Singapore - Politics
As young Singaporeans become better educated and cosmopolitan, demands will grow for greater openness in government. Singapore will have to respond, but only incrementally over time.
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.
Following the 2011 elections, the PAP (having captured 60.1 percent of the vote) held 81 of 87 elected constituency seats in this 12th Parliament. Six opposition parties combined for 39.8 percent of the vote and one of them, the WP, won six elected seats, including their first-ever group representation constituency (GRC). A constitutional provision assures at least nine opposition members in Parliament; there were three nonconstituency members of Parliament (NCMP) in the 12th Parliament, two from the WP and one from the Singapore People’s Party. NCMPs are chosen from the highest finishing runners-up in an election.
The law provides for a president to be popularly elected for a six-year term from among candidates approved by a constitutionally prescribed committee selected by the government. In 2011 Tony Tan was elected president in the first contested presidential election since 1993. In the four-way race Tan won with 35.2 percent of the vote.
The opposition continued to criticize what it described as PAP abuse of its incumbency advantages to handicap opposition parties. Although political parties were legally free to organize, they operated under the same limitations that applied to all organizations, and authorities imposed strict regulations on their constitutions, fundraising, and accountability.
There were 28 registered political parties, seven of which were active. Six opposition parties contested the 2011 general elections. Political organizations are subject to strict financial regulations, including a ban on receiving foreign donations. During the year there were reports that government regulations hindered attempts by opposition parties to rent office space in government housing blocks or establish community foundations. In addition government influence extended in varying degrees to academic, community service, and other NGOs.
Some believe that PM Lee Hsien Loong's instincts are toward a loosening of political controls more in keeping Singapore's developed status and the times, but the strength of his father's character would prevent any real change as long as LKY was alive. Given LKY's stature and continued prominence, it was not surprising that PM Lee had been unwilling or unable to tone down Singapore's many restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly. In his first major address as PM, he encouraged Singaporeans to "speak your voice, be heard" and promised a greater openness for political dialogue. PM Lee recognized the need for openness as a means to encourage creativity and risk taking in a society where many looked to the government to take the lead. The pay off would come by fostering the entrepreneurship and innovation Singapore's economy needed to stay competitive, but not lead to anyone challenging the PAP's political dominance. However, that early promise for more openness was quickly cast aside.
The next election has to be called by January 2017 but many expected it to be called at the end of 2015 or early 2016.
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