Politics of Singapore
The politics of Singapore takes the form of a parliamentary representative democratic republic whereby the President of Singapore is the head of state, the Prime Minister of Singapore is the head of government, and of a multi-party system. Executive power is exercised by the cabinet from the parliament, and to a lesser extent, the President. Cabinet has the general direction and control of the Government and is accountable to Parliament. There are three separate branches of government: the legislature, executive and judiciary, though not necessarily meaning that there is a separation of power, but abiding by the Westminster system.
Legislative power is vested in both the government and the Parliament of Singapore. The legislature is the parliament, which consists of the president as its head and a single chamber whose members are elected by popular vote. The role of the president as the head of state has been, historically, largely ceremonial although the constitution was amended in 1991 to give the president some veto powers in a few key decisions such as the use of the national reserves and the appointment of key judiciary, Civil Service and Singapore Armed Forces posts. He also exercises powers over civil service appointments and national security matters.
Singaporean politics have been dominated by the People's Action Party (PAP) since the 1959 general election when Lee Kuan Yew became Singapore's first prime minister (Singapore was then a self-governing state within the British Empire). The PAP has been in government and won every General Election since then. Singapore left the Commonwealth in 1963 to join the Federation of Malaysia, but was expelled from the Federation in 1965 after Lee Kuan Yew disagreed with the federal government in Kuala Lumpur. Foreign political analysts and several opposition parties including the Workers' Party of Singapore and the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) have argued that Singapore is a de facto one-party state.
The Economist Intelligence Unit classifies Singapore as a democratic country. Freedom House does not consider Singapore an "electoral democracy" and ranks the country as "partly free". Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore 140th out of 167 countries in its 2005 Press Freedom Index.
It has also been alleged that the PAP employs censorship, gerrymandering and the filing of civil suits against the opposition for libel or slander to impede their success. Several former and present members of the opposition, including Francis Seow, J.B. Jeyaretnam and Chee Soon Juan perceive the Singaporean courts as favourable towards the government and the PAP due to a lack of separation of powers. There are however three cases in which opposition leader Chiam See Tong sued PAP ministers for defamation and successfully obtained damages before trial.
Although dominant in its activities, the government tries to show a clean, corruption-free image. Singapore has consistently been rated as the least-corrupt country in Asia and amongst the top ten cleanest in the world by Transparency International. The World Bank's governance indicators have also rated Singapore highly on rule of law, control of corruption and government effectiveness. However, it is widely perceived that some aspects of the political process, civil liberties, and political and human rights are lacking. The Democracy Index ranks Singapore as 74th out of 167 ("flawed democracy"), and the Press Freedom Index states Singapore has a "difficult situation".
Although Singapore's laws are inherited from British and British Indian laws, including many elements of English common law, the PAP has also consistently rejected liberal democratic values, which it typifies as Western and states that there should not be a 'one-size-fits-all' solution to a democracy. Laws restricting the freedom of speech are justified by claims that they are intended to prohibit speech that may breed ill will or cause disharmony within Singapore's multiracial, multi-religious society. For example, in September 2005, three bloggers were convicted of sedition for posting racist remarks targeting minorities. Some offences can lead to heavy fines or caning and there are laws which allow capital punishment in Singapore for first-degree murder and drug trafficking. Amnesty International has criticised Singapore for having "possibly the highest execution rate in the world" per capita. This criticism has, however, been contested, as one source shows China as having a higher execution rate. The government of Singapore responded by asserting it had the right as a sovereign state to impose the death penalty for serious offences.
Prior to 1991, the president was the head of state appointed by parliament and was largely a ceremonial role with some reserve powers. As a result of constitutional changes in 1991, the president is now directly elected to office for a six-year term by popular vote. The only directly-elected President since the constitutional change was Ong Teng Cheong, a former cabinet minister. He served as President from 1 September 1993 to 31 August 1999. A person is qualified to be a candidate for election as President if he:
- is a citizen of Singapore;
- is 45 years old or above on Nomination Day;
- is registered as an elector in the current registers of electors;
- is resident in Singapore on Nomination Day and has been so for a total period not less than 10 years;
- is not subject to any of the disqualifications specified in Article 45 of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore;
- is not a member of any political party on the date of his nomination for election; and
- has held office for a period of not less than 3 years in position of seniority and responsibility in the public or private sector as described below - as Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker, Attorney-General, Chairman of the Public Service Commission, Auditor-General, Accountant-General or Permanent Secretary;
as chairman or chief executive officer of a statutory board to which Article 22A of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore applies; as chairman of the board of directors or chief executive officer of a company incorporated or registered under the Companies Act (Cap. 50) with a paid-up capital of at least $100 million or its equivalent in foreign currency; or in any other similar or comparable position of seniority and responsibility in any other organization or department of equivalent size or complexity in the public or private sector which, in the opinion of the Presidential Elections Committee, has given him such experience and ability in administering and managing financial affairs as to enable him to carry out effectively the functions and duties of the office of President.
The president now exercises powers over the following:
- appointment of public officers
- government budgets
- examine government's exercise of its powers under the Internal Security Act
- examine government's exercise of its powers under religious harmony laws
- investigations into cases of corruption
However, the president must consult the Council of Presidential Advisers before he takes a decision on some of these matters. The council comprises:
- two members appointed by the president on the advice of the prime minister
- one member appointed by the president on the advice of the chief justice
- one member appointed by the president on the advice of the chairman of the Public Service Commission
A member of the council serves a six-year term and are eligible for re-appointment for further terms of four years each.
Similar to the Speech from the Throne given by the heads of state in other parliamentary systems, the president delivers an address written by the government at the opening of parliament about what kind of policies to expect in the coming year. The current president is Tony Tan Keng Yam.
The cabinet forms the executive of the government and it is answerable to parliament. It consist of sitting members of parliament and is headed by a prime minister, the head of government. The current prime minister is Lee Hsien Loong.
Neither the prime minister nor members of the cabinet are elected by parliament. The prime minister is appointed by the president, then Cabinet members, also known as ministers, are appointed by the president on the advice of the prime minister.
The cabinet in Singapore collectively decides the government's policies and has influence over lawmaking by introducing bills.
Ministers in Singapore are the highest paid politicians in the world, receiving a 60% salary raise in 2007 and as a result Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's pay jumped to S$3.1 million, five times the US$400,000 earned by US President Barack Obama. Although there was a public outcry regarding the high salary in comparison to the size of the country governed, the government's firm stance was that this raise was required to ensure the continued efficiency and corruption-free status of Singapore's "world-class" government. On 21 May 2011, following the 2011 general election, the Prime Minister announced that a committee would be appointed to review politicians' remuneration, and that revised salaries would take effect from that date.
The unicameral Singaporean parliament is the legislature in Singapore with the president as its head. Before independence in 1965, it was known as the Legislative Assembly. It currently consists of 87 members of parliament. The maximum term of any one parliament is five years, after which a general election must be held within three months of the dissolution of parliament.
The 87 elected members of parliament (MPs) are elected on a plurality voting basis and represent either single-member constituencies (SMCs) or group Representation Constituencies (GRCs). In GRCs, political parties field a team of between three and six candidates. At least one candidate in the team must belong to a minority race.
Formerly, there were no GRCs, and all constituencies of Singapore were represented by one member, but amendments to the Parliamentary Elections Act in 1991 led to the creation of GRCs, thus creating a plurality voting system in the process.
This development has led to complaints from opposition parties that they are often unable to field one, let alone three or more candidates. Out of the 87 members of parliament, 10 are female. In the general election in 2006, the incumbent People's Action Party (PAP) won 82 of the 84 seats, with the same configuration as the previous election in 2001, but with a loss of 9% of the popular vote. The final results of the 2011 general election saw a 6.46% swing against the PAP from the 2006 elections to 60.14%, its lowest since independence.
The constitution also provides for the appointment of other members of parliament not voted in at an election. Up to six Non-Constituency Members of Parliament from the opposition political parties can be appointed. Currently, there is one Non-Constituency Member of Parliament.
A constitutional provision for the appointment of up to nine Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs) was made in 1990. NMPs are appointed by the president for a term of two and a half years on the recommendation of a Select Committee chaired by the Speaker of Parliament and are not connected to any political parties. In 2005, nine NMPs were sworn in, out of which five were female.
Both non-constituency and nominated members of parliament cannot vote on the following issues:
- amendment of the constitution
- public funds
- vote of no confidence in the government
- removing the president from office
Before any law is passed, it is first introduced in parliament as a draft known as a bill. Bills are usually introduced by a minister on behalf of the cabinet, known as Government Bill. However, any member of parliament can introduce a bill, known as a Private Member's Bill. All bills must go through three readings in parliament and receive the president's assent to become an Act of Parliament.
Each bill goes through several stages before it becomes a law. The first stage is a mere formality known as the first reading, where it is introduced without a debate. This is followed by the second reading, where members of parliament debate on the general principles of the bill. If parliament opposes the bill, it may vote to reject the bill.
If the bill goes through the second reading, the bill is sent to a Select Committee where every clause in the bill is examined. Members of parliament who support the bill in principle but do not agree with certain clauses can propose amendments to those clauses at this stage. Following its report back to parliament, the bill will go through its third reading where only minor amendments will be allowed before it is passed.
Most bills passed by parliament are scrutinised by the Presidential Council for Minority Rights which makes a report to the Speaker of Parliament stating whether there are clauses in a bill which affects any racial or religious community. If approved by the council, the bill will be presented for the president's assent.
The last stage involves the granting of assent by the president, before the bill officially becomes a law.
The constitution cannot be amended without the support of more than two-thirds of the members of parliament on the second and third readings. The president may seek opinion on constitutional issues from a tribunal consisting of not less than three judges of the Supreme Court. Singaporean courts, like the courts in Australia, cannot offer advisory opinion on the constitutionality of laws.
Part IV of the constitution guarantees the following:
- liberty of a person
- prohibition of slavery and forced labour
- protection against retrospective criminal laws and repeated trials
- equal protection
- prohibition of banishment and freedom of movement
- freedom of speech, assembly and association
- freedom of religion
- right to education
The sections on liberty of the person and freedoms of speech, assembly, movement, association and religion are all qualified by allowing Parliament to restrict those freedoms for reasons including national security, public health, and "public order or morality". In practice, the courts have given complete discretion to the government in imposing such restrictions.
Part XII of the constitution allows the Parliament of Singapore to enact legislation designed to stop or prevent subversion. Such legislation is valid even if it is inconsistent with Part IV of the constitution. The Internal Security Act (ISA) is a legislation under such provision. In 1966, Chia Thye Poh was detained under the ISA and was imprisoned for 23 years without trial. Afterwards, he was placed under conditions of house arrest for another nine years.
Elections and political partiesEdit
Voting has been compulsory in Singapore since 1959 and there is universal suffrage. The legal voting age is 21. The Elections Department of Singapore is responsible for the planning, preparation and conduct of presidential and parliamentary elections and of any national referendum in Singapore. It is a department under the Prime Minister's Office.
Paper ballots are still used in Singapore. However, there is a concern that voting secrecy might be compromised as ballot papers have serial numbers on them. As stated in the Elections Department website:
"...ballot papers can be examined only under strict conditions, and there are safeguards that make it extremely difficult to find out how any particular voter voted. After the count, all ballot papers and their counterfoils have to be sealed in the Supreme Court vault for six months, after which all the ballot papers and other election documents are destroyed. During those six months, these documents can only be retrieved by court order. The court will issue such an order only if it is satisfied that a vote has been fraudulently cast and the result of the election may be affected as a result. Our courts have issued no such order since elections have been held here since 1948."
People's Action PartyEdit
The PAP has been the dominant political party in Singapore, re-elected continuously since 1959. It is headed by Lee Hsien Loong, who succeeded Goh Chok Tong. Goh's predecessor Lee Kuan Yew served as Singapore's prime minister from independence through 1990. Since stepping down as prime minister, Lee remained influential as Senior Minister and Minister Mentor.
PAP has held the overwhelming majority of seats in parliament since 1966, when the opposition Barisan Sosialis Party resigned from parliament and left the PAP as the sole representative party. PAP won all of the seats in an expanding parliament in the general elections of 1968, 1972, 1976 and 1980. PAP's share of the popular vote in contested seats declined from 78% in 1980 to 65% in 1997. However, the elections of 2001 saw the party's share of the popular vote climb to 75%, winning 82 of the 84 seats. Singapore general election, 2006 marked the first time since 1988 the PAP did not return to power on nomination day, with the opposition parties fielding candidates in over half of the constituencies. Overall PAP saw its share of the vote fall to 66.6%.
There are two opposition parties in Parliament - The Workers' Party, the Singapore People's Party, the Singapore Democratic Party, the Reform Party, and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). There are many other parties as well, the previously mentioned parties being more popular. J.B. Jeyaretnam of the Workers' Party became the first opposition party member of parliament in 15 years when he won a 1981 by-election. Despite acquiring an increasing percentage of the popular vote—34% overall in 2006—opposition parties gained small numbers of seats in the general elections of 1984 (2 seats of 79), 1988 (1 seat of 81), 1991 (4 seats of 81), 1997 (2 seats of 83) and 2001 (2 seats of 84). The opposition parties attribute the disproportionate results to the nature of the GRC electoral system.
Women's participation in politicsEdit
Women traditionally played a significantly smaller role than their male counterparts in Singapore. Nonetheless, in recent years, there is an increasing level of female participation in the Singapore political arena.
On 26 January 2013, Ms Lee Li Lian became the second woman from an opposition party to win a seat in Parliament by 3182 votes over the ruling party's candidate, Dr Koh Poh Koon, in a by-election in Punggol East, after Sylvia Lim Swee Lian, currently the Chairperson of the opposition Workers' Party (WP) and an elected Member of Parliament (MP) representing Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (Aljunied GRC) whose team won 54.71% of the votes (54.72% including overseas votes), the first time that an opposition party won a GRC since the system's introduction on 1 June 1988. Lee's victory made her the first female opposition MP in Singapore's post-independence history. Lee however lost the seat in the 2015 General Election to PAP's Charles Chong by a close margin.
The candidates and supporters of the various political parties tend to wear the following shirt colours while making their rounds in various wards or campaigning.
Human rights activists, foreign scholars and opposition party members have pointed out that members of the opposition parties often suffer "misfortunes" of various kinds, including arrest, sued into bankruptcy especially in defamatory lawsuits, and imprisonment, with the convictions and bankruptcy in turn barring the opposition candidates from standing in elections.
Kenneth Paul Tan has said that "Singapore's formal institutions of representative government are a colonial legacy, fundamentally based on the Westminster system of parliamentary government. In Singapore, the executive has greater power than the legislature. Regularly held political elections since 1959, run according to the simple plurality voting system, have seen the PAP remain in power and a very small number of elected opposition parliamentarians. With an overwhelming majority in parliament, the PAP government has been able to amend the Constitution without much obstruction, introducing multi-member constituencies, unelected parliamentary membership, and other institutional changes that have, in effect, strengthened the government's dominance and control of Parliament."
"With incumbency comes electoral advantages that have further secured the PAP's position. From this powerful location, it has effectively propagated the idea that it is more important for a small country with limited resources and talent to have a meritocratic, pragmatic and economically-orientated government than one that is limited by principles of accountability, transparency and checks and balances."
"The PAP government has taken pains to present its principles of meritocracy and pragmatism as a viable alternative to liberal democracy and multi-party competition, sometimes by drawing from a specious notion of Confucian values and Asian culture to construct ideological bulwarks - like "Asian democracy"- against the criticisms of the so-called liberal West. By crediting meritocracy and pragmatism for creating the right conditions for economic success, the PAP government has been able not only to justify its (liberal) democratic deficit, but also to produce ideological resources and a structure of authorization for the maintenance of a one-party dominant regime. In "pragmatic" terms, Singapore's considerable economic success is justification enough for its authoritarian means."
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