SINGAPORE – New legislation passed by parliament in the name of combating terrorism has raised concerns that discretionary powers could be used by authorities to further silence political opposition and suppress public dissent when the island nation is facing its worst economic crisis since achieving independence.
The Public Order Act (POA), which was rapidly drafted and passed without much fanfare in April, represents the latest legislation to boost the discretionary powers of the People’s Action Party-led government, which has ruled the city state uninterrupted since 1959, in the name of upholding national security.
The new law will primarily extend the draconian Public Entertainment and Meeting Act, which bars gatherings of more than five people without a government-granted permit. Under the POA, now even one person with a “cause-related” intention in public will also apparently need a permit. According to opposition politicians, the new act effectively bans any outdoor activity deemed by the state as political in nature.
It also represents a blow to already limited press freedoms, as it contains a new ban on the filming of security force operations and actions. That, some say, will limit the ability of citizen journalists and bloggers, who have offered an important counterpoint in recent years to the state-controlled media, to check the government’s actions. Yet another repressive provision of the POA empowers the police, under a so-called “move on” order, to force anyone to leave public areas if their actions are considered “disorderly”.
This provision would appear to run contrary to Article 13 of the constitution, which states that Singaporean citizens have the right to move freely throughout Singapore subject to any law relating to security, public order, or public health. Although there have not been any demonstrations related to the island state’s spectacular economic downturn, some believe the POA’s passage was designed specifically to forestall possible anti-government rallies or assemblies.
The export-oriented economy contracted 10.1% year-on-year in the first quarter, shaking the PAP’s traditional claim to legitimacy through its management of fast economic growth. The government has said it needs the POA’s enhanced powers to create a more transparent and coherent framework for managing public order and security, including when it hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in November which various world leaders are scheduled to attend.
According to a Hong Kong-based risk consultant who requested anonymity, the government was motivated by the recent destabilizing public street protests seen in Thailand and the terrorist attacks on a tourist hotel in Mumbai, India. He noted that deputy prime minister and home affairs minister Wong Kan Seng has said that the APEC summit may attract “terrorists” or “anarchists” bent on stirring violence.
The political opposition, a group of parties that won 33% of the votes at the 2006 election but through gerrymandering command only two seats in Singapore’s 84-seat parliament, have strongly criticized the POA, claiming it could be used to suppress further their political activities. Chee Soon Juan, leader of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), claimed in an interview that the POA’s passage violates Singapore’s constitution and specifically undermines Article 14, which guarantees freedom of rights, association and speech.
“The constitution states that any law that runs contrary to the constitution will be void. This is something that needs to be brought up internationally,” he said. Chee is an embattled opposition figure, who has on several occasions been detained for his political activities and was recently rendered bankrupt by a court ruling after crossing swords with several ministers in the PAP government’s cabinet. Chee is currently banned from traveling outside of Singapore on order of that ruling.
Chee’s resistance in the name of democracy promotion has in recent years earned him significant international support, namely from Liberal International, a world federation of liberal political parties. His SDP, along with three other pro-democracy political parties, including Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (Liberated Areas), was granted observer status to Liberal International at its annual general meeting in May held in Vancouver, Canada.
The SDP’s nomination was championed by Dean Peroff, from the international law firm Amsterdam & Peroff. In passing the unanimous motion, Peroff maintained that Singapore’s political order was authoritarian, autocratic, run by a one-man system and that SDP’s new observer status to Liberal International would be an important first step towards reaching out to the broader international community for the cause of promoting basic human rights and freedom of expression in Singapore.
“SDP has signed an agreement with the Commonwealth countries, where Singapore is a party, to include respect for fundamental human rights and civil liberties,” said Chee, who has also hired Amsterdam & Peroff to take up his case against the government, whose members have recently filed law suits against news publications that have run Chee’s critical comments. “We are trying to pursue this and some of the international community would hopefully pay more attention and encourage Singapore to be part of the civilized world.”
Robert Amsterdam, a human-rights lawyer who has represented individuals against oppressive states across the globe, including in Nigeria, Venezuela, and Russia, has recently taken up Chee’s case. He sees the passage of the POA as symptomatic of the lack of basic civil liberties in Singapore and said that the new law would have wide-reaching implications beyond providing greater protection to the upcoming APEC conference.
“Democratic countries in Asia need to ask themselves if they accept the POA that further tears away whatever small rights … that remain in Singapore,” said Amsterdam. “Suppressing opposition in Singapore is a full time occupation for the pro-disciplinary regime,” he added.
He said the motivation for undermining human rights by repressive regimes, whether in military run Myanmar or nominally democratic Singapore, often boils down to money. “They clamp down on human rights and distort information because it is profitable for them to do it. It is not just a thirst for power; it is to gain a financial interest,” claimed Amsterdam. The PAP-led government opaquely manages two of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds, which have seen their holdings badly hit by the global economic crisis.
Singapore’s law and second minister for Home Affairs, K Shanmugam, stoutly defended the POA on April 16 at the fourth annual gathering of the Attorney General’s Chambers of Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei. He said that the POA has helped to streamline current rules on public assemblies and rightly empowers police to halt the filming of security or covert operations, which could be compromised by public broadcasting.
“It’s directed at and motivated by two situations: one, as a result of what happened in Mumbai when security operations are ongoing, you can see the security officers rappelling and preparing for an attack. But so could the terrorists. The second situation is where the identity of the officer has to be protected because it is a covert operation,” he said.
“We need to establish a commonality of legal concepts and, more importantly, structures for co-operation and a strengthening of the relationship between our law enforcement agencies,” he added. In an apparent concession to criticism, the Ministry of Home Affairs said the government is considering exempting certain social, recreational and commercial activities that don’t pose a threat to security from the POA.
Sylvia Lim, an opposition member of parliament, said changes made to the definition of “assembly” and “procession” in the POA were disturbing because they were no longer restricted to gatherings of five or more people. That, she said, means that now even one person can constitute an illegal assembly, thus giving the state complete control over individual civil liberties.
She also highlighted the limitations of the “move on” powers vested in the POA, which has shown to be problematic in other countries due to the wide discretionary powers given to police and could also be in Singapore without an independent watchdog to monitor law enforcement agency actions.
The general public, according to one poll, is equally concerned by the POA’s rights-eroding provisions. According to an online poll conducted by the opposition Workers Party, 91% of respondents opposed POA provisions that will allow police to order, if necessary by force, the stoppage of filming of law enforcement activities and search without a warrant any person whom the officer has reason to believe is in possession of such a film or picture.
While the poll’s sample size was small, the results indicate average Singaporeans are concerned about the POA’s prohibitive provisions, significantly at a time the island country faces a severe and accelerating economic downturn.
Tony Sitathan is a correspondent for several Asian and foreign news publications. He may be reached at email@example.com.
SINGAPORE (AP) — This speck on the map leapt from poverty to First World riches in a generation. Now its halcyon years of breakneck growth may be over.
Ask none other than Lee Kuan Yew, the authoritarian statesman who oversaw Singapore’s transformation from a malarial outpost of the British Empire to a modern city-state churning out hard-drives, medicines and deepwater oil rigs for export.
Premier from 1959 to 1990, he squashed dissent and steered the tropical island into embracing globalization. It reaped the economic benefits, becoming the world’s fourth-richest country as Western consumers sent global trade soaring.
Now Singapore’s top customers — the U.S., Japan and Europe — are mired in the biggest global slump since World War II and may take years to recover their normal growth.
Lee, currently an adviser to his son, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, acknowledges it’s improbable that China along with other Asian nations can pick up the slack. It will take “decades” for Asians to shake off their traditional caution and tendency to save rather than spend, he says.
“The Chinese always believe there may be an earthquake. So do the Japanese,” Lee said last month in Japan.
“We’ll have to wait for the American economy,” he said.
Fellow Asian “tigers” Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea have also been hammered by the global crisis. But Singapore is the most dependent on trade, with exports equal to a whopping 185 percent of gross domestic product.
As a result, the Southeast Asian city-state is reeling from its deepest recession since splitting from a short-lived federation with neighboring Malaysia in 1965. The International Monetary Fund forecasts GDP to shrink 10 percent in 2009, the most of any major Asian economy.
So far, there are few signs the downturn is threatening the ruling party’s five-decade hold on power. Singapore — known for its ban on chewing gum sales and canings for crimes some countries would rule as minor — strictly controls public speech and assembly though has become socially more liberal and allowed greater artistic freedom in recent years.
The People’s Action Party, which engineered yearly growth averaging 7.7 percent since 1961, is also doing what it can to soften the blows.
Officials are aiming to boost tourism with two casinos and promoting the island as a private banking haven for wealthy foreigners but concede no amount of tinkering can eliminate the tiny nation’s weaknesses.
Singapore’s 4.8 million population, 683 square kilometers of land — a fourth the size of Luxembourg — and lack of natural resources leave it with little choice but to sway with the global winds of trade and finance.
A speech by the prime minister this week welcomed the creation of a high-level committee to plot fresh directions for the economy. Yet it offered nothing new by touting Singapore as a base for corporate head offices and center for biotechnology research and drugs production.
Considerable hopes are also pinned on financial services as a bilingual Chinese-English work force and political stability have spawned a busy wealth management sector. But after years of promoting its finance industry, Singapore does not yet rival Hong Kong as a regional financial center.
“The road ahead will be difficult. First we have to see through this global economic storm. Beyond that, we face a new world,” Lee Hsien Loong said.
Many economists expect the U.S. to emerge from recession later this year, but say the strength of the recovery is uncertain. U.S. consumer spending may take several years to return to pre-crisis levels as Americans pay down debt and build savings.
“U.S. consumers seem to be undergoing a change in mind-set for the first time in a generation or two,” said Quentin Fitzsimmons, a fund manager for London-based Threadneedle. “You shouldn’t look to the U.S. consumer to lead us out of this recession.”
The collapse in demand for Singapore’s exports is already putting pressure on wages. Growth in real household incomes slowed to 5.7 percent in 2008 from 7.5 percent the previous year while incomes of the bottom 10 percent of households stagnated even with increased government aid for the poor.
GDP per person this year is expected to slide to about $32,000 from nearly $37,700 last year.
Analysts at Credit Suisse predict an exodus of 200,000 foreign professionals and other workers from the island, adding to a collapse in house prices.
Singaporeans still flock to the swanky malls that line Orchard Road, a shopping strip famous in the region. But they mostly eyeball the luxury goods rather than buy.
“Right now, I don’t feel like I can afford Fendi,” said Yolanda Wong, a 27-year-old accountant, as she window shopped at the Italian designer fashion store. “I still have my job, but when I see other people losing their jobs or taking pay cuts, it makes me afraid and want to save,” she said.
Freddie Lim, manager of a boutique selling watches with prices as high as $1 million Singapore dollars ($692,000), said sales are down 20 to 30 percent.
“Our regular customers, who may buy several watches a year when the economy is good, are telling us they are worried about the future and putting off big purchases. People say this downturn could last three years,” he said.
The government has sought to stem layoffs and keep living standards from slipping by dipping into its $174 billion pot of international reserves for the first time to help finance a $13 billion fiscal stimulus package. It is subsidizing the wages of the lowest paid workers.
Officials, meanwhile, have pledged to remain faithful to low-tax policies that have successfully attracted foreign investment.
Even so, the return of Singapore’s once booming growth hinges on the big developed economies bouncing back strongly in the next two years, said Selena Ling, an economist with OCBC, a leading bank in Singapore.
“The golden age of growth may be past,” she said.