition in check. The government also maintained that racial sensitivities and the threat of Islamist terrorism justified draconian restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly. In March, Lee recommended that all cabinet ministers receive an 83 percent pay increase. The move was in keeping with the PAP’s decision a decade earlier to match top government salaries with the upper echelons of the private sector, but it contradicted the prime minister’s stated priority of easing the country’s widening income gap. Considerable public debate, spearheaded by the opposition, erupted in response. The opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) had attempted to host six European Parliament members at a public forum on the issue in February, but the government barred the guests from attending. However, SDP leader Chee Soon Juan was permitted to march in protest of the hike, and more than 3,000 Singaporeans signed an online petition against the increases by year’s end.

The government also prompted public and opposition concerns in October by enacting a series of major changes—including a raised retirement age—to the Central Provident Fund, a social security savings plan. Despite international and SDP objections, the International Bar Association (IBA) held its annual conference in Singapore the same month. Critics of the decision noted the country’s lack of judicial independence and opposition politicians’ inability to obtain legal defense.

In a sign of improving relations, Singapore and Malaysia cooperated in 2007 on the Johor project, a plan to use Singaporean investment and labor to develop the adjacent Malaysian state. In April, Singapore and Indonesia signed a long-contested extradition treaty and a defense agreement allowing the resumption of joint military training, but neither was ratified due to Indonesian officials’ subsequent claims that the defense pact compromised Indonesian sovereignty. Tensions developed with the Thai government after the ousted Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, visited Singapore in January. Lee issued a statement against the Burmese authorities’ brutal crackdown on demonstrations in the fall on behalf of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, but Singapore refused to impose economic sanctions.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Singapore is not an electoral democracy. The country is governed through a parliamentary system and holds regular elections, but the ruling PAP dominates the political process, using a variety of methods to handicap opposition parties. The prime minister retains control over the Elections Department, and the country lacks a structurally independent election authority.

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 it gained independence in 1965. Lee Hsien Loong assumed the post in August 2004.

Of the unicameral legislature’s 84 members, nine are elected from single-member constituencies, while 75 are elected in Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs), a mechanism intended to foster minority representation. The winner-take-all nature of the system, however, limits the extent to which GRCs actually facilitate minority representation and, in effect, 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. The PAP won 82 seats with 66 percent of the vote in the 2006 elections. The opposition Worker’s Party and Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) each won a single seat despite receiving 16.3 percent and 13 percent of the vote, respectively.

Although elections are free from irregularities and vote rigging, the opposition is 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. In June 2007, opposition politician J. B. Jeyaretnam finally paid libel damages for criticizing PAP officials; the unpaid award had disqualified him from Parliament in 2001. He subsequently initiated plans to form a new Democratic Reform Party. Also during the year, SDP leader Chee Soon Juan was convicted for trying to travel to a 2006 World Movement for Democracy conference without a permit. He spent two weeks in jail after losing an appeal in September. Chee was arrested again in early October for attempting to deliver a petition to the Presidential Palace regarding the authorities’ relationship with the Burmese government, following the suppression of protests in that country.

Singapore has traditionally been lauded for its relative lack of corruption. Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Singapore fourth out of 180 countries surveyed. There is no special legislation facilitating access to information, however, and management of state funds came under question for the first time in 2007. Critics lamented the state’s secret investment of national reserves, and investigations into the state investment arm, Temasek Holdings, were launched by Indonesian and Thai watchdog agencies.

Singapore’s media market remains tightly constrained. All newspapers, radio stations, and television channels are owned by government-linked companies. Although editorials and news coverage generally support state policies, newspapers occasionally publish critical pieces. Self-censorship is common among journalists as a result of PAP pressure. The Sedition Act, in effect since British colonial rule, outlaws seditious speech, the distribution of seditious materials, and acts with “seditious tendency.” Media including videos, music, and books are sometimes censored, typically for sex, violence, or drug references. In April 2007, the government banned Martyn See’s documentary film about a political activist’s 17-year detention under the Internal Security Act (ISA).

Foreign broadcasters and periodicals can be restricted for engaging in domestic politics, and new regulations in 2006 required all foreign publications to appoint legal representatives and provide significant financial deposits. Still facing civil defamation claims for the July 2006 article that presumably prompted the new regulations, the Far Eastern Economic Review lost an appeal in February 2007. In June, the Singapore High Court rejected the magazine’s application for a Queen’s Counsel from Britain to represent it. Distribution of the Review remained banned, but it was available online. PAP members regularly use defamation suits and the revoking of licenses to silence critical (especially foreign) media. In October 2007, the Financial Times published an apology and agreed to pay damages to the Lee family for a September article suggesting that the family had engaged in nepotism.

Despite government efforts to impose licensing restrictions on the internet, Singapore’s blogosphere is a primary outlet for dissent. The online petition against the proposed salary hike for government ministers in 2007 collected thousands of signatures as well as statements criticizing the increase and the government’s lack of accountability. In March, the Media Development Authority announced plans to revise the media code of conduct and extend its scope beyond the broadcasting and print sectors, raising concerns that the changes would be used to limit expression on the internet.

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.

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.

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. Public assemblies of more than five people and all political speeches must be approved by police. Permits are no longer needed for private, indoor gatherings as long as the topic of discussion is not race or religion.

The government foiled the SDP’s plans to host a public forum on the government salary hike in February 2007 by barring six European Parliament members from attending, arguing that foreigners lacked the right to protest Singapore’s internal affairs from within its borders. In a rare occurrence, however, Chee was permitted to march 150 kilometers and distribute leaflets in protest.

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 160,000 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 suggests some lack of judicial independence. 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, however, and defendants in criminal cases enjoy most due process rights. In 2007, PAP critic and lawyer M. Ravi protested the London-based IBA’s decision to hold its annual conference in Singapore, noting opposition politicians’ difficulty in finding legal representation for politically sensitive cases.

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. At year’s end, 34 suspected terrorists were held in detention. The Religious Rehabilitation Group was launched in 2003 to instill moderate interpretations of Islam in detainees. In August 2007, the group launched a website to counter online terrorist recruitment.

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.

Security forces are not known to commit serious abuses. The government has in recent years jailed police officers convicted of mistreating detainees. 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 in practice.

There is no legal discrimination, and the government actively promotes racial harmony and equity. 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 private-sector employment. All 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 in most areas, and many are well-educated professionals. Yet relatively few women hold top positions in government and the private sector. There are currently 19 female members of Parliament, including 17 of the 84 elected members (all from the PAP) and two of the appointed members. In October, the government decided to uphold a ban on sex between men and Parliament voted to uphold provisions of the Penal Code that make acts of “gross indecency” between men punishable by up to two years in prison.…

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