A Lion City Primer
Another in our multipart series on Singapore in conjunction with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings in Singapore. The series examines Singapore's social and political structure, its relationship with the press, its concerns about regional security and other issues.
Delegates, Welcome to Singapore, host of the 2006 Annual Meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
Your hosts will have provided you a useful guide to help you enjoy your stay on this friendly island; smart restaurants and bars, art galleries and museums. We at Asia Sentinel are keen to offer you the following 12 points for a fuller picture of what happens in your host nation, to help arrive at wise and sound judgments as you confer with your international colleague this important week.
Singapore’s People’s Action Party has been in power since 1959, a record outstripped in single-party regimes only by the still-ruling communist parties of China, North Korea and, by a few weeks, Cuba. Of non-communist regimes, only Paraguay’s Colorado Party has been in power as long without interruption, though unlike the PAP it has occasionally ruled in coalitions.
The PAP was founded by the former socialist Lee Kuan Yew. He was Singapore’s prime minister until 1990, when his eldest son Lee Hsien Loong was appointed deputy prime minister. Following the interregnum of place-holder Goh Chok Tong, Lee Jr.has been Prime Minister since 2004, appointed in a managed succession. He has contested his parliamentary seat just four times since 1984.
PM Lee insists Singapore has a ‘world-class democracy.’ It stages periodic general elections. Most recent elections have been won by the PAP before polling day because a majority of seats were not contested by opposition candidates. In the last election, in May this year, the ruling PAP won 45 of the 47 contested seats, with 66.6% of the vote. The government insists the Singapore’s elections are not gerrymandered.
Singapore’s electoral ballot papers are numbered, enabling authorities to trace voters’ political preferences. Singapore’s authorities insist they do not examine specific voter preferences. Electoral authorities claim numbered balloting exists to prevent electoral fraud.
Singapore’s government ministers are among the world’s best paid politicians. The prime minister’s annual basic salary is $US1.2 million. It is not known if the current prime minister, who is also the finance minister, also receives a salary from the finance ministry. If he did, it would be another $US700,000 annually. The salary of the President of the United States is around $US400,000. Singapore does not possess nuclear weapons.
Singapore has two main government-controlled investment companies, the Singapore Government Investment Corporation and Temasek Holdings. The board members of GIC were unknown until 2001, when it was revealed in the foreign press that the chairman was Lee Kuan Yew, and his son Lee Hsien Loong was deputy chairman. The accounts and operations of the GIC are not made available to the public that owns it.
A huge portfolio of government-owned companies – led by Singapore Telecom, Singapore Airlines and the arms dealer Singapore Technologies - control Singapore’s economy. Economists at the US Embassy have calculated the government’s control over the economy through Temasek to be as high as 60%. The government claims these companies comprise just 13% and that they operate independently of the government. The boards of these major companies are sprinkled with senior government officials. Until recently SingTel’s chief executive was Lee Hsien Yang. He is Lee Kuan Yew’s younger son. He did not have telecom management experience before being appointed Singtel CEO.
Temasek is the vehicle that owns the controlling stakes in many of Singapore’s major companies. It is wholly owned by the Finance Ministry. The Finance Minister is also the Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong.
Temasek’s chef executive is Ho Ching. She is Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s wife. The Finance Ministry claims Temasek operates separately of the government.
Singapore claims to operate world’s best practices of corporate governance. It is not unknown in Singapore for some businesspeople to sit on scores of corporate boards, some while also occupying senior government positions. In 2001, the chairman of the Singapore’s government corporate governance standards boards also sat on more than 50 corporate boards. In the same year, the chairman of Singapore Aviation Authority was also a director of Singapore Airlines, one of the many airlines the authority administers. The same man was decorated for his term as the director-general of Singapore’s secret police authority, the Internal Security Department. His eight-year term at the ISD was not disclosed in an official prospectus of a spin-off company of the state-controlled media company he managed. No corrective legal action was taken by Singapore’s market authorities. Singapore does not have an anti-trust legal regime.
Singapore’s legal system has awarded some of the world’s highest defamation payouts. Many of these payouts have been awarded to senior PAP politicians for claimed libels against them from their political opponents, and against a number of the world’s most prestigious media mastheads. Many of the PAP’s political opponents have been bankrupted and duly cannot run for parliament. Singapore insists it is a free and open democracy. Foreign media circulating in Singapore are compelled by law to post legal bonds in lieu of possible legal actions. Singapore’s politicians have rarely fought, and never won, a libel action fought in a non-Singapore legal jurisdiction. Singapore’s legal system authorities insist the system is independent. Singapore claims to support a free and open media.
All media in Singapore is controlled or owned by the government through government-linked companies that regularly announce their independence.