Charles Yu - May 2008
Singapore became a self-governing state in 1959, almost fifty years ago. Fifty years of self-governing and development have transformed Singapore into a modern financial city from a small British trading post in Southeast Asia. This might lead us into thinking that the political environment in Singapore must also be equally well. However, after all these years, Singapore is still not what you would call a consolidated democracy. There are problems still exist within the system that make it lags behind other countries in the transition to democracy.
Singapore’s political system may be somewhat confusing to outsiders because it has a President and a Prime Minister at the same time. The reality is that Singapore’s President is only a ceremonial head of state. He doesn’t hold much real power within the system. The Prime Minister, currently Lee Hsien Loong, is the true head of state (Freedom House). Therefore, Singapore has a parliamentary government structure and the 84 seats in the legislature are produced by competition among parties in a party block vote electoral system (International IDEA).
Although elections were held regularly, the results never change since the first election. The People’s Action Party (PAP) currently occupied 82 of the 84 seats in parliament and it has been ruling since 1959 (Freedom House). Due to this huge domination, essentially, Singapore is more of a single-party rule.
The reason PSP can maintain this dominance is a set of strict laws limiting political oppositions imposed by the party. For example, in Singapore, any public assemblies of 5 or more (basically all public assemblies) requires permission from the police. Also, all forms of public address and entertainment need permission from the government under the Public Entertainment and Meeting Act (Human Right Watch). Since the PAP dominates the government, it can simply refuse to grant any permission to their political rivals.
Furthermore, “[t]he Singapore government ruthlessly pursues politically motivated defamation cases to deprive political opponents” (Human Right Watch). Many of these defamation lawsuits involve large amount of fines required to be paid by the losing side, which is usually the political opponents. When the opponents fail to make payment, they will be declared bankrupt by the court. Sometimes, the opponents will even go to jail. Once they are bankrupted or jailed, they will no longer be able to speak out against the PAP. Chee Soon Juan, the leader of the opposing Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) was involved in such a lawsuit in January of 2005 and lost. The punishment was a fine of US$300,000 which he was unable to pay and was declared bankrupt by the court in February of 2006, about one year after the lawsuit (“Documents on democracy”). Later, in November 2006, he was arrested and jailed for speaking publicly without a permit.
In May 2006, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong called for a general election. However, he officially announced the date for the election nine days before the actual election, leaving opposing parties only nine days to campaign. Therefore, the result is, obviously, that the PAP is still in control of the government. It is very clear that the election “serve[s] more as a referendum on the prime minister’s popularity than as an actual contest for power” (Freedom House).
Freedom of the press is highly limited in Singapore. The Singapore government monitors the media and the internet closely. All political website must register with the Media Authority and display of controversial issues is banned by the Film Act (Human Right Watch). In April 2007, Martyn See, a film-maker, was forced to hand over the original and copies of his documentary “Zahari’s 17 years” to the government (Reporters without Borders). The film is about the 17-year imprisonment of Said Zahari, a journalist and and opposition figure. On the official press release regarding the ban of the film, the Minister of Information said “[t]he film gives a distorted and misleading portrayal of Said Zahari’s arrest and detention...” The Singapore government has control over the two major companies that monopolized Singapore’s media, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and MediaCorp. The SPH is closely linked to the ruling PAP and MediaCorp is owned by the government (BBC).
Despite the single-party dominance and highly restricted media, Singapore did manage to perform well in some areas. For example, the economy is doing very well. Singapore is the financial center of the region and an exporter of high-tech goods (Freedom House). Following an economic acceleration, the real GDP growth rate reached 8.1% in 2004 while it is only 1.1% in the previous year and it stays at a high level since then (Singapore - GDP - Real Growth Rate (%) - chart).
“Singapore is the least corrupt country in Asia” according to the National Integrity System Country Studies published by Transparency International (TI) in 2006. It is ranked fifth in TI’s Corruption Perceptions Index. This is especially outstanding when compare with other Asian countries. Recent rapid economic development has made corruption a big problem in those countries.
Although Singapore faced many problems in reaching a consolidated democracy, there are improvements when compare to the past. In the May 2006 election, despite its unfair nature, opposing parties actually managed to compete with the PAP over more then half the seat in parliament. In other words, the PAP did not automatically resumes to power. Also, opposing parties captures 33% of the vote in this election. They’ve only managed to capture 25% of the vote in the 2001 election (Freedom House).
The press is also freer when compare to the past. According to the U.S. Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, moderate debates over public issues appear on newspapers and magazines. Substantial amount of foreign publications are available uncensored. However, the government can ban the publication if they believe it “interfere[s] in domestic politics” (Freedom House).
As we can see from the evidence, Singapore is clearly not a consolidated democracy. A single-party dominance of the legislature and a restricted media makes it falls behind on two areas for consolidation - political society and civil society - while it is doing better in other areas. There are progress in these two areas, however they are occurring at a very slow pace. The development will be of interest to many people. Since, although Singapore lags behind on a globe scale, regionally it is much more closer in becoming a consolidated democracy than some of its neighbors. Therefore, Singapore is definitely a model for transition to democracy locally and its advancement may leads to advancement in some of its neighbors.
Country profile: Singapore. BBC. 1 May, 2008 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific>.
Country Summary - Singapore. Human Right Watch. 2008. 1 May 2008 <http://hrw.org/englishwr2k8/docs/2008/01/31/singap17616.htm>.
"Country View - Singapore." International IDEA. 17 May 2006. 1 May 2008 <http://www.idea.int/vt/country_view.cfm?countrycode=sg>.
"Documents on Democracy." Journal of Democracy 17 (2006): 181-186. ProQuest. 1 May 2008.
Freedom in the World - Singapore (2007). Freedom House. 2007. 1 May 2008 <http://www.freedomhouse.org/inc/content/pubs/fiw/inc_country_detail.cfm?year=2007&country=7269&pf>.
Singapore. Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts. Press release on prohibition of the film “Zahari's 17 Years” Singapore National Archive, 2007
Singapore - Annual report 2008. Reporters Without Borders. 1 May, 2008 <http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=25653>.
"Singapore - GDP - Real Growth Rate (%)." Chart. Index Mundi. Index Mundi. 1 May 2008 <http://www.indexmundi.com/g/g.aspx?c=sn&v=66>.
Tay, Simon S., Gavin Chua Hearn Yuit, and Joanne Lin. Transparency International Country Study Report - Singapore 2006. Transparency International. 2006. 1 May 2008 <http://www.transparency.org/content/download/12597/123955/file/singapore_nis_2006.pdf>.
United States. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2006 - Singapore. 6 Mar. 2007. 1 May 2008 <http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2006/78790.htm>.