Rule of Law: Country Studies — Singapore

Singapore Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status: Partly Free.  Freedom Ranking: 4; Political Rights: 4; Civil Liberties: 4.



Singapore, a city-state located on an island located off the southern end of the Malay Peninsula, declared its independence from Great Britain on August 31, 1963. Following a brief merger with the Malaysian Federation from 1963 to August 1965, it became fully independent.

Like Malaysia, Singapore’s has been ruled by the same party since independence and its government is highly authoritarian. Freedom House regularly categorizes Singapore as “partly free.” The ruling party, the People's Action Party (PAP), has dominated Singapore’s politics since before independence. The country’s first leader, Lee Kuan Yew, served for 30 years as Prime Minister (1959–90). After that, he remained a dominant figure in political life as a “senior minister” to his first successor, Goh Chok Sun (1990–2004) and as “minister mentor” for his son, Lee Hsien Loong, who has served as prime minister since 2005. (He formally retired from the “minister mentor” position in 2011 and died in 2015.) The rule of law operates to serve the interests and authoritarian policies of the government. Courts regularly restrict and imprison political opponents. Singapore is known for its restrictive culture and severe punishment of such transgressions as chewing bubble gum. Like Malaysia’s initial prime minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia (see Country Study in Multiparty Systems), the elder Lee was a prime defender of authoritarian political values and argued that democracy is incompatible with Asian culture. As an example of a "successful" authoritarian system, Singapore is a model that some other countries (including the People's Republic of China) have looked to as an alternative to Western democracy.

Singapore is one of the smallest UN member states by landmass, with a total area of just 693 square kilometers. It has a population of 5.5 million (75 percent are ethnic Chinese, 13 percent Malay, and 9 percent Indian) and is the second most densely populated sovereign state in the world. It also has one of the world's most successful economies, combining free market policies with a high degree of state involvement in the economy. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in 2015 its nominal per capita GDP ranked 6th highest in the world at $53,225 per annum (it is 3rd when measured by Purchasing Power Parity, which takes into account inflation and currency rate factors).  Singapore is also considered one of the least corrupt countries in the world, ranking 8th (out of 167 countries) in Transparency International's 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index.


Given its central geographic location on the straits between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Singapore has served as a center for trade for two millennia. Its early settlers were Chinese and Malay traders and fishermen dating at least from the early first centuries AD. Its Malay name, "Singa Pura," means "Lion City," and according to legend, it was given the name by a prince of the Sri Vijayan Malay Empire, who believed that he saw a lion on the island 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

In 1819, the British governor in India, Lord Hastings, approved a proposal of Sir Thomas Raffles, a governor of a neighboring island, to establish a new trading post in Singapore as part of a general policy to challenge the Dutch colonial hold over Indonesia and Malaysia (see Country Studies). 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 rights to a trading post in exchange for an annual fee. In 1823, the British gained full possession of the island — also 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).

Sir Thomas Raffles: Founder of Modern Singapore:

Today, Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles is considered the founder of modern Singapore. Raffles set up an 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 combined result of Malaya's rubber and tin trade, the advent of steamships, and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 to facilitate Europe’s sea traffic to and from Asia. In 1867, the growing merchant population lobbied successfully for the Straits Settlements, a group of British-held islands and territories in Southeast Asia to which Singapore belonged, to be designated as what the British called a Crown Colony. This meant that within the Straights Settlements Singapore would be ruled directly by leaders in London and not by appointed governors. This status also led to the establishment of advisory legislative and executive councils (mainly of British subjects but with some non-British representation) and the adoption of the British court and legal system.

From Crown Colony to Japanese Occupation

In the first years of World War II, Great Britain suffered a series of defeats to the Japanese in its Southeast Asian territories, including the Battle of Malaya in late 1941 and the Battle of Singapore in February 1942 that resulted in the occupation of the Malaya peninsula, Singapore, and all of the Straits Settlements. 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. Up to 25,000 Singaporeans lost their lives during Japan’s brutal occupation.

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

From Self-Governance to Independence

The return of Great Britain's milder colonial rule, while widely welcomed, was nevertheless still resented by many Singaporeans, who felt that the British had failed in its defense of a loyal ally against the Japanese. Singaporean leaders began to ask for greater self-rule. Facing independence movements elsewhere in the empire and with the British public generally favoring decolonization, the British government granted a plan for greater self-governance and ultimately self-rule. The first elections in Singapore’s history were held in 1948 but these were restricted to the city-state's approximately 23,000 British subjects, who chose six of the 25 Legislative Council members. At the same time, however, a Communist insurgency in Malaya prompted the British to impose a state of emergency on both colonies. The emergency rule allowed indefinite detention without charge and the abolishment of other basic precepts of rule of law otherwise applied under colonial rule. But the British grew more confident in allowing the establishment of a Singapore-based government when expanded elections in 1951 were won by the conservative and business-oriented Singapore Progressive Party.

Elections were then held in April 1955 for a new 32-member Legislative Assembly with 25 directly elected seats. In this election, two leftist parties, the Labor Front and the People's Action Party, won a majority of the seats. The leader of the Labor Front, David Marshall, called for full independence and a merger with Malaya. Following Malaya's independence in 1957, the British government permitted the establishment of formal self-governance for Singapore and arranged for new elections. In those elections, held in 1959, the People’s Action Party (PAP) won 43 of 51 seats for the assembly and its leader, Lee Kuan Yew, was elected prime minister.

The main question for Singapore, which is majority ethnic Chinese, was its relationship with Malaya. In 1962, the PAP's proposal to merge with Malaya was approved in a referendum and Singapore joined the Federation of Malaysia on September 16, 1963. But problems emerged between the two states over a number of issues: the Federation’s national policy of discrimination in favor of bumiputera, or indigenous 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 to Singapore being expelled from the federation by a 126–0 vote in the federation legislature (Singaporean members did not attend the special session called for the vote). In a rare, if not unique, case of unasked-for independence, Singapore announced its sovereignty on August 9, 1965.

The Lee Kuan Yew Model Kuan Yew ruled in a politically authoritarian manner. The rule of law, while uniform, was uniformly repressive.

The dominance of Lee Kuan Yew’s PAP in the 1959 Singaporean elections set the stage for the city-state's future as an independent and authoritarian country. In subsequent elections, the PAP continued to win the large majority of seats in the legislature, which was expanded to a total of 84 seats and renamed Parliament. Lee Kuan Yew served as prime minister until he resigned in 1990, whereupon he continued to dominate politics, first as “senior minister” his first successor, Goh Chok Sun (1990–2004) and then as “minister mentor” for his son, Lee Hsien Loong, who has served as prime minister since 2005.

Since self-governance was established, Singapore has been highly successful economically. Both before the federation (1959–63) and after independence in 1965, Prime Minister Lee adopted a set of policies that set Singapore on an upward economic path, including state investment in electronics and other export sectors, the nationalization of major industries, control by a housing development board of all rental property, tax holidays to welcome foreign investment, and establishment of the basic legal foundations for a free-market economy.

The Rule of Law

At the same time, Lee Kuan Yew ruled in a politically authoritarian manner. The rule of law, while uniform, was uniformly repressive. The judicial system, although structurally and procedurally based on Anglo-Saxon tradition and formally independent, routinely favors the government and the ruling party. The courts frequently punish free expression, independent political activity, freedom of association, and other basic rights that are considered fundamental to the rule of law.

There has not been a change of ruling party or government since 1959. While Lee resigned his position as prime minister voluntarily in 1990, his successors were hand-picked. Goh Chok Tong (1990–04) was a longtime PAP ally; Lee’s next successor was his son, Lee Hsien Loong, whom he had carefully groomed for power. The elder Lee maintained his dominant influence in Singaporean politics through so-called advisory positions he held until 2011. Even after formally retiring he continued to influence Singapore’s politics through his active commentary in the media and pronouncements as a member of parliament until his death in March, 2015.

Opposition political parties face numerous obstacles and confront an unbalanced electoral playing field. The governing PAP’s position is bolstered by its long-time dominance over the press, restrictions on assembly and speech, and the use of detentions through the Internal Security Act. The leaders of the main opposition parties and the editors of their party newspapers are frequently jailed or sued in court for slander. If a case of slander is lost, as is often the case, individuals and news and other entities are bankrupted in the process.

The Reach of the Internal Security Act

Singapore lacks many elements of the rule of law found in free societies, most importantly the protection of human rights and separation of powers. While Singapore is governed by English common law, laws have often not been amended since the 19th century, thus maintaining provisions that are clearly outdated, including corporal punishment. Caning is frequent (one prominent example involved an American student, caned in 1994 for vandalizing cars).

As in Malaysia, a critical component of Singaporean law is the Internal Security Act, which the British imposed on all parts of Malaya in 1950 in response to the Communist insurgency. Today it continues to permit 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 normal activity, such as chewing gum or writing that Singapore politics is governed by a family dynasty. The severity of punishment is heightened for illicit activities such as the transport or use of drugs, for which there are mandatory penalties, including the death penalty in some instances. The state has also granted Islamic law courts jurisdiction for the minority Muslim community in non-criminal cases, meaning all marital, personal, and religious matters. Rulings are generally unfavorable to Muslim women, who 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 by the president at the recommendation of the prime minister. (Since 1991, the president has been elected by popular vote but in effect he has been chosen by the head of the ruling party, since the ruling party candidate has always won.)

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. In a precedent-setting case 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. More recently, in July 2011, British author Alan Shadrake was deported after the Supreme Court denied his appeal for conviction of defamation (he was also jailed six weeks and fined $50,000). In a book, he had written that the judicial system was biased in determining capital punishment. Opposition leaders also faced arrest, including Dr. Chee Soon Juan, the leader of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). In 2006, he was arrested for speaking in public without a permit. In 2011, he was barred from running for parliament after being ruled bankrupt after failing to pay damages resulting from a joint civil lawsuit won by former Prime Ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, who accused Chee of slander. He since raised the $30,000 to pay the damages and was allowed to contest a seat in the 2015 elections.

Media Freedom: Not Free

The media are also strongly controlled by the state, with few alternatives available to citizens for independent news and a strict regime of censorship that prevents any seditious or sexually related material and bans advocacy of homosexuality. Freedom House's Freedom of the Press survey consistently rates Singapore as "not free." The media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders also consistently ranks Singapore quite low in media freedom, 153rd out of 180 countries surveyed in 2015. Restrictions on 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 restrictions have been placed on the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Newsweek, and others. The Financial Times has agreed to be sold in a partly censored form, while the Economist refuses to be distributed under any censorship review. All magazines deemed pornographic (which include any pictures of semi-clad women) are banned. Political party newspapers are effectively banned through regular use of defamation laws (see above).

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. The clear purpose of the law was to stifle even implied criticism of the regime by supporting an opposition candidate. In the 2006 elections, the PAP retained 82 of the 84 directly elected seats.

Current Issues

The 2011 parliamentary elections appeared to signal some slight political openings. Opposition parties fielded candidates in 82 of 87 contested seats, an unprecedented number, and the Workers Party won a record 6 directly elected seats, including one Group Representative District, where it won all 5 seats. It was also awarded two of the three additional seats provided to ensure minimum representation to opposition parties; in 2013, it added a ninth member to parliament by winning a by-election for a vacated seat. Although the PAP retained 81 of the total 90 seats, its overall support dropped to 60 percent of the vote. Also, the 2013 presidential elections were contested for the first time since the position, largely ceremonial, became directly elected in 1991. The PAP-supported candidate, former deputy prime minister Tony Tan, won with just 35.2 percent of the vote in a narrow victory over three opponents.

The 2015 parliamentary elections, however, demonstrated that the political space for the opposition remains narrow. Instead of showing some progress towards broader representation, the results were nearly identical. The PAP won 83 out of the 89 directly contested seats (adding one to its total). The Workers Party kept its six seats but was unable to increase its number of candidates beyond 28. The only other opposition party lost its seat (meaning the Workers Party gained the three additional seats allotted to the opposition). The PAP increased its vote share to 70 percent, while the Workers Party dropped to 12.5 percent nationally. None of the other six opposition parties polled higher than 4 percent.

While the ruling party has a clear base of support, it is not possible to gauge its actual support through election figures for parliament, since there are not free or fair conditions for elections or any real possibility for an opposition party to develop a base. The opposition was caught off guard when the Prime Minister Lee asked the president to call elections one year early. The campaign period was restricted to the minimum period: 9 days. Meanwhile, the government continues various means to restrict free expression, association, and assembly to restrict criticism of the government and to prevent negative information from being published. As noted by Freedom House in its 2015 Survey of Freedom in the World report, “All domestic newspapers, radio stations, and television channels are owned by companies linked to the government. Editorials and news coverage generally support state policies.”  Attempts to broaden expression through the internet are also blocked. Any internet newspaper must be approved by the Interior Ministry. In 2014, the blogger Roy Ngerng Yi Ling was convicted of defamation for writing about mismanagement of Singapore’s retirement savings system and protests against the mismanagement were dispersed. Another blogger, Alex Au, faced defamation suits for writing that the judiciary was biased in cases dealing with same-sex activity.