2001 Scores

Status: Partly Free
Freedom Rating: 5.0
Civil Liberties: 5
Political Rights: 5


Saying it was time to make way for a new generation of politicians, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said in April 2000 that he would step down following elections due by early 2002.

Singapore became a British colony in 1867. Occupied by the Japanese during World War II, the city-state became self-governing in 1959, entered the Malaysian Federation in 1963, and in 1965 became fully independent under Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Under Lee, the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) built a welfare state and nurtured private enterprise while restricting individual freedoms. Before it lost a 1981 by-election, the PAP had won every seat in every election from 1968 to 1980. Lee resigned in 1990 in favor of his hand-picked successor, Goh, now 58.

Goh has largely continued Lee's policies and maintained the PAP's dominance in parliament. With the opposition contesting only 36 of the 83 parliamentary seats in the January 2, 1997 elections, the PAP won 65 percent of the vote and 81 seats. The leftist Workers Party (WP) and the centrist Singapore People's Party each won 1 seat. However, the nine-day campaign featured a rare airing of diverse views on critical issues. Opposition calls for greater freedom of expression and criticism of rising costs of living appeared to resonate among young professionals. 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. Following the election, Goh and ten other PAP leaders brought defamation charges over campaign statements made by two defeated WP candidates, party secretary-general J. B. Jeyaretnam and Tang Liang Hong. The courts ruled against both men, although the final judgments were for considerably less than the PAP leaders had sought.

Since expanding the president's powers in 1993, the government has used a strict vetting process to prevent any real competition for the office. After the Presidential Election Commission disqualified three other candidates on the grounds that they lacked the requisite competence or integrity, a PAP veteran and former ambassador, S. R. Nathan, 75, became president by default in August 1999.

While the PAP has not announced Goh's successor, an early favorite is one of Lee's two sons, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. The younger Lee has taken a leading role in recent years on banking liberalization and other financial policy issues.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Constitutionally, Singaporeans can change their government through elections. The 1959 constitution vested executive power in a prime minister and created a parliament that is directly elected for a five-year term. Two amendments authorize the government to appoint additional members of parliament to ensure that the opposition has at least three seats. Separately, a 1993 amendment provided for the president to be elected for a six-year term and vested the office with budget-oversight powers and some authority over civil service appointments and internal security matters.

The PAP runs an efficient, competent, and largely corruption-free administration and appears to enjoy considerable popular support. However, it limits dissent through its threats and actual use of defamation and security laws against political opponents; its control over the press; its restrictions on opposition political activities; and its use of patronage. Also limiting the opposition's success in elections is its difficulty in fielding viable slates for parliament's Group Representation Constituencies (GRC), which are multimember districts with up to six seats each. The party with a plurality in the district wins all the seats. The current parliament has 15 GRCs and only 9 single-member districts.

Notwithstanding the difficulty posed by the GRCs, the greatest constraint on Singapore's opposition is the government's use of the legal system against political foes. In recent years, courts have ruled consistently in favor of PAP members in defamation and libel suits, although they have acquitted defendants or reduced monetary damages in some cases. The pro-PAP rulings have chilled free speech, raised questions about judicial independence, and nearly bankrupted some opposition figures. Outside observers have criticized many of the rulings. For example, Amnesty International noted that a 1997 defamation conviction against WP leader Jeyaretnam was based on the alleged "innuendo" of his statement rather than on Jeyaretnam's actual words. In May 2000, the high court overturned a bankruptcy ruling against Jeyaretnam, 74, after he failed to maintain payments to an attorney on roughly $17,000 in libel damages stemming from a 1995 article. A bankruptcy ruling would have prevented Jeyaretnam from sitting in parliament.

It is difficult to determine whether the government pressures judges or whether it simply appoints judges who share its philosophy and end up ruling in the PAP's favor. The president appoints supreme court judges on the recommendation of the prime minister with the advice of the chief justice, and appoints lower court judges on the recommendation of the chief justice. Chaired by the chief justice, the Legal Services Commission sets the terms of appointment for judges, many of whom have close ties to PAP leaders.

The government also uses the law to constrain the media and won several high-profile court cases against the press in the 1990s. A court fined two journalists and three economists in 1994 under the Official Secrets Act for publishing advance gross domestic product figures. Courts handed down contempt-of-court and libel rulings in 1995 against the International Herald Tribune and fined it $892,000. While foreign publications are available, authorities have temporarily restricted the circulation of Time, Far Eastern Economic Review, The Economist, and other publications in recent years following articles on Singapore that the government found offensive. The government took these measures under a 1986 amendment to the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, which allows authorities to "gazette," or restrict circulation of, any foreign periodical for publishing articles allegedly interfering in domestic politics.

Moreover, most journalists work for media that are linked to the government. The privately held Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), which owns all general circulation newspapers, has close ties to the PAP. This is in part because by law, the government must approve the owners of key "management shares" in SPH. In addition, the government-affiliated Singapore International Media PTE, Ltd., operates all 4 free television stations and 10 of Singapore's 15 domestic radio stations. Four of the remaining 5 stations are operated by government-affiliated organizations. Given these constraints, journalists practice self-censorship regarding numerous political, social, and economic issues, and editorials and domestic news coverage strongly favor the PAP. Government-linked companies also provide the three Internet services and the cable television service. The government subjects movies, television, videos, music, and the Internet to censorship. However, in recent years authorities appear to have loosened their restrictions on the arts.

In this tightly-controlled society, the government also prohibits discussion of sensitive racial issues and closely regulates public speech. Chee Soon Juan of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party served jail terms of 7 and 12 days in 1999 for violating the Public Entertainment Act by making a pair of speeches without licenses in December 1998 and January 1999. Chee opted to serve the sentences rather than pay fines, and alleged that on previous occasions authorities had denied or delayed granting licenses until it was too late to make arrangements to speak. In September 2000, the government inaugurated a "Speakers' Corner" in a downtown park, where Singaporeans can make public speeches without a license after registering with the police.

Under the Societies Act, the government has denied registration to groups it considers to be a threat to public order, although in 1999 it permitted opposition leaders Chee and Jeyaretnam to establish Singapore's first politically oriented nongovernmental organization, the nonpartisan Open Singapore Center. The act requires most organizations of more than ten people to be registered and restricts political activity to political parties. Despite this latter restriction, the PAP has close ties with ostensibly nonpolitical associations such as neighborhood groups, while authorities generally prevent opposition parties from forming similar groups. Freedom of assembly is restricted by regulations requiring police to approve any public assembly of more than five people.

While the government released its last political detainee held under the colonial-era Internal Security Act in 1989, it still uses the act to detain suspects in espionage and other cases. The act permits authorities to detain suspects without charge or trial for an unlimited number of two-year periods. The government also actively uses two other laws that permit detention without trial: one to detain people for alleged narcotics offenses or involvement in secret societies, the other to commit drug abusers to rehabilitation centers. A 1989 constitutional amendment prohibits judicial review of the substantive grounds of detentions under the ISA and antisubversion laws, and bars the judiciary from reviewing the constitutionality of such laws. ISA defendants also lack the right to a public trial.

While courts have imposed prison sentences on officers convicted of abusing detainees, police reportedly occasionally commit such abuses. Authorities use caning to punish approximately 30 offenses, including certain immigration violations.

The government generally respects freedom of religion, but continues to ban the Jehovah's Witnesses under the Societies Act on the grounds that its members refuse to perform military service. According to Amnesty International, at least 36 Jehovah's Witnesses were in prison in 1998 for conscientious objection to military service. The government also continued to bar meetings of Jehovah's Witnesses and of the Unification Church. Race riots between Malays and the majority Chinese killed scores of people in the 1960s, and the government takes measures to promote racial harmony and equity. However, Malays have not achieved the socioeconomic levels of the rest of the population and reportedly face unofficial discrimination in employment opportunities. The government has initiated programs to boost educational achievement among Malay students. Women are active in the professions but are underrepresented in government and politics.

Most unions are affiliated with the pro-government National Trade Unions Congress. The law prevents uniformed employees from unionizing. There have been no strikes since 1986, in part because labor shortages give employees considerable leverage. The labor shortages reflect the PAP's success in fostering Singapore's transformation from a low-wage economy to a regional high-technology and financial center.

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