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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Is Singapore a Libertarian Paradise?

An analysis of the young nation's economics, politics, culture, and civil rights.

Singapore is a young country, having only gained independence from the British in 1965. Since then, the country has been ruled solely by the People’s Action Party (PAP), headed by the revered statesman Lee Kuan Yew who is often credited as the “founding father” of Singapore. He passed away at the age of 91 in 2015.

Foreign workers and non-residents make up 39% of the population. The country’s ethnic diversity is made up of predominantly Singaporean Chinese (76%), with Malays (15%) and Indians (7%) in racial minorities. The population on the whole is English-speaking. For a small country the size of only 719.1 km² (that’s ⅔ the size of New York City), Singapore hosts a dense population of 5.61 million (as of June 2016). Citizens are less than two-thirds of the population (3.41 million), while foreign workers and non-residents make up 39% (2.19 million) of the population.

The success of Singapore’s relatively high intake of foreign workers in past decades has likely in part to do with the ruling party’s staunch stance against a traditional welfare state. Foreign workforce growth has however slowed in recent years due to citizen unhappiness.

The PAP’s official philosophy is one of meritocracy and pragmatism, although this has been fiercely challenged by Singaporeans for the inequalities it entrenches. The government has been rated highly on the Economist’s crony-capitalist index, although it is also often held up as a an exemplary model for lack of corruption.

Economic Haven

View of Singapore’s Central Business District, a symbol for the country’s bustling economy. Image by William Cho.

As one of the Four Asian Tiger economies that saw rapid industrialization in the second half of the 20th century, the city-state of Singapore today is often held up as a standard of how embracing free and open economy measures can lead to prosperity.

Singaporean citizens also enjoy one of the relatively lowest tax rates in the world.

Within libertarian circles, Singapore generally enjoys a good reputation for its economic freedom. The country often comes out on top of the rankings of the annual Index of Economic Freedom as well as the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World Index as one of the freest economies of the world. Property rights are secured and respected (it should be noted however this has not always been the case historically), contracts are enforced and its government is often touted as an ideal corruption-free bureaucracy, ranking 9th in the 2016 Rule of Law Index.

Singaporean citizens also enjoy one of the relatively lowest tax rates in the world, based on a progressive tax rate that starts at 0% (individuals making an income below $22,000 annually are exempt from taxation) and caps at 22% for an income above S$320,000. There is no capital gains tax and its inheritance/estate tax has been abolished as of 2008.

The State Monopolies: Housing, Health Care, Education, Transport

The Singapore government’s approach to health care, housing and retirement lies in the Central Provident Fund (CPF), a mandatory savings pension plan. Singaporeans are required to pay 20% of their monthly salary into an individual CPF account, while employers contribute an additional 17%. These CPF funds may only be withdrawn at the age of 55 in partial amounts, although it may be used for a variety of purposes such as the purchasing of medical insurance or public housing prior to that.

Education is largely monopolized by the state from the primary school level up until the university level.

The Housing Development Board (HDB), the public housing arm of the state, houses more than 80% of the population in high-rise apartment homes. An average four to five room flat in Singapore costs about 215,000 USD – 360,000 USD while a private condominium would range from 700,000 USD to 860,000 USD.

Education is largely monopolized by the state from the primary school level up until the university level (although private universities, too, are regulated by the state’s Committee for Private Education). Its local universities such as the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University are ranked among the highest in the world, while private universities are usually considered to be an inferior choice.

It is also worth noting that primary education in Singapore is compulsory. While students can choose their subject combinations in at the secondary (middle-school) level, there are subjects that may not be opted out of such as the Social Studies classes, a subject often criticized for a one-sided portrayal of the nation’s history by the ruling party of the day.

What about transport? Due to its small geographic size, Singapore is notorious for its sky-high car costs to prevent congestion; a Toyota Prius could cost about 150,000 USD. Because of this, its public rail and bus public transportation is heavily relied on by the general populace, and is often lambasted by citizens for its inadequacies and occasional breakdowns although it is comparatively efficient when held up against public transportation systems around the world.

Civil Rights Disparity

Singapore suffers from a severe lack of press freedom, ranking at an alarming 151 in the World Press Freedom Index (see also the 2017 Freedom Of The Press Report by Freedom House), below authoritarian countries such as Russia and Pakistan.

The Newspapers and Printing Presses Act requires anyone setting up a print newspaper to be registered with the local government, and therefore be bound by severe rules and red tape. As such, traditional media has been monopolized by the state, a state of affairs that persists so until today. The advent of the internet and social media in the early nineties has however brought about some media diversity, although they are also fiercely monitored and gazetted under the Broadcasting Act.

The LGBT community in Singapore is still being denied the same rights as other citizens, and homosexuality remains a criminal offense. Image by G.dallorto.

Buttressed by restrictive laws such as the Films Act, media content like films or comics that are deemed to be seditious can be and are easily and swiftly censored. In a recent case, 17-year-old blogger Amos Yee was jailed after being found guilty under the Singapore Penal Code for “wounding religious feelings” through his YouTube videos.

The government maintains the illegality of homosexual behavior. The state also controls public broadcasting from television to radio. Opposition politicians such as J.B. Jeyaratnam and Chee Soon Juan have been sued by the ruling Prime Minister himself as well as political dissidents and bloggers (see Roy Ngreng).

In the realm of LGBT rights, the government maintains the illegality of homosexual behavior, a delicate status quo much supported by some religious communities. Gay establishments are allowed to legally operate however, and these boundaries have been slowly challenged by LGBT activists at the annual LGBT Pink Dot event.

Singapore is perhaps most well-known for its non-tolerance of drugs. Drug users can be jailed or housed in rehabilitation centers for up to three years and drug traffickers face the death penalty.

The infamous Internal Security Act (ISA) although designed to target mainly communist threats of the past, is today used for arrests and searches without the need for a warrant in the name of preserving public order and national security, and has been used several times in modern history.

Singaporean males are also subject to mandatory conscription of up to two years by the age of 18, a law that has been in effect since 1967. Civil ownership of guns are outlawed in Singapore and the issue of gun rights does not permeate the political sphere whatsoever.

The Political Arena

Political actors face overwhelming restrictions and limitations in Singapore.

The organization of elections are not carried out under an independent body. Instead, they are organized under the Prime Minister’s Office. This means that the announcement of constituency boundaries (announced with as little as 8 weeks before elections), the monitoring of campaign spending limits, designation of rally locations are all subject to the Prime Minister Office’s discretion. This decision-making process does not include input from the opposition and is carried out behind closed doors.

The Public Order Act restricts public speeches or assemblies unless a permit has been issued. Under the Elections Act, campaigning periods can be afforded as little as 9 days to a maximum of 8 weeks. Opposition parties have not been afforded any more above the bare minimum of 9 days since 1963. In addition, the methods and techniques during election campaigning are fiercely constrained. For instance, the Films Act prohibits the production of political films or videos while the Public Order Act restricts public speeches or assemblies unless a permit has been issued.

The Political Donations Act disallows foreign funding to political parties and organizations that the government deems to be “political in nature” (news sites, activist groups etc). Large donations must be registered in name, deterring donors who prefer anonymity.

Cultural Consensus

Despite the fact that the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index has consistently ranked Singapore at the top, its government is oftentimes criticized by opposition politicians and citizens alike for its top-down fostering of a stifling intellectual climate through its public schooling education system that places a heavy emphasis on technocratic skills. Critics believe that this suffocates business innovation and creativity in the arts.

The strongest opposition to the ruling regime is often found through sociopolitical news sites, forums and social media.

Voters are generally in favor of the ruling party’s authoritarian rule, although it is also worth noting that citizens are by and large politically apathetic. As the media in Singapore is state-controlled, the strongest opposition to the ruling regime is often found on the Internet through sociopolitical news sites, forums and social media.

Citizens in large part do believe that freedom of speech is an idealistic fantasy, and that mandatory conscription is necessary for the security of the country given our small population and precarious geographic location. Lastly, the notion that there is a role for government to regulate and monitor the activities of businesses and individuals (from Uber and Airbnb to smoking) is a widely-held belief. Of course, these are general sweeping statements, but they should provide a good starting guide to understanding the Singaporean cultural consensus.

Reprinted from Students for Liberty.