Excerpts from a chapter in the 2002 book Internet Politics: Surveillance and Intimidation in Singapore by Dr James Gomez.
Singapore is often labeled as an authoritarian, semi-authoritarian or one party dominant state. However a useful way of understanding the ruling party’s control of Singapore is as a police state.
The existence of “the police”, a separate force designed entirely for enforcing the criminal law, is a product of modern urban society. The establishment of a metropolitan police force in London in 1829 is usually seen as the single most important event in this development. The existence of a police force, by its very nature, raises several related political issues. The oldest is summed up by the Latin question, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?” (Who guards the guardians?) That is, given the capacities and force of arms which the police must have to do their job, to whom are they accountable and how can they be prevented from abusing their position (McLean, 1996).
A limitless police suggests a “police state”, which is a translation of the German Polizeistaat, a condition in which the authority and power of the police have become so great that they are the most feared entity of the state and sometimes effectively uncontrollable. A police state is one in which the executive uses the police and other instruments of the state from the bureaucracy, judiciary and other agencies and tools at its disposal to monitor and control civil and political activities of its citizens and others on its territory and even beyond. The police are used to limit civil and political liberties in accordance with legislation introduced by the ruling regime. Such policing goes beyond politics and intrudes also into economics and social life.
The government intimidates its critics by collecting information through surveillance of civil society groups, opposition politicians and whomever else the government perceives to be a threat or considers out of the mainstream. The role of the police in controlling civil and political activities strictly to the letter of the law through a mechanism of monitoring, investigation, interrogation and prosecution is very obvious, vivid and clear. Intelligence is gathered about “enemies of the state” at home and abroad. It is organised expressly for the collection of information about activities of individuals and groups that may have an impact on domestic politics. The collection of intelligence and in counter-intelligence – that is, in combating the activities of others, is mostly non-verifiable, but less so in contemporary time with advances in communication technology.
What characterizes Singapore’s political system is the constant query, worry and anxiety among the majority of the citizens, foreigners and observers that individuals and groups will get into trouble with the police and the political authorities for challenging the political status quo. Such anxiety is based on repeated examples of political challengers consistently being found guilty of contravening the system of tight and restrictive laws that govern people in the city-state.
Here, it is important to distinguish between those who make mild criticisms of the establishment but do not question the legitimacy of the ruling party’s political hegemony, as compared to those who make robustly critical statements and seek to replace the ruling party. In Singapore, those who show the potential for political action against the ruling regime are treated as possible threats to the state and are heavily monitored and policed. It is a system where resistance to the ruling party is controlled by policing political opponents using very restrictive legislation. Laws are constantly modified whenever space is found for political expression, mobilisation and action. The ruling party’s domination of parliament allows for the passage of new laws as well as continual amendment of the constitution so that the legal environment can be constantly revised to serve the ruling party’s needs.
It is also the case that in Singapore, the police, particularly the secret police, have wide and arbitrary powers to survey, harass and intimidate the citizenry. Those who are detained under the provisions of the Internal Security Act are denied even basic civil rights through detention without trial and without opportunity to protest their treatment or seek redress through the normal administrative or judicial channels of governments. Provisions, such as appeals to auxiliary committees involved in situations of detention without trial, are often time consuming – or at best, cosmetic and for public relations value.
This book also enumerates several incidents where the author and several others were called into questioning for allegedly contravening the laws for using the Internet to organize events and activities. Each incident involved being called into the police station for questioning by an investigation officer and requires the interviewee to give personal details and employment information. Next, a series of questions will be asked surrounding the said activity, including who was in-charge, gave instructions and what was the objective of the activity.
Investigators will often have pre-prepared questions that are guided by in-house statement recording procedures. Statements are recorded on computer and printed out for re-confirmation by the statement giver and signed for compilation.
Meanwhile, the local media would track and publicise the investigation of the incident which can create anxiety for those interested in exploring political space.
Most times the tone of local media reports tend to paint the exploration of political space as risky business. The public relations offensive of the police in painting free speech activists, religious rights campaigners and opposition politicians as criminal by using negative catch words and phrases to vilify free actions as necessarily a law and order problem are part of the total media assault. Additionally, the leaders of such movements are policed rigorously.
Would describing Singapore as a police state resonate with the average Singaporean and do Singaporeans have a sense that they live in a police state? People certainly widely believe that their ballots are not secret because the serial numbers on the ballot paper holds the potential for the ruling party to track how an individual voted. They also believe their telephone calls can be monitored and the PAP government can track what people view online. There is widespread awareness of vulnerability and fear (better not risk my condominium or business by even getting involved), that is, effective intimidation, but most people do not equate this with a concept as significant as “a police state”.
On the other hand, the Singapore policing authorities will be quick to point out that all they do is to work within the legal system. Increasingly this is coupled with good media management to project policing activity as being professional and targeted at lawbreakers. Attention will also be drawn to opportunities for recourse, where relevant, through the judicial process. But it all stops short of commentary on law making for the last four decades in a one party dominated state. Hence, the political dimension of policing is not raised for discussion.
In Singapore, because it’s a small place, policing is extremely efficient. To monitor, to investigate and to prosecute is fairly easy. But in doing so, almost anyone and everyone can become a “criminal” from the legal sense of the word.
This is a pattern that observers of the Singapore’s policing regime need to take note. Both the police and the PAP political authority go to great lengths not use the full extent of their restrictive laws and punishment when faced with a confrontation. They would rather adopt persuasion as a means to avoid using the law. Family members, relatives and friends are approached, by civil servants, in order to lobby that laws are not broken, especially in direct protest to demonstrate that such some laws are unreasonable. They do this, because technically, the police and the political authority have the capacity to snuff out all transgression effectively. However, in so doing they run the risk of creating a political time-bomb whereby confrontation tends to show up the restrictiveness, unreasonableness and outdatedness of some laws and policies.
Further, it also reveals the political dimensions of such selected policing which affects individuals and groups operating within the legal framework but are contesting the hegemony of the PAP. As opposed to real offenders out in the streets committing crimes.
Intimidation is the essence of the Singapore system. But in talking with people, its likely they will come up with defenses as to why Singapore must be ruled with a firm hand, echoing PAP propaganda. Also, they are often willing to see those who challenge the rules as rabble-rousers, people disloyal to Singapore. So defining Singapore as a police state might not be immediately acceptable to many Singaporeans, because the propaganda has been successful. People prefer to practice mental amnesia by blocking the police state of out from their mind and by pretending that it does not exist. This, however, does not negate the fact of the practices of a police state and that many Singaporeans and other observers are aware that the PAP government uses intimidation, regulation control, and legalism to maintain its political hegemony.
To call Singapore a ‘police state’ should not be seen as a rhetorical device, an exaggeration of the regulating role of a benevolently paternalistic regime. Singapore is a police state. However much successful propaganda assists its citizens to accept that the intimidation is necessary. That is why it is so dangerous and represents the police state in its modern form.