A slice of 80s history: human rights community and its perception of Singapore

18 Jan


The importance of history cannot be understated. Sometimes, they are cemented by the passage of time in written literature which serves the unmistakeable function of showing us how political issues were perceived.

In ‘Silencing All Critics, Human Rights Violations in Singapore’, published in the late 80s, by the NGO, Asia Watch (and related to Human Rights Watch), the authors of the report portrayed a sense of pessimism (‘the dark side’ in their terms) as they focused on the continuing and systematic ‘dismantling of civil society’ and the government’s ‘campaign against the rule of law‘. This mood was intensified by the ISA- alleged Marxists conspiracy arrests and changes in publication legislation during the late 80s.

The sense of pessimism was also coupled with a general distrust of the PAP. The researchers were remarkably candid which was especially amplified in the last fourth paragraph. They described the party’s campaign against civil society as one marked by ‘pettiness, meanness and vindictiveness’ and unflatteringly compared the former Prime Minister to a ‘sixteenth century monarch’.

While international human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Asia Watch (the latter now defunct) has reduced its coverage in Singapore, the structural and systematic repressive measures that were being introduced by the government in the 80s have continued to exert an undue influence in today’s landscape.

Certainly, many readers would gain very different interpretations in this excerpt or even compare and contrast the developments since then. Unavoidably though, he or she is likely to agree that the PAP’s strategy in dominating Singapore’s political discourse remains somewhat similar – blunting the effectiveness of civil society; maintaining a facade of parliamentary democracy while destroying vocal opposition with arbitrarily-defined laws.

Excerpts from ‘Silencing All Critics, Human Rights Violations in Singapore’

Published in 1989 September, printed in the United States of America


Silencing All Critics

The Singapore government has succeeded in systematically dismantling its civil society and the rule of law, detaining its civil society and the rule of law, detaining without trial its opponents, harassing opposition politicians and severely curtailing freedom of the press, both domestic and foreign. This report calls on the Singapore government to release those currently detained without trial under the Internal Security Act and to remove restrictions imposed on the other detainees. Further, Asia Watch calls for revision of authoritarian legislation that restricts freedom of expression and association and for legislative reforms that will provide for effective judicial review of executive actions.

Silencing All Critics is based on information gathered over the past two years, including information obtained during four visits by Asia Watch representatives to Singapore.


The bright side of the city-state of Singapore, which it displays to the world, is a model of cleanliness, efficiency, economic success and the forms of parliamentary democracy. The dark side, which it shows to its own citizens, is increasingly repressive as Singapore’s formal democratic institutions are being progressively deprived of substance. Indeed, in the last two years, Singapore’s government has been engaged in what appears to be a systematic campaign to dismantle both civil society and the rule of law which, together with periodic free and fair elections, are the essential ingredients of democracy.

The campaign against civil society is manifest in the variety of institutions that have become targets for intimidation, vilification and abuse by the government of Singapore. They include the Catholic Church, its publications and a variety of social welfare groups associated with the Church; other independent citizens’ groups ranging from a student association to a drama group; Singapore’s Law Society; the National University of Singapore; the domestic media; the foreign media that cover Singapore and that are distributed in Singapore; and opposition political groups. In its zealous pursuit of this campaign, the government has made vigorous use of laws dating from colonial times, such as the Internal Security Act (ISA) and the Societies Act. It has amended laws, as in the case of the ISA and the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, to eliminate safeguards against abuses and to expand its power to exercise discretion in their enforcement. And it has curbed the power of the courts to review the acts of the executive branch.

The Singapore government’s campaign against civil society has been marked by pettiness, meanness and vindictiveness. It has mistreated detainees, jailed them again for complaining about mistreatment, jailed their lawyers and even pursued a vendetta beyond the borders of Singapore against one of the lawyers for the detainees who was also an opposition politician spokesman. At times, the manner in which the government has acted makes it seem as though its Prime Minister of three decades were a sixteenth century monarch and his critics were guilty of lese- majeste.

The campaign against the rule of law is manifest in the Singapore government’s abuse of lawyers who have represented those detained under the Internal Security Act; its efforts to circumscribe the Law Society; its prohibition on judicial review of acts by the executive branch that affect the rights of its citizens; and its progressive elimination of opportunities for appellate review. Lawyers in Singapore are being reduced to the role of technicians who facilitate commercial transactions. They are being deterred from serving as the defenders of the rights of the citizenry. And the courts are being used to administer repression and denied the power to curb the excesses of the executive branch.

Is it possible for Singapore to maintain and even improve upon its free market success while subjecting its citizens to ever more rigid and undemocratic rule? If so, this will make it an exception in a region in which other states that have achieved great economic success, such as South Korea and Taiwan, have been moving in the opposite direction and providing greater latitude for freedom of expression and association. Also, the dramatic events of April- June 1989 in the People’s Republic of China suggest that demands for enhanced political freedom accompany advances in the development of a market economy and international commerce. In China, those demands were suppressed by brute force. In Singapore, on the other hand, the process has been less dramatic and more legalistic. Civil society, the rule of law and the freedom of citizens to express themselves and their freedom to associate peaceably with others to pursue causes of concern to them, are being gradually constricted.

Long regarded as an authoritarian state, Singapore has moved in the direction of totalitarianism as it succeeds in dismantling its civil society and the rule of law. Its dark side is growing darker. If experience elsewhere is a guide, at some point Singapore will eventually encounter difficulty in maintaining the brightness of its bright side unless it is willing to turn the lights back on and to permit the civil society that is now being destroyed to reconstitute itself, and unless it restores the rule of law.


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