Singapore becoming less free: Freedom House report 2009

September 2, 2009
Singapore Democrats

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Freedom House

Singapore received a downward trend arrow due to the politically motivated handling of defamation cases, which cast doubt on judicial independence.


As part of a broader legal crackdown on government critics in 2008, opposition politician Chee Soon Juan was ordered to pay roughly US$400,000 in defamation damages to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Another vocal critic of the government, Gopalan Nair, received a three-month jail sentence for insulting two judges on his blog.

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 did 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; the opposition Workers’ Party and Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) each won a single seat despite receiving 16.3 percent and 13 percent of the vote, respectively.

In 2007 and 2008, Lee continued to pursue his economic agenda while using the legal system and other tools to keep the opposition in check. The government also maintained that racial sensitivities and the threat of Islamist terrorism justified draconian restrictions on freedoms of speech and assembly. Such rules were repeatedly used to silence criticism of the authorities.

In September 2007, Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) leader Chee Soon Juan was convicted for trying to travel to a 2006 World Movement for Democracy conference without a permit. He stood trial again in October 2008, marking his eighth trial since 1992, this time for defamation and allegedly participating in an illegal gathering. Chee, a lawyer by training, represented himself due to the absence of lawyers willing to take his case. The High Court subsequently ordered Chee, his sister, and his political party to pay S$610,000 (US$420,000) in defamation damages to the prime minister and his father. The ruling appeared likely to force the SDP into bankruptcy. Chee had already been forced into bankruptcy in 2006 by a US$300,000 ruling against him for defaming former prime ministers Goh and Lee.

Separately, longtime opposition politician J. B. Jeyaretnam died in September. He had been disqualified from Parliament in 2001 after being ordered to pay libel damages for criticizing PAP officials and had refused to pay until June 2007. He had subsequently initiated plans to form a new Democratic Reform Party.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Singapore is not an electoral democracy. The country is governed through a parliamentary system, and elections are free from irregularities and vote rigging, but the ruling PAP dominates the political process. The prime minister retains control over the Elections Department, and the country lacks a structurally independent election authority. Opposition campaigns are 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.

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. Of the unicameral legislature’s 84 members, 9 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.

Singapore has traditionally been lauded for its relative lack of corruption. 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 was ranked 4 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.

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 the colonial period, 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.

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 of that year, 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. The PAP regularly uses 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.

The government continued its efforts to impose licensing restrictions on the internet, including the blogosphere, in 2008. Blogger Gopalan Nair was charged in June for posting insults aimed at a High Court judge on his blog and another judge in an email. Nair was subsequently sentenced to three months in jail under the Miscellaneous Offences, Public Order, and Nuisance Act.

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 on matters related to Singapore.

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. In March 2008, a group of 17 people protested recent price hikes near the Parliament House; two of them were subsequently fined for participating in an illegal procession.

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 5 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 raises questions about judicial independence, particularly because lawsuits against opposition politicians and parties often drive them into bankruptcy. 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, and defendants in criminal cases enjoy most due process rights.

The government generally respects citizens’ right to privacy, but the Internal Security Act (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. 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.

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, though 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 2 of the appointed members. In 2007, the government decided to uphold a ban on sex between men, and Parliament voted to maintain provisions of the Penal Code that make acts of “gross indecency” between men punishable by up to two years in prison.