S’pore downgraded to non-invitee for democracy summit

December 24, 2004
Singapore Democrats

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In June 2000 a group comprising of over 100 governments from democratic countries were invited to Warsaw, Poland to pledge their commitment to democratic principles and to build a Community of Democracies (CD) so as to strengthen democratic values and institutions at home and abroad. The Singapore Government was not invited.

The CD decided to convene biennial ministerial meetings. Parallel to the CD meetings, a nongovernmental (NGO) meeting of leading democracy activists and thinkers from around the world was organized. The second ministerial meeting was organized in Seoul, Korea in November 2002 along with the forum of civil society leaders. Dr Chee Soon Juan was invited to attend the NGO meeting in Seoul but he could not be present because he was in jail for attempting to hold a workers rally on May Day of 2002.

For the Seoul meeting Singapore was invited as an Observer (there are three categories: invitee, observer, and non-invitee). The third meeting will take place in February 2005 in Santiago, Chile. The recommendation for this round for Singapore is that it should be downgraded into the non-invitee category again because of the PAP Governments lack of progress in establishing democracy in the country. Below is the report on Singapore. (For the full report, go to http://www.demcoalition.org/html/home.html)

BACKGROUND

Singapore was upgraded from a Non-invitee at the Warsaw Ministerial Meeting to an Observer at the Seoul Ministerial Meeting.

In the intervening period, since the Seoul Ministerial Meeting, there have been no parliamentary or presidential elections in Singapore. Parliamentary elections were held 4 November 2001, in which the governing Peoples Action Party (PAP) secured an overwhelming majority with 90% of the vote.(194) There is no independent elections commission and campaigning is restricted to nine days.

Parliamentary elections are not scheduled to be held again until next year; nonetheless, on 12 August 2004 a transfer of power took place when Lee Hsien Loong, the eldest son of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who ruled the island nation from 1965 to 1990, was sworn in as Singapores new prime minister, replacing Goh Chok Tong.(195)

Presently the PAP holds 82 of the 84 elected single-seat constituencies. Much of the success of the PAP can be attributed to the fact that 55 of the 84 seats were uncontested,(196) thereby automatically giving the PAP the majority in parliament.

Opposition figures argue that this is a ridiculous situation which occurs election after election because nobody dares to come out due to the fear of being sued for libel by senior PAP members.(197) If people speak out against public figures and the public figures have the resources to sue, they often run afoul of Singapores civil defamation laws which have been used by government politicians to bankrupt opposition leaders. [A statement about the judiciary has been deleted.]

The most high profile case presently running was brought by former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew against a prominent opposition politician, Dr. Chee Soon Juan, for his suggestion in the run-up to the 2001 parliamentary elections that $S17 billion in taxpayer money had been lent to former Indonesian President Suharto.(198) Dr Chee has since been found guilty of defamation and is waiting for the damages to be fixed. Dr Chee was forced to represent himself before the High Court, despite offers of legal assistance by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. The High Court has continuously turned down applications by overseas legal counsel to act on Dr Chees behalf,(199) fuelling concerns over the impartiality of the judiciary.

Dr Chees case is just one of many over the last few years that illustrate the way the ruling party has used strict defamation laws to intimidate and bankrupt its political rivals. During the period 1971-1993 eleven opposition politicians were bankrupted, predominantly in libel cases brought by the PAP.(200) The most notorious was the case of opposition politician J B Jeyaretnam, who after years of defending legal cases brought against him by the PAP, was left bankrupt and therefore stripped of his seat in parliament. Despite the governments claim that these were purely legal and criminal matters, they nevertheless have the effect of intimidating the opposition and restricting free speech.(201) Throughout 2003 the threat of potentially ruinous civil defamation suits against opponents of the PAP continued to inhibit political life and engendered a climate of self-censorship.(202)

Aside from the fa?de of openly contested parliamentary elections and the curbing of freedom of expression through strict defamation laws, draconian regulations also inhibit fundamental freedoms, in particular freedom of association. The Public Entertainments Act prohibits people assembling for a public political meeting without a permit. Issuing of the permit is at the discretion of the police and has been applied in an arbitrary manner. Appeals may be made to the judiciary, which many consider too biased to render a fair judgment. Opposition politicians have been in and out of jail several times for organizing peaceful meetings and rallies, but in the process the suppression of freedom of association continues to stifle opposition politicians ability to garner support and to provide an alternate voice.(203)

Singapores government exercises direct ownership and/or influence over all media outlets. Under the Internal Security Act, the government may prosecute publishers who broadcast material that might threaten national interests, national security or the public order. In October 2003, Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore 144 out of 166 countries in a survey of press freedom.204 In November 2004, Singapores ranking slipped further to 147 for its continued suppression of free speech and the media.

While there have been no recent documented cases of extra-judicial killings or torture by security personnel, the government has wide powers to limit citizens’ rights and to handicap political opposition. Caning, which constitutes cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment, remains mandatory for some 30 crimes, including attempted murder, rape, armed robbery, drugs trafficking, illegal immigration offences and vandalism.(205)

In addition, authorities rely on preventive detention to deal with espionage, terrorism, organized crime, and narcotics.(206)

ANALYSIS

It is clear that since the Seoul Ministerial Meeting the Singapore government has failed to respect human rights and freedoms, in particular the government has not protected freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and freedom of association. The stifling effect that restrictions of these freedoms have on participation in government and the promotion of multipartidism cannot be underestimated. Regulatory restrictions that
inhibit the political space in which Singaporeans operate directly undermine democracy in Singapore and act as a barrier to Singapore fulfilling its potential as an open democratic society.

A majority of the measures in the WBI Governance Indicators show that Singapores rankings, compared to other countries, have slipped; the FH Ranking has been maintained at Partly Free; and most concerning is the Polity Score of negative two. The conditions described above are directly reflected in the BTI where Singapore was rated as five for the Stateness measure, indicating the governments authoritarian structure, while being rated zero for the Institutional Stability measure which assesses democratic institutions.

RECOMMENDATION

Until the government of Singapore lifts its regulatory regime that inhibits freedom of association and of the press and stops using defamation laws as a tool of political repression, it should remain as a Non-invitee.

REFERENCES

194 Election World database (accessed 1 October 2004); available at
http://www.electionworld.org/singapore.htm

195 Singapore swears in a new leader, BBC News, 12 August 2004 (accessed 1 October 2004); available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/3558444.stm

196 Election World database (accessed 1 October 2004); available at
http://www.electionworld.org/singapore.htm

197 Opposition figure says poll will be no real contest, Reuters, 1 November 2001 (accessed 1 October 2004); available at http://www.sfdonline.org/Link%20Pages/Link%20Folders/01Pf/reut011101d.html

198 Ibid

199 Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, Singapore: Opposition Politician appeals Defamation Charges, 12 February 2003 (accessed 1 October 2003); available at http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/media/2003_alerts/0212.htm

200 Singapores Electoral Fa?de, The Morning Star, November 2001 (accessed 1 October 2004); available at http://www.sfdonline.org/Link%20Pages/Link%20Folders/02Pf/mornstar02.html

201 Ibid

202 Amnesty International, Singapore Country Report Covering events from January to December 2003; available at http://web.amnesty.org/web/web/nsf/print/2004-sgp-summary-eng

203 Singapore: Government Continues to Use Judicial System to Stifle Political Opposition, Human Rights First Media Alert, 12 November 2002 (accessed 1 October 2004); available at http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/media/2002_alerts/1112a.htm

204 Second World Press Freedom Ranking (October 2003), Reporters Without Borders, http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=8247

205 Amnesty International Report, 2003, Singapore Country Profile, available at http://web.amnesty.org/report2003/sgp-summary-eng

206 U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Singapore Country Profile, 2003.