Human Rights in Singapore

by Ruth Montiel:

The effects of the Singapore’s oppressively authoritarian regime on human rights are not readily apparent to most visitors. In the five weeks I spent in the country this summer, I noticed few expressions of Singapore’s more questionable policies. The most celebrated attributes of the island nation were the most obvious, especially the great wealth, cleanliness, and safety that make it noteworthy in a region that contains such impoverished nations as Burma and Laos. The remarkable economic success of this young state makes human rights violations less overt and thus seemingly less significant. However, I believe that the natural leadership and economic strength of Singapore in Southeast Asia make the upholding of international human rights principles all the more vital in order to establish a precedent for other rapidly developing Asian states.

The Singapore skyline from the new Marina Bay Sands SkyPark (Montiel, TYG)

Lee Kuan Yew, whose son has followed him as current prime minister, founded Singapore in 1965. At its beginning the tropical island, abandoned by stronger economic and military powers, seemed to have little chance of success. Today, however, the nation has a GDP demographic statistics that well surpass those of many other developed nations.

These notable successes, however, have blinded many foreigners to the insidiousness of numerous state policies. It is far more difficult to critique Singapore, which has proved to be an exceptional model in so many ways, than, for example, Burma, whose failures are much more blatant. The human rights violations in Singapore have not held the state back from development as similar violations have in many Asian and African states. Nevertheless, the latency of these issues in no way excuses them.

Alan Shadrake’s book exploring the fallacies in Singapore’s use of the death penalty and his subsequent imprisonment and criminal trial were clear manifestations of two noteworthy violations experienced by many Singaporeans and foreigners: use of cruel and unusual punishment and limitations on free speech. Cases and policies of cruel and unusual punishment are myriad in Singapore. Although official statistics are unavailable, Singapore is widely considered to have one of the world’s highest execution rates. Freedom of expression and privacy are also both severely limited. In a highly disturbing example, Singapore restricts consensual, private homosexual relations as unnatural sexual practices. Indeed, Singaporean students told Yale visitors this summer that Katy Perry’s international hit “I Kissed a Girl” is banned in the city-state.

The limitations on free speech, however, are the most insidious violations, for they severely limit one’s ability to pursue change in the aforementioned violations. The government often utilizes draconian defamation laws and libel suits to jail or fine many opposition authors and political leaders. Indeed, the Singaporean government has criticized such international journalistic institutions as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The government has also severely impeded the attempts of opposition parties: in 2008 leaders of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party were forced to pay the prime minister several hundred thousand dollars in damages for an article. Thus the state has, through such policies, made opposition and criticism both difficult and dangerous. This human rights gridlock demands internal change.

Developed Western nations, including the United States, have a real economic stake in both Singapore and the emerging Southeast Asian markets that look to Singapore as an example of success. It is easy to ignore the failures when looking at the successes, but to do so is to excuse the deprivation of human liberties under the guise of economic achievement. Relations between China and other developed nations have faced similar issues. I believe that the United States is too willing to overlook human rights violations in favor of maintaining economic strength and positive trade relations, which diminishes the credibility of the United States as a nation that values human rights.

As the economic leader of Southeast Asia and an undeniably remarkable success story, Singapore must set a precedent for other regional nations. Many of these nations have horrific human rights histories from which they are attempting to recover. The example of Singapore, however, seems to excuse limiting the rights of individuals in favor of obtaining economic success. The latency of these violations neither excuses them nor diminishes their significance. Indeed, this latency is in many ways more dangerous, for fewer nations are willing to put the needed pressure on Singapore to end the limitations that oppress both citizens and foreigners who wish to critique the dichotomy between the remarkable successes and oppressive failures of this young city-state.