Singapore: A wealthy city-state where the freedom is poor

Singapore is known to outsiders for its unique laws on the likes of chewing gum, tobacco, toy currency (not counterfeit, but the ones children play with) and pornographic material. It is also one of the wealthiest countries in the Asian continent, if not the world, with a GDP per capita of $60,900. Likewise known for its highly developed and successful free-market economy, Singapore enjoys a remarkably open and corruption-free environment and stable currency. But there is a side to Singapore often overshadowed by its economic success, and this side does not necessarily reflect the best of Singapore.

The Singaporean government guarantees its citizens the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. However, Singapore permits broadly interpreted restrictions not only for security, public order and morality, but also for parliamentary privilege and racial and religious harmony. Moreover, such restrictions can be used to facilitate censorship of broadcast and electronic media, films, video, music, sound recordings and computer games. What’s more, the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act requires publications to renew their licenses on a yearly basis, thus enabling government officials to limit the circulation of foreign newspapers they deem to “engage in the domestic politics of Singapore.” Another major problem regarding freedom of the press stems from the fact that the two corporations which dominate the media in Singapore are either wholly owned by a government investment company (MediaCorp) or a private company (Singapore Press Holdings Limited), friendly to the government, and whose boardroom holds the power to hire and fire directors and staff across its publications at will.

Although Singapore loosened some limitations on free speech, association and assembly in mid-March 2011, it has tightened restrictions on other sources of information. Blogs, podcasts and social networking sites were permitted for use in Internet election advertising as long as they did not contain recorded messages that were “dramatized” or “out of context,” neither of which was properly defined. Moreover, government officials continue to maintain that religious and ethnic differences have “the potential to cause friction and divide Singaporeans,” and in doing so justify maintaining restrictions on free speech.

Singapore’s judicial system is another case in note. The Internal Security Act (ISA) and Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act allow for virtually unlimited detentions of suspects without charge or judicial review, if necessary. On the other hand, when dealing with drug-related issues, the Misuse of Drugs Act permits the confinement of suspected drug users in “rehabilitation” centres for up to three years without trial, and second-time offenders may face long prison terms and even be caned. Singapore has also continued to implement mandatory death sentences for some 20 drug-related offenses, despite heavy criticism. Judicial caning, an inherently cruel punishment, is a mandatory and additional punishment for medically fit males between the ages of 16 and 50 who have been sentenced to prison for a range of crimes, including drug trafficking, rape and immigration offences. A sentencing official may at his discretion order caning in different cases involving approximately 30 other violent and non-violent crimes. The maximum number of strokes at any one time is 24. The United States State Department reported that in 2010, “3,170 convicted persons were sentenced to judicial caning, and 98.7 percent of caning sentences were carried out.” During its HRC Universal Periodic Review (UPR), Singapore rejected all recommendations designed to eliminate caning.

Sexual discrimination is also prevalent in Singapore. Penal Code Section 377A criminalizes sexual acts between consenting adult men in the name of AIDS prevention and public safety. The same does not apply for women. The claim would appear to be absurd given that Singapore boasts one of the world’s best healthcare systems. Considering the amount of discrimination homosexuals already endure within Singaporean society, criminalization of male homosexuality must be condemned in the strongest terms possible.

Singapore is a beautiful city-state with many positive policies and systems to learn from, but it also is accurate to say that it needs reform of its judicial process, freedom of speech, and discriminatory policies. As Singapore seeks to cope with difficulties with neighbouring Malaysia and other South East Asian states, it will have to improve its record of freedom among its citizens. It would be intriguing to see what kind of direction Singapore takes as it emerges into one of the region’s key economic players.

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