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This article has been prepared with the assistance of Chaninat & Leeds. Based in Bangkok, this full service American law firm has attorneys experienced in matters of corporate law and family law, as well as Thailand criminal law.


Singapore’s Internal Security Act and the Dismal State of Human Rights in Singapore - Is Singapore Burma with Money?by Mark Beales

14 September 2010

On the face of it, Burma and Singapore don’t seem to have much in common. The cracked streets of Burma are covered with the blood-red spit from betel nut, its people work for a dollar a day and there is virtually no industry.

Singapore, meanwhile, has spotless streets, spitting is illegal and it’s a hub for Asian business.
But there is at least one similarity between these two Asian nations – democracy, or a complete lack of it. Both play at being democratic but in reality the two countries’ people live in one-party nations that ensure any opposition or dissent is stamped out. In Singapore, as well as Burma, its leaders seem intent on clinging to power at any cost.

Burma’s leaders are admittedly more blatant about their refusal to budge. Having been trounced in the 1990 elections, the military generals simply declined to acknlowledge the result and stayed in office. They continued to deny their people basic human rights, imprisoning opponents and stifling any idea of a free press. Fresh elections are planned for later this year, but the result is already clear.

Singapore’s leaders, it could be argued, are just as determined to stay in power. Singapore may not grab the headlines as much as its Asian neighbor as it is far more subtle about its forms of control, but they are undeniably present, and undeniably effective. Singapore’s laws are specifically designed to prevent any unrest or criticism. The Internal Security Act (ISA) was set up back in 1948 by British colonial Malaya, with the aim of preventing a communist uprising. Police were able to detain anyone indefinitely who was suspected of threatening national security. By 1960, Malaysia had independence and the Act seemed superfluous. However, when Singapore split from Malaysia in 1965, it decided to keep the Act in place.

Laws Prevent Genuine Opposition

The Internal Security Act (ISA) of Singapore means the government can arrest and detain people without trial in certain circumstances. Over the past 50 years the ISA has been used on numerous occasions, often to stop suspected Islamist militants. Suspects are often kept without trial for many months, with few rights of appeal.

Singapore is used to getting its own way, and doesn’t take kindly to those who would change the status quo. The ruling party, the People’s Action Party (PAP) has won every election since 1959 and has 82 of the 84 elected parliamentary seats. Critics say that is largely because no other party has a chance of challenging due to tough defamation laws and strict controls on freedom of expression and political activity. Political opposition is technically allowed in Singapore, however many opposition politicians fear being imprisoned or fined merely for voicing critical opinions. In Burma the situation is nearly identical, where opposition parties are effectively invisible and anti-government voices are suppressed.

When Singapore does have elections, most observers note that they are fair and free. The PAP can afford this luxury as opposition parties have lost long before the voting booths are opened. Opposition parties find it hard to raise funds (foreign donations are banned) and are constantly being checked.

In 2008, the High Court in Singapore ordered Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) Secretary General Dr Chee Soon Juan and his sister Chee Siok Chin to pay Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, US$416,000 in damages. That followed a story in the SDP's newsletter that compared the government’s reign with a scandal-hit charity.

The Lees also went to court in 2008 to sue the Far Eastern Economic Review and its editor Hugo Restall for defamation, after it commentated on the SDP case. Not content with that, the government is also pursuing the Asian Wall Street Journal for its opinion of the same case.

Dr Chee is no stranger to the courts. In 2006, during an election campaign, he was fined for speaking publicly without permission and then charged with attempting to sell copies of an SPD newsletter in public.

In Burma things are even worse. The only real criticism of the junta comes from Burmese who are living abroad, and are able to publish online. Newspapers within Burma are routinely censored and offending papers suspended for several editions. Bizarrely, Rangoon’s weekly journal Modern Times was banned for a week in August. Its crime was publishing a weather forecast that read: “Will it come in September?” The story was supposedly about a potential storm that could be similar to the 2008 Cyclone Nargis, which killed 134,000 people. Officials believed September was a covert reference to the third anniversary of bloody protests that led to the deaths of several monks.

The Irawaddy online newspaper said: ‘Observers expect the junta to exert tighter control over the media and online activities of Burmese people ahead of the elections on November 7, and additional officials have been drafted to the  PRSD since May, tightening surveillance on all publications.

“There used to be about three officials checking our journal before publication, but now more than a dozen officers go over every line of our publication,” said an editor with a Rangoon weekly.’

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders agreed, saying: ‘Burma is a censor's paradise, one of the very few countries where all publications are subjected to prior censorship. After China, it is the world’s largest prison for journalists and bloggers.’ 

Singapore’s press is largely owned by those with good connections, and therefore there is less need for heavy-handed censors to check every story.

Freedom With Limits

British author Alan Shadrake found himself in similar hot water with Singaporean officials. His book, ‘Once a Jolly Hangman – Singapore Justice in the Dock’, wasn’t well received. Shadrake ended up seeing Singaporean justice for himself: he was charged with contempt. The 75-year-old said he was trying to highlight Singapore’s death penalty and alleged double standards.

Shadrake walked into court waving a ‘V’ for victory sign and declaring ‘Freedom and democracy for Singapore’. Such things are almost unheard of in Singapore, which models itself as a nation of security and stability. Most visitors to Singapore would never know anything was amiss. Its healthcare system is superb, it has high-rise office blocks and not a scrap of litter on the streets.

Perhaps Singapore does therefore differ in one vital way from Burma: its people are generally content. There’s a tacit agreement that if you don’t mess with the state, it won’t mess with you. This truce has been in place since the PAP came to power in 1965.

In a report by the US State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor noted that the Singaporean government is not afraid to use its powers to limit its citizens’ rights if anybody does dare question the status quo. Singapore retains the death penalty and caning is a common form of punishment, for example.

Among the human rights problems the report found were executive influence over the legal system, poor privacy rights, restricted freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and restrictions over religion.
But while Singapore may restrict freedoms in the same way as Burma, it is only the latter that resorts to killing its own people if they speak out. Burma has an appalling human rights’ record and reports of state-sponsored murder are commonplace. 

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2 Response to “Singapore’s Internal Security Act and the Dismal State of Human Rights in Singapore - Is Singapore Burma with Money?”

Comment by jennifer | 09/24/10 at 9:00 am
This article conjured up my personal and slightly uninformed impressions of Singapore. I thought about the infamous rules banning chewing gum and the permissible caning, the absence of litter and the impressive skyline. None of my thoughts were of the government as an entity composed of a party and leaders. Now, if I think of Burma, I see a single image…military generals towering over oppressed civilians. The article points out that both Singapore and Burma are ruled by one-party political systems, which have been restricting freedoms of speech, expression and press in these two countries for decades. The ruling parties in both countries use the law and force to keep their stronghold in the government.

Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) has managed to slide by with this behavior. The country’s elections are deemed fair and the international media has not dwelled on the very long domination of the PAP. Burma never gets off so easily. The military government is a constant subject of derision, every election is watched cynically by the world, and most major university campuses have some kind of organization dedicated to abolishing the one-party dominance in Burma.

There are many reasons why Singapore’s poor example of democracy is often overlooked while Burma’s is constantly scrutinized. For one, the PAP is not a military party. Long-term military dictatorships often suggest oppression and are observed closer by human rights groups, the international media, and foreign governments. Incidentally, the article states that a report issued by the United States did not find ‘unlawful killings’ or ‘politically motivated disappearances’ by the PAP in Singapore. So while a closer look at Singapore’s one-party system may reveal torture, imprisonment, and the stripping of rights of government opponents, a murder rap will not likely be found.

Another reason why Singapore often gets the slip is that the standard of living is rather high – the economy is doing very well this year and employment rates are up. One-party governments whose citizens are generally suffering will always get more international attention and calls for action than a country like Singapore that seems to be thriving as a one-party nation.

The article also mentions the opposition party, Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), and its Secretary General Dr. Chee Soon Juan. Though Dr. Soon Juan has suffered unfairly at the hands of the PAP, he is not nearly as high profile an opposition leader as Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi. Her recognition has brought enormous attention to Burma’s undemocratic single-party government.

Singapore and Burma are certainly similar in that they have long-standing one-party governments, but their facades are much different. Singapore might be alarmingly akin to Burma in single party dominance, but as long as its economy booms, its people are ostensibly content, and no opposition leader is figuratively standing on the pulpit, no one will really mind.

Comment by aaronprebenda@hotmail.com | 09/24/10 at 09:55 pm

This is a fascinating and revealing article. It is important to draw a distinction between democracy as an ideal and the various manifested democracies around the world. Singapore is anything but alone in their reluctant approach to democracy. Even in the United States, which often considers itself the benchmark of democracy, serious questions are raised with advent of myopic lobbying, questionable campaign financing, draconian voting eligibility requirements, and cases of people from different ethnic groups being driven away from the polls by \"political activists\". There is clearly a big difference between democracy in Singapore and \"western\" democracy, as I\'ll call it (but there are considerable differences in the \'level\' of democracy among western countries as well). Nevertheless, I question democracy in much of Asia. I don\'t think Singapore is alone. The state of democracy in China is well-known. There are occasionally serious question about election results in Inda, though India has shown itself to be far friendlier towards the institution than some of it\'s neighbors. Scandals regularly rock the very fragile Philippine Constitutional Republic. Vietnam takes its cues from China. Indonesia\'s government has been reformed extensively since the 1960\'s and, strangely, the result has been the gradual subordination of all parties but the DPR. South Korea has one of the most functional democracies but, as in much of Asia, Korean culture dictates sometimes extreme deference to seniority and authority, which creates an unusually friction-free \"democratic\" process. Need I say anything about North Korea and most of the Middle East? I think not. As a closing note, how funny that North Korea\'s government moniker the DPRK stands for the DEMOCRATIC People\'s Republic of Korea.

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