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“Citizens of Singapore cannot change their government democratically.” – Freedom House
Battered by the effects of war in Iraq, slowdowns in key export markets, and Asia’s severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus, Singapore’s trade-dependent economy shrank sharply in the spring of 2003 and grew only slowly for the rest of the year, throwing tens of thousands of people out of work. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong formally named Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as his successor. Lee is expected to make few major changes to the city-state’s authoritarian politics or market-driven economic policies after he takes over sometime before the next election, which is due by 2006.
Located along major shipping routes in Southeast Asia, Singapore became a British colony in 1867. Occupied by the Japanese during World War II, the citystate became self-governing in 1959, entered the Malaysian Federation in 1963, and became fully independent in 1965 under Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Under Lee, 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.
The PAP won every seat in every election from 1968 to 1981, when the Workers’ Party’s J. B. Jeyaretnam won a seat in a by-election. In 1990, Lee handed power to Goh, who has largely continued Lee’s conservative policies and has kept the PAP dominant in parliament. Although the PAP easily won the 1997 elections, the campaign featured a rare airing in Singapore of diverse views on policy issues. Goh responded by warning that neighborhoods voting against the PAP would be the lowest priority for upgrades of public housing estates, where some 85 percent of Singaporeans live.
During the campaign for the 2001 parliamentary elections, opposition candidates criticized the government for not doing more to help Singaporeans hurt by the country’s first recession since independence. The PAP campaigned on the theme that no other party had the skills and experience to revive the economy. Repeating a tactic from the 1997 election campaign, the PAP also linked priority for public housing upgrades to support for the ruling party. On election day, the PAP received 75 percent of the vote and won 82 of parliament’s 84 seats. Opposition parties contested only 29 seats, with the leftist Workers’ Party and centrist Singapore People’s Party winning 1 seat each. Veteran opposition politician Jeyaretnam was barred from contesting the elections after the court of appeal declared him bankrupt for being one day late in paying an installment on a damages award to PAP politicians who had successfully sued him for defamation. As a bankrupt individual, Jeyaretnam was barred from practicing law, thrown out of parliament, and prevented from running for office.
The triple blow in 2003 of SARS, the Iraq war, and the global economic slowdown highlighted yet again tiny Singapore’s vulnerability to external forces. The SARS virus, which originated in China, killed at least 33 people in Singapore, kept consumers at home in the city-state, and caused many travelers to steer clear of the region. Singapore’s economy shrank by 4.3 percent year-on-year in the second quarter before growing slightly in the second half of 2003. Unemployment rose to a 17-year high of 5.9 percent in the third quarter, up from 4.5 percent the previous quarter. Part of this unemployment is structural, with some workers losing jobs as Singapore makes the transition to a more high-end economy in the face of competition from China and other low-wage countries.
The 62-year-old Goh’s long-expected announcement that Lee Hsien Loong would succeed him as the PAP’s leader, and thereby become Singapore’s next prime minister, came with a pledge not to stand down until there are signs of an economic recovery. While Lee, the eldest son of Singapore’s founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, is not expected to make any major policy changes, he is likely to bring a more no-nonsense leadership style to the top office. By contrast, Goh, who made the announcement during his National Day speech on August 17, has tried to put a gentler face on the PAP’s authoritarian rule.
During the year, authorities remained vigilant to terrorist threats after having arrested some three dozen suspected Islamic militants since 2001.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
Citizens of Singapore cannot change their government democratically. (emphasis added) Singapore’s 1959 constitution created a parliamentary system where the prime minister and other lawmakers are directly elected for five-year terms. Two amendments authorize the government to appoint additional members of parliament in order to ensure that the opposition has at least three seats. Separately, a 1993 amendment provides for direct elections for the largely ceremonial presidency and gave the president some budget-oversight powers and authority over civil service appointments and internal security matters. The government has used a strict vetting process to prevent any real competition for the office. The current president, S. R. Nathan, a PAP veteran and former ambassador, won the 1999 election by default after the Presidential Election Commission barred three other candidates on the grounds that they lacked either the requisite competence or integrity.
The PAP runs an efficient, competent, and largely corruption-free government
and appears to enjoy genuine popular support. It chalks up its electoral success to its record of having helped to build Singapore into a modern, wealthy society and, it says, the opposition’s lack of credible candidates and ideas. Opposition parties, however, say that the playing field is uneven because of the government’s influence over the press and its use of an array of laws to limit dissent.
Another factor arguably working against the opposition is its difficulty in fielding viable slates for parliament’s multimember districts. Each Group Representation Constituency (GRC) has three to six seats, and each GRC candidate slate must include at least one ethnic minority candidate. The party with a plurality in the district wins all the seats. The current parliament has 15 GRCs and only 9 single-member districts.
Moreover, the government requires candidates for all seats to pay a deposit of S$13,000 (US$7,123) that is forfeited if the candidate does not win a certain percentage of the vote. Parties and candidates also face restrictions on the types of materials that they can distribute during election campaigns and cannot advertise using political films or videos. Opposition politicians are also constrained by the PAP’s record of winning civil defamation suits against political foes.
Singapore’s press is somewhat freer than in past years, although most major media outlets are linked to the government and journalists face subtle pressure from the ruling party. Journalists often avoid reporting on sensitive topics, including alleged government corruption or nepotism or on the supposed compliance of the judiciary. Although editorials and news coverage generally reflect government policies, newspapers increasingly are carrying letters, columns, and editorials critical of government policies.
The government has not wielded Singapore’s harsh Internal Security Act (ISA)-which allows the government to restrict publications that incite violence, might arouse tensions among racial or religious groups, or might threaten national interests, national security, or public order–against the press in recent years. Nevertheless, the ISA’s broad provisions leave editors and reporters unclear about what may safely be published. Moreover, occasional statements by senior officials that certain topics are considered to be “out-of-bounds” are widely seen as implicit threats to invoke the ISA.
The Newspaper and Printing Presses Act allows authorities to restrict the circulation of any foreign periodical whose news coverage allegedly interferes in domestic politics. Foreign newspapers and magazines are available, although authorities at times have restricted the circulation of foreign publications that carried articles that the government found offensive.
The government screens and sometimes censors films, television, videos, music, books, and magazines, mainly for excessive amounts of sex, violence, and drug references. The PAP, however, in recent years has loosened some restrictions on the arts.
Companies with ties to the government run Internet service providers. Regulations from 1996 forbid Singaporeans from airing over the Internet information that is against the “public interest” or “national harmony,” or that “offends against good taste or decency.” In practice, however, authorities mainly block access to some pornographic Web sites. They have tolerated Web sites that host forums for political chat, which have become rare outlets in Singapore for lively political discussion.
Singaporeans of most faiths can worship freely. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, is banned under the Societies Act because its roughly 2,000 members refuse to perform compulsory military service. Jehovah’s Witnesses adherents can still practice their faith, but meetings are illegal. Moreover, several students who are Jehovah’s Witnesses members recently have been suspended indefinitely from school for refusing to sing the national anthem or to salute the flag. Separately, several Muslim schoolgirls were suspended from school in 2002 after they defied a government ban preventing girls from wearing traditional Muslim headscarves in class.
The PAP prohibits public discussion of sensitive racial and religious issues and closely regulates political speech. Singaporeans must get police permits to hold public talks or to make political speeches or else face fines under the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act. Chee Soon Juan of the opposition Social Democratic Party has served a number of jail terms in recent years for making speeches without the necessary license or on sensitive issues and refusing to pay the resulting fines. Chee was fined S$3,000 ($1,700) for a speech in 2002. Under the constitution, Singaporeans who are fined more than S$2,000 ($1,100) cannot contest a parliamentary election for five years. The only place where Singaporeans can make public speeches without a license is Speakers’ Corner, which is located in a downtown park. Speakers, however, must register with the police in advance. In addition, any public assembly of more than five people must receive police approval.
The government restricts freedom of association by wielding the strict provisions of the 1966 Societies Act, including one provision that permits only groups registered as political parties or associations to engage in organized political activities. For example, authorities in 2001 reclassified two groups that had been critical of the government–the Think Centre and the Open Singapore Centre–as political associations, which barred them from receiving foreign funding, among other restrictions. The Societies Act covers most organizations of more than ten people, and the government historically has denied mandatory registration to groups it considered a threat to public order.
Most unions are affiliated with the National Trade Unions Congress (NTUC), which freely acknowledges that its interests are closely aligned with those of the PAP. NTUC policy prohibits union members who support opposition parties from holding office in affiliated unions, and in 2002, a union official was stripped of his position after being elected secretary general of the opposition Singapore Democratic Alliance. The law prevents uniformed employees from joining unions. Around 15 percent of Singapore’s workers are unionized. Workers have not staged a strike since 1986, in part because labor shortages have helped employees secure regular wage increases and have given them a high degree of job mobility.
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 due process rights.
The government has the power to detain suspects without trial under both the ISA and the Criminal Law Act (CLA). While the ISA historically has been applied mainly against suspected Communist security threats, the government recently has used the law to detain suspected Islamic terrorists. The ISA 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 of detentions under the ISA and of the constitutionality of the law itself. In 2001, authorities arrested 15 suspected terrorists under the ISA. In 2002, during another sweep, 21 alleged members of Jemaah Islamiyah, the regional Islamic terrorist group, were detained. It is not clear how many remain in jail.
The government uses the CLA to detain mainly organized-crime or drug-trafficking suspects. Under the law, authorities may place a suspect in preventive detention for an initial one-year period, which the president can extend for additional one-year periods, subject to habeas corpus appeal to the courts. Meanwhile, the Misuse of Drugs Act allows authorities to commit without trial suspected drug users to rehabilitation centers for up to three years. In any given year, several thousand Singaporeans are i n mandatory treatment and rehabilitation.
Police reportedly at times mistreat detainees, although the government in recent years has jailed several officers convicted of such abuses. The Penal Code mandates caning, in addition to imprisonment, for around 30 offenses involving the use of violence or threat of violence, and for nonviolent offenses including vandalism, drug trafficking, and certain immigration violations. Caning is discretionary for certain other crimes involving the use of force.
The government actively promotes racial harmony and equity in a society where race riots between Malays and the majority Chinese killed scores of people in the late 1960s. Ethnic Malays, however, have not on average achieved the schooling and income levels of ethnic Chinese or Tamils and reportedly face unofficial discrimination in private sector employment. Several government programs aim to boost educational achievement among Malay students.
Singaporean 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.