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A Mecca for Opportunists or a Prison for Dissentients?

Singapore’s economic success after its independence from British colonial rule in 1965 has elevated it to one of the most prosperous countries in the world. A Mecca for migrants hoping to ameliorate their lives, Singapore has been coined ‘The Land of Opportunity’ and ‘Dreams’.

However, an inquiry into the socio-political forces that govern the community reveals that Singapore’s success veils uncontested political contradictions and injustice. The ‘representative democracy’ leans toward a singular axis of power. While it fulfils the pluralist requirements of contemporary democracy, the political mechanisms adopted by the long-governing People’s Action Party (PAP) are anything but democratic or liberal.

Singapore conforms to a unique balance of democracy and autocracy. Although it affirms a democratic path, its political mechanisms are heavily flawed. In addition, the evolution of socio-economic superstructures has perpetuated an unchallenged authoritarian approach, leading to the formation of an elected autocracy.

The electoral process is not free of executive intervention. The Elections Department is an opaque body within the Prime Minister’s Office. The present Prime Minister and Cabinet determine the mechanism that would be adopted for the next election- they may redraw the boundaries of electoral constituencies. Even the Presidential Election process may be altered by Executive mandate.

In 1988, the PAP amended the Parliamentary Elections Act to form ‘Group Representation Constituencies’ which encompass the ‘pluralism of the voting population’. From the initial maximum size of 3 candidates, the constituency sizes were increased to 5 candidates in 2020, one of whom must be of a minority race. The system tends to group weak PAP regions with stronger ones; the lack of competition from minor political groups allows the PAP to sweep votes.

In 2016, amendments on eligibility of candidates for the President’s office completely flipped the coin in the PAP’s favour. Candidates from the private sector must have experience leading an enterprise of minimum S$500 million shareholder equity; otherwise, they must be senior public officials with 3 years of service. In the subsequent 2017 election, only one candidate Halimah Yacob, supported by the PAP, was eligible and won by default.

An act addressing discrimination states:

Without prejudice to the generality of Article 12 (All persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law), there shall be no discrimination against any citizen of Singapore on the grounds only of religion, race, descent or place of birth. (Constitution of Singapore, Article 16(1))

orientation, age, caste, income and such. Article 12(2) states that the Constitution, or an amendment to it, may expressly authorise certain forms of prejudice. No amendments have been made to it in subsequent years.

Liberty is one of the keystones of democracy; however, Singaporeans enjoy the bare minimum. The only place where residents can conduct a public gathering without an administrative permit is the “Speakers’ Corner”; still, they require a police permit if foreigners are involved, the talk would address religion or if it remotely caused hostility between racial and religious sects.

The establishment of the Singapore Press Holding Company in 1984 placed all the seven major dailies under bureaucratic management and censorship, curbing liberalism in the media.

22 people who were a part of a Catholic group advocating for human rights and redressal for unskilled foreign workers, were apprehended and incriminated of “being involved in a Marxist plot to overthrow the state.”, illustrating a serious intolerance expressed by the government (Tamura, Keiko. The Emergence and Political Consciousness of the Middle Class in Singapore. The Developing Economies, XLI-2).

The general attitude of the people exacerbates the political reticence and skepticism towards freedom of speech.

Singapore’s ‘politically silent populace’ is reticent in politics because it is sceptical of democracy itself (Lam, 1994, p.274.)

The middle class, comprising 40% of the workforce, is more interested in its material needs than the present socio-political strains. Migrants, focused on building a better life than in their home countries, also choose ‘blissful ignorance’ over reformative action.

The general attitude of the PAP has instilled an ‘illiberal democracy’ in Singapore.

It designated countries that had initiated a transition away from authoritarian rule and had adopted free elections, but had failed to build the liberal institutions that could guarantee individual rights.

In Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony’s words, the “intensive use of the term illiberal as an epithet to describe those who have strayed from the path of Lockean liberalism.”

The conservative nature of Singaporean politics has nurtured a soft authoritarian state. The leaders adopt a tone of administration which is more paternalistic than commanding – it compels people rather than coerces them. The method of governance, although choice-based, does not leave much room for reasoning or dissent. The market-oriented, communitarian nature of this political model emphasizes social needs over individual liberties – it strives for ‘the greater good’.

Hence, Singapore not only heavily represses Freedom of Speech and Expression, a tenet essential to contemporary democracy, it also perpetuates a totalitarian, illiberal system of authority. Yet, the country is doing exceptionally well with regard to economics and quality of life. The materialistic consumer identity of the populace plays a significant role in this. People choose to remain silent to avoid the popular system of persecution - fines and flogging. The punishments evidently do not sit well with the labour force that works towards monetary and material wealth.

However, in the past few years, the ‘younger generation’ of Singapore has started mobilising and vocalising its opinion. The government has yielded to them only partially, by giving them concessions in the form of libertarian rights. Singapore still has a long journey ahead of it if it wishes to reform the manifestation of Freedom of Speech in its political system.

Written by Urvi Agarwal

Illustrated by Anushka Doshi

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