Singapore’s democracy – The truth behind the myth

1. Introduction

When I was a student in primary and secondary schools during 1992-2002, not once did I hear that Singapore had a Constitution. I am now a U.S. citizen, and grateful I have these rights as a U.S. citizen.

I was mildly stunned during my naturalization ceremony when the judges extended me a warm welcome saying that I now had “rights” as a U.S. citizen. It was the first time I realized I had RIGHTS as a citizen of a country.

Did I feel like I had any rights as a Singaporean in Singapore? No. None at all. Let’s see why — beginning with what a constitution is and why it is so important.

2. Constitution of Singapore

A constitution is defined as:

“The system of fundamental laws and principles that prescribes the nature, functions, and limits of a government.” (
The Free Dictionary)

Why is a constitution important to a nation?

“A constitution is important because it protects the rights of the citizens of a concerned nation, irrespective of their religion, caste, creed, sex or physical appearance. A constitution, thus, can be safely said to be a social contract between the government and the people it governs.” (

The office of the Attorney-General of Singapore states that “one of the key aspirations of [Singaporeans] is to build a democratic society based on the fundamental ideals of justice and equality.”

Singapore’s national pledge also states that the citizens aspire to build a democratic society (
Singapore Infopedia).

What is valuable about democracy? The United Nation explains:

“The values of freedom, respect for human rights and the principle of holding periodic and genuine elections. . . are essential elements of democracy. In turn, democracy provides the natural environment for the protection and effective realization of human rights.” (
United Nations)

The Constitution of Singapore states that every citizen of Singapore has the right to freedom of speech and expression.

3. Do Singapore citizens have freedom of speech?

If they do, I am curious about the following three cases.

(a) The following line was removed from an article that appeared in
The Straits Times:

“And [the Singapore government shows] no sign of loosening their grip on mainstream media as a vehicle for reaching out to the public.”

At the time of this posting, Mr. Cherian George, author of that article, states on his blog post that the “sentence was deleted by ST editors and does not appear in the published version…which illustrates how the Singapore press does not like to say too much about the controls it faces.”

(b) Section 8 of the Broadcasting Act states that:

“Every broadcasting licence, other than a class licence, granted by the Authority shall be in such form and for such period and may contain such terms and conditions as the Authority may determine.”

As former NMP Siew Kum Hong writes:

“Basically, the MDA can decide what the terms of the individual licences are, and presumably can also decide that the terms are confidential, such that the public will never actually know what the licences say.” (
Why the new MDA framework is censorship)

(c) Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson’s comments in 2012:

“Singapore’s claims of exemption from human rights standards are just lame excuses for abuses. . .the people of Singapore deserve the same rights as everyone else, not more clever stories justifying government oppression.” (
Singapore: Stop Hiding Behind Old Excuses) Would people like Phil Robertson from internationally respected organizations put their reputation on the line by making false declarations?

4. What, then, is the form of government in Singapore?

According to Wikipedia, a political ideology typically contains certain ideas on what it considers to be the best form of government (e.g. democracy, autocracy, etc.), and the best economic system (e.g. capitalism, socialism, etc.). This section gives a quick overview of the different sorts of political ideologies.

Let’s take a look at the following three terms: illiberal democracy, authoritarianism, and fascism.

(i) “A classic example of an illiberal democracy is the Republic of Singapore. An illiberal democracy, also called a pseudo democracy, empty democracy or hybrid regime, is a governing system in which, although elections take place, citizens are cut off from knowledge about the activities of those who exercise real power because of the lack of civil liberties…”

(ii) “Authoritarianism is characterised by absolute or blind obedience to authority, as against individual freedom and related to the expectation of unquestioning obedience.”

(iii) “Fascism is a system of government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, stringent socioeconomic controls, [and] suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship.”

And what is a dictator?

“A dictator is an absolute ruler; a despot. A despot is a person who wields power oppressively.”

5. Is Singapore’s founding father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, a ‘despot’?

At least one person thought so, and said so, in public. William Safire, the late
New York Times columnist, called Lee a dictator at the World Economic Forum in 1999.

Safire accused Lee of showing disregard for the principles of liberal democracy. Mr. Safire said: “The determinedly irreplaceable Lee Kuan Yew is the world’s most intelligent, and to some most likable despot.” Mr. Lee’s response to the accusation of dictatorship was: “Do I need to be a dictator when I can win, hands down?”

Years ago, NUS student Jamie Han had a lively exchange with Mr. Lee Kuan Yew during a dialogue with NUS students at the Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum.

Jamie Han: “No matter how enlightened a despot is, ultimately, he’ll turn into a tyrant if there are no checks and balances in place.”

Mr. Lee’s reply: “I was no despot. [That older] generation knew that I fought for them. . .you don’t put your life at risk in calling me a despot.” (
The Straits Times)

A collection of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s quotes is available on Lee Kuan Yew – Wikiquote.

In 1971, Mr. Lee said:

“Freedom of the press, freedom of the news media, must be subordinated to the overriding needs of the integrity of Singapore, and to the primacy of purpose of an elected government.” (
The Exotic World of Singaporean Journalism)

In 1984, Mr. Lee said:

“I make no apologies that the PAP is the Government and the Government is the PAP.” (
Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy)

Some other quotes by Mr. Lee Kuan Yew include:

“We are in charge. Every government ministry and department is under our control. And in the infighting, [Mr. J.B. Jeyaretnam] will go down for the count every time…I will make him crawl on his bended knees, and beg for mercy.”

(as recounted by C. V. Devan Nair — who said he was “alarmed” at some of the things Mr. Lee said during that lunch — in
Requiem for an unbending Singaporean)

“We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.” (Lee Kuan Yew,
Straits Times, 20 April 1987)

“Please do not assume that you can change governments. Young people don’t understand this.” (Lee Kuan Yew, Post-2006 General Elections)

“Supposing Catherine Lim was writing about me and not the prime minister…She would not dare, right?…If you take me on, I will put on knuckle-dusters and catch you in a
cul de sac… Anybody who decides to take me on needs to put on knuckle dusters. If you think you can hurt me more than I can hurt you, try. There is no other way you can govern a Chinese society.” (Lee Kuan Yew, Hong Kong University Press)

“I started off believing all men were equal. I now know that’s the most unlikely thing ever to have been. . .by observation, reading, watching, arguing, asking, and then bullying my way to the top, that is the conclusion I’ve come to.” (Lee Kuan Yew,
The Man & His Ideas, 1997)

These are things Mr. Lee Kuan Yew has said. So if he or the ruling party in Singapore wishes to sue Wikiquotes or the contributors to that page for defamation, it’s going to be a bit of a roundabout if you are suing your own self for defamation (since such compilations are based on things Mr. Lee has actually said on record).

I leave it to you, the reader, to decide if the above quotes depict an individual who is dictatorial in mind, spirit, and action.

6. Internal Security Act(ISA)

What is the Internal Security Act (ISA) of Singapore?

“[The ISA] grants the executive power to enforce preventive detention, prevent subversion, suppress organized violence against persons and property, and do other things incidental to the internal security of Singapore.” (Wikipedia)”

The law is a controversial one. Why? Because it allows for detention without trial (for potentially indefinite periods). Indefinite detention is in violation of many national and international laws, including human rights laws.

The ISA has been used to imprison political opponents, including Dr. Chia Thye Poh, who was held for 32 years without trial before being released.

Singapore: has a timeline and brief history of ISA detainees, with an explanation of why the Internal Security Act continues to be the elephant in the room of Singapore’s political history.

Amnesty International’s Report on Singapore (1980) is also available online (you can also download the original PDF).

These quotes below cast more light onto the ISA:

“Debate rages on over Singapore’s controversial Internal Security Act despite the government’s unequivocal rejection of calls to repeal the act or form a Commission of Inquiry to investigate detentions made under it.” (
Asian Correspondent, 2011)

“Amnesty International has been concerned for many years that journalists, newspaper editors and publishers who have been critical of government policy have been detained without trial in Singapore under the ISA. ” (
Amnesty International Report, 1980)

“Although the government’s use of the ISA for political purposes elicited negative reactions from the public, it was not prepared to abolish, or make amendments to the Act. . .the absence of explicit definitions of national security threats. . .renders the ISA susceptible to political misuse.” (Damien Cheong, 2006)

Note that Martyn See’s films on ex-political detainees (Said Zahari and Dr. Lim Hock Siew) are banned in Singapore.

As Mr. See says:

“You would think that with the opposition completely neutralised and the PAP firmly secured in the driver’s seat, LKY would relax a little and give civil society some breathing space. Instead, the government passed more laws to curtail civil activities — and if all these laws do not deter you, the ISA will.” (Martyn See, 2013)

7. Operation Spectrum

I didn’t know anything about this when I was growing up in Singapore — I was less than a year old when this was happening in 1987.

“Operation Spectrum” was the code name for a covert security operation that took place in Singapore on 21 May 1987. 16 people were arrested and detained without trial under Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA) for their alleged involvement in “a Marxist conspiracy.”

Tan Wah Piow was a former student activist and president of the University of Singapore’s Students’ Union (USSU) in 1974. He was accused by the Singapore government as being the alleged mastermind behind the conspiracy.

About Operation Spectrum, Mr. Tan says:

“If one goes down to the truth of Operation Spectrum, it was an exercise to wipe out a generation of potential political leaders who could challenge Lee Hsien Loong.

One must not underestimate the impact of Operation Spectrum. It was not merely ostracizing those 22 political detainees at that time. It was to teach a lesson to everyone else who were in the NGO (non-governmental organizations).” (
Asian Thinkers)

Tang Fong Har, a lawyer and member of the Law Society, was arrested in 1987 under the Internal Security Act (ISA). She describes what it was like to be a prison detainee:

“One of the interrogators slapped me across my left cheek [with] the full force of his body. . .I was completely shocked by the assault. . .I continued vomiting until the fourth day, by which time I felt quite famished. I had never felt more terrible in my life.” (
A detainee remembers, August 1989 issue of
Index on Censorship, a UK-based NGO)

Francis Seow was a member of Singapore’s elite class who was also arrested under the ISA in 1988. A review excerpt of Mr. Seow’s book,
To Catch a Tartar: A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew’s Prison, states:

“The confrontation between [Lee Kuan Yew] and [Francis Seow] began when the Law Society, under the leadership of Seow, began to criticize parliamentary legislation, in particular the proposed Newspaper and Printing Press Amendment. The friction between Lee and Seow increased when the latter stood up to Lee during the Select Committee hearings on proposed amendments to the Legal Professions Act.” (James Gomez, 1996)

Tan Wah Piow eventually obtained political asylum in the UK and now practises law in London. Tang Fong Har is a lawyer now residing in Hong Kong. Francis Seow sought political asylum in the United States, became a Visiting Fellow at Yale University and then at Harvard Law School — he now resides in Massachusetts.

8. What do others think about Singapore’s democracy?

Here are some quotes and opinions people have about the type of democracy — or form of governance — in Singapore.

“If it’s taken me all this time to arrive at such a definite definition of Singapore, imagine how alien ‘fascism’ is to the average Singaporean. . .” (X’Ho:
Hushed Fascism, Singapore Style)

“A look at authoritarian democracy in Singapore, where the same party has won every election for more than half a century. Because of its strength, the government is able to exert control over the media, civil service and society.” (
BBC – Learning Zone)

“China is a paradise of academic freedom” after Singapore. [In Singapore] public humiliation is a more common tactic for dealing with those who do not toe the party line.” (Daniel Bell, in

“[Singapore Inc] would be aghast at — and quite likely arrest — anyone compelled to spend 17 minutes publicly justifying democracy and why it matters.” (
The Age, Australia)

“Singapore is essentially a third-world country that has a developed business district that allows corporatists, expats, and the upper class to pretend they live in anything but a backward fascist state.” (
The Fascism of Singapore)

“The Court casts significant doubt as to whether Singapore will ever recognize the fair and honest reporting privilege accorded to responsible journalism — a privilege available in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries with diverse histories and cultures.” (
Dow Jones
Corporation, 2006)

Fareed Zakaria calls Singapore an illiberal democracy: “a democratically elected regime that routinely ignores constitutional limits on their power and deprives their citizens of basic rights and freedoms.” (CIS, Australia)

“In pursuit of prosperity, the PAP regime has managed to cow a large section of Singaporeans into not valuing democracy and human rights.” (Ang Hiok Gai,
Asian Human Rights Commission)

“Disdain for intellectuals and the arts…Obsession with crime and punishment…Rampant cronyism and corruption…Controlled mass media…Disdain for recognition of human rights…Singapore is a full-fledged fascist state.” (
Fourteen Defining Characteristics of Fascism)

“Under the PAP rule, there is no genuine parliamentary democracy. In essence, it has been practising a one-party rule. The opposition parties will never be allowed to grow strong…there is always the danger of one-party rule slipping into one-man rule, and worse still, into dynastic rule. The PAP government does not like critical newspapers or publications, and is intolerant towards sharp criticisms. They seem elitist and arrogant, regarding themselves as the best and the most suitable to rule Singapore. And they rule it with iron-handed policies.” (Dr. Chia Thye Poh, 1989)

9. Conclusion

Now, refer to Section 4 of this blog post which defines the political ideologies of illiberal democracy, authoritarianism, and fascism. Which one would be the most accurate description of the ruling party of Singapore in the past five decades?

Jess C Scott

Websites With More Information:

Why is the Government So Afraid of Ex-Detainees? (

That We May Dream Again (the about page states that “more than 2,500 Singaporeans have been detained under the ISA since the 1960’s”)

Fourteen Defining Characteristics of Fascism (by Dr. Lawrence Britt)

Detention of Journalists and Lawyers under the ISA (Amnesty International, 1980)

What Needs More Regulation: The Government or Online Media? (Lucky Tan)

A Chronology of Authoritarian Rule in Singapore  (Singapore Rebel)

Interviews and Opinions:

(1) “Challenge Singapore’s Facade Democracy” (The Online Citizen)
(2) Singapore: Where Speaking Truth to Power is Considered Defamation (by Alon Levy, Math PhD)
(3) Interview with Tan Wah Piow, alleged mastermind behind 1987′s “Marxist Conspiracy” (AsianThinker)
(4) Chia Thye Poh: The Man Himself (by James Gomez & Susan Chua)
(5) Chia Thye Poh: Respected Recipient of the 2011 LLG Award (Asian Human Rights Commission)

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