right to chew “therapeutic” gum: Uniquely Singaporean
After 12 years, Singapore has now lifted
its notorious ban on chewing gum. But only the registered users
can chew it. Gum became a sticking point months ago in Singapore's
free trade talks with the United States, when Representative Philip
Crane of the US State of Illinois - home of chewing gum giant Wrigley
- pressed the issue. Singapore as a compromise agreed to allow only
the sale of “therapeutic” gum in pharmacies. The customers have
to submit their names and ID card numbers. If they don't, pharmacists
who sell them gum could be jailed up to two years and fined 5,000
Singapore dollars (US$ 2,940).
The world’s gilded cage, Singapore, in fact
faces few criticisms despite its abominable human rights record.
In a country where human lives are regulated and most freedoms are
banned, Singapore's movement towards democracy has been characterised
by the legalisation of bungee jumping, table-top dancing, oral sex
with opposite sex only (homosexuality is prohibited) and now, the
use of chewing gum for therapeutic purposes.
No freedom after expression:
The Constitution of Singapore provides for
freedom of expression, subject to limitations imposed by the government.
The joke goes, there is freedom of expression but “No Freedom After
In September 2001, the government set up
a Speakers’ Corner, modelled on the more famous version in London's
Hyde Park. However, anyone brave enough to mount a soapbox and let
off some steam from the Speakers Corner, a luxury not allowed elsewhere
in the country, is required to get permission in advance from the
local police to comply with strict, Singapore-style limits on what
people can actually say. Any criticism of the domineering government
or the long-ruling People's Action Party of Prime Minister Goh Chok
Tong, is outlawed, as it is throughout the country. Sensitive topics
such as race and religion are too prohibited. Offenders are likely
to be hauled off to government-friendly courts to face libel suits
or jail or both.
The speeches are recorded by the government,
preserved for six years and can be used in defamation and criminal
proceedings in courts of law. In
2002, opposition leader Chee Soon Juan spoke at the Corner to criticize
the Government's enforcement of a ban on Malay schoolgirls wearing
the "tudung," a headscarf that some Muslims considered
a religious requirement. When he registered to speak, police called
Chee's attention to the ban on any discussion of sensitive religious
or ethnic issues then did so again after he began his speech. Chee
was allowed to finish his remarks. However, he was later charged
with violation of the notorious Public Entertainment and Meetings
Act and convicted. The $1,715 (S$3,000) fine imposed on Chee affected
his ability to participate in politics. Under the Constitution,
individuals who are fined more than $1,140 (S$2,000) cannot run
for Parliament for 5 years. Speaker’s Corner – the symbol of Lee Kuan
Yew type freedom of expression is today a largely forgotten concept
Since its divorce from Malaysia in 1965,
Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, virtually silenced
all political dissent. While dynastic rule across Asia is questioned,
the succession of Lee Hsien Loong, son of Singapore’s senior Minister
Lee Kuan Yew as the next Prime Minister is accepted without any
whisper. Lee Kuan Yew who popularised the idea of "Asian values"
as a counter to the universality of human rights, certainly believes
in dynastic rule which has become a feature of political life in
Asia. However, unlike in other Asian countries, Lee Hsien Loong
does not have to pass through the litmus test at elections.
Singapore has become synonymous of one party
rule by the Peoples' Action Party (PAP). The number of opposition
members of parliament has always been less than five. In the election
of November 2001, 55 out of the 84 parliamentary seats were won
unopposed, unimaginable in any democratic country. In any democratic
country, even the village councils or local municipal council elections
cannot be won uncontested. The
PAP holds 82 of 84 elected parliamentary seats and all ministerial
The government of Singapore used defamation
and libel suits to silence political dissent. In January 2001, J.B.
Jeyaretnam lost his parliamentary seat after being declared a bankrupt
for not paying the massive damages awarded to PAP members in a series
of defamation suits. In a statement of 4 May 2004, Mr Jeyaretnam
stated that he submitted an application for his discharge from bankruptcy
at the end of March this year i.e. 2004, offering to pay a total
of twenty percent (20%) of all the debts. But, the Official Assignee,
eight of the plaintiffs in the suit brought against him, Prime Minister
Mr Goh Chok Tong and Mr. S. Jeyakumar, the Minister for Law under
whose ministry the Official Assignee comes, have been opposing the
petition. In total, damages of amounting to $166,666-00 - $100,000-00
was paid by the Party and $66,666-00 - personally by J.B.Jeyaretnam.
Executions: Top in the world
According to the UN Secretary-General's quinquennial
report on capital punishment (UN document: E/CN.15/2001/10, para.
68), for the period 1994 to 1999 Singapore had a rate of 13.57 executions
per one million population, representing by far the highest rate
of executions in the world. This is followed by Saudi Arabia (4.65),
Belarus (3.20), Sierra Leone (2.84), Kyrgyzstan (2.80), Jordan (2.12)
and China (2.01). The largest overall number of executions for the
same period took place in China, followed in descending order by
the Islamic Republic of Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States of
America, Nigeria and Singapore.
Drug addicts are particularly vulnerable.
Many were hanged after being found in possession of relatively small
quantities of drugs. Singapore's Misuse of Drugs Act contains several
clauses which conflict with the universally guaranteed right to
be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and provides for a mandatory
death sentence for at least 20 different drug-related offences.
For instance, any person found in possession of the key to anything
containing controlled drugs is presumed guilty of possessing those
drugs and, if the amount exceeds a specified amount, faces a mandatory
death penalty for "trafficking". This goes against fair
trial and increases the risk of executing the innocent.
More than 400 prisoners have been hanged
since 1991 in Singapore.
Retribution as a part of justice
from draconian legislation such as the Internal Security Act, the
Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act (CLA), the Misuse of Drugs
Act (MDA), and the Undesirable Publications Act (UPA), caning,
in addition to imprisonment, is a routine punishment for numerous
offenses. The Penal Code mandates caning, in addition to imprisonment,
as punishment for approximately 30 offenses involving the use of
violence or threat of violence against a person, such as rape and
robbery, and for nonviolent offenses such as vandalism, drug trafficking,
and violation of immigration laws. Caning is discretionary for convictions
on other charges involving the use of force, such as kidnapping
or voluntarily causing grievous hurt. On 24 May 2004, Selvaraju
Satippan, who was found guilty of kidnapping a 22 years old women
was sentenced to life imprisonment and 24 strokes of the cane by
the High Court of Singapore.
There is little sign of democratisation of
Singapore under next Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong who is said
to have opposed even the Speakers’ Corner. Singapore will continue
remain an authoritarian state in which political opposition is silenced,
the media is muzzled, films like Titanic are censored and thousands
of websites are banned.