Singapore - Politics
As young Singaporeans became better educated and cosmopolitan, demands grew for greater openness in government. Singapore will have to respond, but only incrementally over time. Autocratic rule by an entrenched elite, rhetoric of government effectiveness and ‘meritocracy’, the ubiquitous influence of personal power networks, and economic favoritism of cronies have long been remarked upon as characteristic features of the ‘Singapore model’.
Singapore is a parliamentary republic where the People’s Action Party (PAP), in power since 1959, overwhelmingly dominated the political scene. The 2011 general and presidential elections were viewed as open and free, with the major opposition party winning a record six seats in Parliament. The by-election held during the year was viewed as open and free, with the major opposition party winning the contested seat. Authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Security forces did not commit human rights abuses.
Law enforcement agencies, including the Internal Security Department and the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, had extensive networks for gathering information and conducting surveillance and highly sophisticated capabilities to monitor telephone and other private conversations. No court warrants are required for such operations. Most residents believed that authorities routinely monitored telephone conversations and the use of the internet. Most residents also believed that authorities routinely conducted surveillance of some opposition politicians and other government critics.
The government has broad powers to limit citizens’ rights. The government could and did censor the media (from television shows to websites) if it determined that the content would undermine social harmony or criticized the government. The Internal Security Act (ISA) permits preventive detention without warrant, filing of charges, or normal judicial review; in recent years the government has used it against alleged terrorists and not against persons in the political opposition.
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and freedom of expression but imposes official restrictions on these rights, and the government significantly restricted freedom of speech and of the press with regard to criticism of the government and statements that would undermine social or religious harmony.
Government intimidation and pressure to conform resulted in self-censorship among many journalists. Increased debate regarding many public issues, such as the institution of a minimum wage, public transportation, the rights of domestic workers, immigration policy, salaries of elected officials, and the role of the president did take place to a minor extent in newspapers but more so on the internet. The government-linked media extensively covered opposition parties and candidates.
Government leaders urged that news media support the goals of the elected leadership and help maintain social and religious harmony. In addition to strict defamation and press laws, the government’s demonstrated willingness to respond vigorously to what it considered personal attacks on officials led journalists and editors to moderate or limit what was published. In some instances, the government sued journalists or online bloggers for defamation or for stories that undermined social and religious harmony.
The government strongly influenced both the print and electronic media. Two companies, Singapore Press Holdings Limited (SPH) and MediaCorp, owned all general circulation newspapers in the four official languages – English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. A government investment company wholly owned MediaCorp. SPH is a private holding company with close ties to the government.
The government effectively restricted the ability to speak or demonstrate freely in public to a single location called Speakers’ Corner, located in a public park adjacent to a noisy intersection. Prospective speakers must be citizens and show their identification cards. Events need not be registered in advance with the police but must be preregistered online with the government. While it is not necessary to declare speech topics in advance, regulations governing the Speakers’ Corner state that “the speech should not be religious in nature and should not have the potential to cause feelings of enmity, ill will, or hostility between different racial or religious groups.” Subject to obtaining a police permit, permanent residents and other foreigners may also speak or participate in or organize activities at the Speakers’ Corner.
Some laws – the ISA, the Criminal Law (temporary provisions) Act (CLA), the Misuse of Drugs Act (the drug act), and the Undesirable Publications Act (UPA) – have provisions for arrest and detention without a warrant; under these laws executive branch officials can order continued detention without judicial review. Authorities have invoked the ISA primarily against suspected security threats. In recent years such threats have come from suspected terrorists. Authorities employed the CLA primarily against suspected organized crime and drug trafficking.
The law mandates caning, in addition to imprisonment, as punishment for approximately 30 offenses involving violence such as certain cases of rape and robbery, and for nonviolent offenses such as vandalism, drug trafficking, and violation of immigration laws. Caning is discretionary for convictions on other charges involving the use of force such as kidnapping or voluntarily causing grievous hurt. Caning can also be used as a punishment for misbehavior while in prison; such punishment must be approved by the prison director and reviewed by the Institutional Discipline Review Committee before being executed.
All women, men over age 50 or under age 16, men sentenced to death whose sentences have not been commuted, and persons determined medically unfit are exempt from punishment by caning. In 2012 the courts sentenced 2,500 persons to judicial caning, and 2,203 caning sentences were carried out; including 1,070 foreigners caned for committing immigration offenses.
In November 2012, 199 nationals of the People’s Republic of China working as public bus drivers went on strike. They reportedly were protesting their living conditions and the fact that they were paid at a lower rate than Malaysians and Singaporeans who also worked as drivers for the rapid transit system. The authorities regarded the action as an “illegal strike” because public transport is an “essential service” and the strikers had not provided the required 14 days’ notice.
Five of the strikers were detained and in December 2012 one striker, Bao Feng Shan, was sentenced to six weeks in prison for involvement in an illegal strike. A total of 29 bus drivers were deported for their participation in the strike. Three of the alleged ringleaders were fired by the bus company because they breached their contracts by failing to show up to work after being released on bail. This was the country’s first strike in 26 years.
On 08 December 2013, the country’s worst riot in more than 40 years took place when an estimated 300 South Asian migrant workers became enraged after an Indian worker was accidently killed in a traffic accident. Approximately 300 police and Special Forces responded and controlled the situation within hours. Some social activists and local NGOs believed that underlying racial tensions and unhappiness with living and work conditions were contributing factors.
Statements by senior government officials and state-influenced media suggested the government believed a confluence of unique circumstances, including alcohol consumption by some of the rioters, had fueled the unrest and not factors such as race or living and work conditions. On December 18, the government announced that 28 migrant workers would face charges, 53 would be deported without trial, and 200 others would receive warnings. The government also announced a Committee of Inquiry to investigate the riot.
The Parliamentary elections include the general elections and by-elections. The Parliament has a term of 5 years but may be dissolved at any time before the expiry of its 5-year term by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister. The general election must be held within 3 months of the dissolution of the Parliament. By-elections are held when the seat in Parliament for a Single Member Constituency (SMC) is vacated or when all Members of Parliament (MPs) for a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) vacate their seats.
The President is the Head of State and hold office for a term of 6 years. Presidential elections are generally open to prospective candidates from all races. However, to ensure multi-racial representation in the Presidency, an election for the office of the President will be reserved for a certain community (i.e. Chinese, Malay or Indian and other minority communities) if no person belonging to that community has held the office of the President for any of the last 5 terms of office. An open election will be held if no candidate is successfully nominated at a reserved election. In such an eventuality, the Prime Minister will issue a fresh Writ to direct the Returning Officer to hold an open election or a reserved election for the next eligible community, where applicable.
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