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Freedom in the World 2010 - Singapore

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 1 June 2010
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2010 - Singapore, 1 June 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4c1a1e9fc.html [accessed 23 September 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Capital: Singapore
Population: 5,113,000

Political Rights Score: 5 *
Civil Liberties Score: 4 *
Status: Partly Free

Overview

The authorities continued to restrict freedoms of speech and assembly in 2009. In April, Singapore's legislature passed a measure that would require police permission for public assemblies of all sizes, removing a previous threshold of five or more people. In October, the Far Eastern Economic Review lost an appeal in a defamation case brought by the prime minister and his father; the magazine agreed to settle the case in November and was shuttered by its owners in December.


The British colony of Singapore obtained home rule in 1959, entered the Malaysian Federation in 1963, and gained full independence in 1965. During his three decades as prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew and his 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. Lee's son, Lee Hsien Loong, became prime minister in 2004, and the elder Lee assumed the title of "minister mentor." In 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 82 of the 84 elected seats with 66 percent of the vote, although the opposition offered candidates for 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.

Over the next three years, 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. Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) leader Chee Soon Juan faced multiple convictions and heavy fines for defamation and other crimes in 2007 and 2008, while the Far Eastern Economic Review, a 63-year-old magazine owned by the U.S.-based News Corporation, was forced to pay some US$300,000 in November 2009 to settle a defamation case brought by the Lees.

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 independence. Of the unicameral legislature's 84 elected members, who serve five-year terms, 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 3 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Singapore's media market remains tightly constrained. All domestic 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. 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 regulations in place since 2006 require all foreign publications to appoint legal representatives and provide significant financial deposits. The leadership's practice of using defamation suits and license revocations to silence critical media is often applied to foreign-owned outlets. In October 2009, the Far Eastern Economic Review lost its appeal of an earlier judgment finding that it had defamed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, Lee Kuan Yew, by publishing a 2006 interview with an opposition figure. The magazine agreed to settle the case for about US$300,000 in November, and it was discontinued as of December 2009 by its owner, the U.S.-based News Corporation, which cited falling revenues and readership. The Lees have never lost a defamation case in Singapore.

The internet is widely accessible, but the authorities monitor online material and block some content through directives to licensed service providers. In 2008, lawyer and blogger Gopalan Nair was sentenced to three months in jail for insulting judges on his blog and in an e-mail message.

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. In October 2009, five adherents of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, including Singapore nationals and mainland Chinese, were arrested and briefly detained after putting up posters in a public park that described the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in China; the case was pending at year's end.

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. Political speeches are tightly regulated, and public assemblies must be approved by police. Legislation passed in April 2009 eliminated a previous threshold requiring permits for public assemblies of five or more people, meaning political events involving just one person could require official approval. Permits are not needed for private, indoor gatherings as long as the topic of discussion is not race or religion.

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 180,000 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. Of the current Parliament's 84 elected seats, 17 are held by women, all of whom belong to the PAP. In 2007, 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.


*Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

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