With per capita gross domestic product the highest in Asia at US$62,400 by purchasing power parity, Singapore ranks as the world’s seventh-richest country. It remains an anomaly, the most modern city in Southeast Asia, but it still canes offenders, ruins its political enemies and uses the courts to silence its enemies either through defamation suits or contempt of court.
A new report by Amnesty International illustrates the country’s contradictions and without saying so, hints that change could be on its way. Amnesty International’s Southeast Asia representative, Margaret John, noted in transmitting the report that since it was written, “recent weeks have seen questions raised as to the Singapore of the future” due to the uncertain health of the country’s founder, Lee Kuan Yew, and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer. The elder Lee has been hospitalized with pneumonia. He remains in intensive care although the latest reports indicate his health has improved slightly.
Lee Hsien Loong, aged 63, was initially diagnosed with lymphoma in the early 1990s. He underwent a prostatectomy on Feb. 15. It was announced that the operation was a success.
If anything, despite its prosperity and modernity, Singapore has slipped back a notch in the past year. Amnesty International noted that the island republic had reinstituted the death penalty, hanging two drug offenders after a three-year moratorium on executions. The execution of one offender was stayed in March 2014, but commutations to life imprisonment involve 15 strokes of the cane. In 2012, the last year for which statistics are available, judges sentenced 2,500 offenders to be caned. Of those, 88 percent were carried out. According to Singapore’s Criminal Procedure Code, the offender strips naked and is bent over a padded crossbar. His other hands and feet are secured with leather strips. The caning officer delivers the number of strokes prescribed at a rate of one every 10 to 15 seconds. In cases where the offender is hurt so badly that he can’t undergo the rest of the punishment, he is sent back to the court for the remaining number of strokes to be prescribed or converted to a prison term of no more than 12 months.
“Caning remains a penalty for various offenses, including immigration violations, vandalism and as an alternative (with life imprisonment) to the death penalty,” the Amnesty International report notes. “In August, Yong Vui Kong, whose death sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment and caning, challenged his penalty of 15 strokes on the grounds that the Constitution prohibited torture. The Court of Appeal judgment was pending at the end of the year, but the Attorney-General took the position that caning did not amount to torture and that torture is not prohibited by the Constitution.”
As to freedom of expression, Reporters Without Borders ranks Singapore 150th of the world’s 180 countries, having slipped one notch from 149th. It is ranked just above the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“Opposition activists, former prisoners of conscience and human rights defenders expressed concerns about the shrinking space for public discussion of issues such as freedom of expression, the death penalty, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex rights, labour rights, poverty and inadequate living standards,” the report continued.
The government persists in using defamation suits against critics. It has never lost a case in its own courts. In May, Amnesty International noted, Prime Minister Lee sued blogger Roy Ngerng Yi Leng for defamation after Ngerng was alleged to have accused the Prime Minister of “criminal misappropriation” of public retirement funds in his blog.
Despite a retraction and a public apology, as well as an offer of damages, the Prime Minister called for a summary judgment on the case in July. Ngerng was fired from his job with a public hospital in June. In view of financially ruinous outcomes from previous suits against critics, Ngerng turned to crowdfunding to finance his legal defense.
Singapore does not hesitate to use the colonial-era Internal Security Act, with 12 suspected Islamist militants believed to remain held without trial.