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Rule of Law: Country Studies - Singapore

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 4 Political Rights, 4 Civil Liberties (Partly Free)


Singapore, a city-state located on an island off the southern end of the Malay Peninsula, is one of the smallest UN member states, with a total area of just 693 square kilometers, placing it 189th in the world in terms of landmass. Singapore declared independence from Great Britain on August 31, 1963, and then, following its brief merger with Malaysia from 1963 to 1965, it became fully independent on August 9, 1965. In many respects, Singapore defies political and economic expectations.

Singapore (Creative Commons)
Despite its small geographic size, its population in 2006 of 4.4 million makes it one of the world's most densely populated states. Singapore is also one of the world's most economically successful states, with a gross national income (GNI) per capita in 2006 at $29,320 (31st in the world) and a GNI measured by purchasing power parity (PPP) at $31,700 (26th in the world). Singapore's economic success, however, has been achieved in concert with a significant degree of state involvement in the economy and an authoritarian political system. The ruling political party, the People's Action Party (PAP), has ruled since before independence, often with harsh means. Singapore's long-serving leader, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (1959–90), was a principal defender of the idea that Asia has distinctly authoritarian political values that are incompatible with democracy (see interview with Fareed Zakaria). An example of a "successful" authoritarian system, Singapore is seen as a model that some other countries (including the People's Republic of China) have looked to as an alternative to Western democracy.


Given its central geographic location, Singapore served as a center for trade for centuries. Its early settlers were Chinese and Malay traders and fishermen dating from the early first millennium and possibly before. Its name, "Singa Pura," means "Lion City," and according to legend, it was given the name by a prince of the Malay Sri Vijayan Empire who believed that he saw a lion upon his arrival. The island fell under the control of several Malay empires and in 1511 became a part of the Jahore Sultanate.

British Colonization

The British governor in India, who sought to challenge the Dutch monopoly in Malaysia, which had been established since the 17th century (see Country Study of Malaysia), decided to approve the request of Sir Thomas Raffles in 1819 to establish a new trading post in Singapore. In fact, despite its central location and natural harbor, Singapore had been ignored by the Dutch in favor of other routes through the Strait of Malacca. Upon his arrival in Singapore, Raffles signed a treaty with the Sultan of Jahore granting the British East India Company the right to establish a trading post on the island in exchange for an annual fee. In 1823, an agreement was made for British possession of the entire island in exchange for a yearly payment. On March 17, 1824, the Anglo-Dutch Treaty cemented British control over Singapore and demarcated British and Dutch holdings: The British controlled territory north of the Strait of Malacca (Singapore, Penang, and Malacca), and the Dutch controlled the area to the south (Indonesia).

Founder of Modern Singapore: Sir Thomas Raffles

Today, Sir Thomas Raffles is considered the founder of modern Singapore, which was initially part of the Straits Settlements that was established in 1926 and included Labuan, Malacca, Penang, and Singapore. Raffles set up its basic ethnic neighborhood structure and established the city as a major commercial hub in the region, rivaling other British and Dutch trading centers. In the decades after Raffles's departure from Singapore in 1823, Singapore grew to be one of the major ports in the world, the result of Malaya's rubber and tin trade, the advent of steamships, and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The growing merchant population lobbied successfully for the Straits Settlements' status as a crown colony, which was granted in 1867 and meant that Singapore would be ruled directly by leaders in London. This status also led to the establishment of advisory legislative and executive councils (mainly of British subjects but with some local representation) and the British court and legal system.

From Crown Colony to Japanese Occupation

During World War II, Great Britain suffered a series of defeats by the Japanese, including the Battle of Malaya in late 1941 and the Battle of Singapore in February 1942, when the Japanese secured control over Singapore. The Japanese occupation of Singapore from 1942 to 1945 was one of the harshest periods of rule in Singapore's history. Like their Axis counterparts in Europe, the Japanese armed forces willfully violated accepted rules for the conduct of war and occupation, imprisoning and executing those perceived as anti-Japanese, enforced by a system of military courts. It is estimated that between 5,000 and 25,000 Singaporeans lost their lives under the occupation.

Following the surrender of the Japanese to the Allies on August 15, 1945, the Straits Settlements dissolved, with Malacca and Penang becoming part of the Malayan Union and Singapore becoming its own crown colony.

From Self-Governance to Independence

Yet the return of Great Britain's milder colonial rule, while widely welcomed, nevertheless was still resented by many Singaporeans, who felt that the British had failed to defend a loyal ally to the crown and asked for greater self-rule. Britain, facing independence movements elsewhere, was willing to grant greater self-governance and even eventual self-rule. The first elections in Singaporean history in 1948 were restricted to the city-state's approximately 23,000 British subjects, who chose six of the 25 Legislative Council members. By February 1948, the Communist insurgency in Malaya prompted the British to impose a state of emergency that continued until the early 1960s, and allowed for indefinite detention without charges and the abolishment of other basic precepts of rule of law. When the 1951 elections were won by the conservative and business-oriented Singapore Progressive Party, the British felt confident in the establishment of a Singapore-based government.

Under the British plan for self-governance, designed in 1953, elections were held in April 1955 for a new 32-member Legislative Assembly with 25 elected seats. In this election, two leftist parties, the Labor Front and the People's Action Party, won a majority of seats, with the leader of the Labor Front, David Marshall, calling for independence and a merger with Malaya. Following Malaya's independence in 1957, the British government permitted Singapore's self-governance and arranged for new elections in 1959. In the 1959 elections, the PAP's Lee Kuan Yew was elected prime minister, and he also supported independence and a merger with Malaya. The PAP, courting mostly the majority Chinese vote, won 43 of the 51 seats in elections in 1959.

The main question for Singapore was its relationship with Malaya. In 1962, the PAP's proposal to merge with Malaya was approved in a referendum, and Singapore officially joined with Malaya on September 16, 1963, becoming the Federation of Malaysia. However, problems between Singapore and Malaysia emerged over its national policy of discrimination in favor of Malay, its establishment of Islam as the state religion, and different efforts to foment racial antipathy. Race riots between ethnic Chinese and Malay in 1964 led the Malaysian prime minister to expel Singapore from the federation by a 126–0 vote in the legislature, which Singapore's ministers did not attend. In a rare, if not unique, case of unwanted independence, Singapore announced its sovereignty on August 9, 1965.

The Rule of Law

The 1959 Singaporean elections, dominated by the PAP, set the stage for the city-state's future as an independent and authoritarian country. After 1959, the PAP continued to win the majority of seats in the legislature, which was renamed Parliament and has expanded to a total of 84 seats. Lee Kuan Yew served as prime minister until he resigned in 1990, although he continued to dominate Singaporean politics as the PAP's leader until 1992. Since independence from Malaysia, Singapore has been economically and socially successful. Both before the federation (1959–63) and after independence in 1965, Prime Minister Yew embarked on a set of policies that set Singapore on an upward economic path, including state investment in electronics and other export industries, the nationalization of major industries, the control by a housing development board of all rental property, tax holidays to welcome foreign investment, and the establishment of basic legal foundations for a free-market economy.

Lee Kuan Yew ruled in an authoritarian manner and created a repressive system that punished free expression, independent political activity, the freedom of association, and other basic rights that are considered fundamental to the rule of law.
The Price of Economic Progress: Repression

At the same time, Lee Kuan Yew ruled in an authoritarian manner and created a repressive system that punished free expression, independent political activity, the freedom of association, and other basic rights that are considered fundamental to the rule of law. In 1990, after 31 years, he stepped down as prime minister in favor of a longtime ally, Goh Chok Tong. In 2004, Tong was succeeded by Lee Kuan Yew's son, Lee Hsien Loong. Yew has nonetheless maintained influence in Singaporean politics through advisory positions and active commentary on political matters. Opposition political parties face obstacles and an unbalanced electoral playing field, and the governing PAP is bolstered by influence over the judiciary and the press, restrictions on assembly and speech, and the use of detentions. The leaders of the main opposition parties and the editors of their party newspapers are sometimes jailed or sued in court for slander, often bankrupting them in the process.

The Reach of the Internal Security Act

Singapore lacks various elements of the rule of law found in free societies, most importantly the protection of human rights and the separation of powers. In general, Singapore is governed by English common law, but laws have often not been amended since the 19th century, reflecting provisions that are either outdated or allow for corporal punishment, such as caning; in 1994, an American student was caned for vandalizing cars. A critical component of Singaporean law is the Internal Security Act, which the British imposed in response to the Communist insurgency in the 1950, and today permits the Internal Security Department to take action against perceived security threats, such as terrorism or the disruption of racial and religious peace. Other laws adopted since 1965 have imposed a regime of harsh penalties for what many Westerners would consider minor offenses, such as chewing gum. The severity of punishment is heightened for illicit activities such as the transport or use of drugs, for which there are mandatory penalties, including death. The state has also granted Islamic law courts jurisdiction for the minority Muslim community in noncriminal cases, thus allowing them to govern all marital, personal, and religious matters, meaning that Muslim women cannot appeal to Singaporean courts.

Judges in Singapore lack independence and generally decide cases in support of the regime regardless of the case presented before the court. Justices are appointed at the recommendation of the prime minister by the president, who since 1991 is elected by popular vote but is in fact chosen by the head of the ruling party (meaning Lee Kuan Yew), since presidential candidates must first be approved to run for office. While some observers consider the judiciary to have achieved greater independence in recent years, courts regularly rule against opposition party leaders and activists as well as independent critics of the regime, both in civil slander cases and in criminal cases. Members of the spiritual group Falun Gong have been denied the permission to assemble in public. In 1997, Prime Minister Tong and other PAP members were awarded damages worth over $2 million in response to accusations by an opposition politician, Tang Liang Hong, that ruling party members were liars. Other opposition leaders have also faced arrest, including Dr. Chee Soon Juan, the leader of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), who was arrested most recently in 2006 for speaking in public without a permit.

147th in Media Freedom

The media are strongly controlled by the state, with few alternatives available to citizens for independent news. In 2006, the media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore 146th in media freedom (out of 168 countries surveyed); Freedom House's Freedom of the Press 2007 survey considered Singapore "not free" in terms of media freedoms, ranking it 154th (out of 195 countries). Restrictions on the freedom of expression also extend to foreign media outlets, which are sometimes restricted from distributing materials containing negative stories about Singapore or its political leadership. Such censorship has occurred with the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Newsweek, and others. The Financial Times has agreed to be sold partly censored, while the Economist refuses to be distributed. All magazines deemed pornographic are banned. Political party newspapers are basically banned through regular use of the slander laws. In the 2006 elections, the possibility for political speech and thus of effective political opposition was further restricted by new rules prohibiting political commentary through websites, blogs, and podcasts that might be considered biased toward a candidate or party, meaning an opposition candidate.