Singapore: Background and U.S. Relations*

By Chanlett-Avery, Emma | Current Politics and Economics of South, Southeastern, and Central Asia, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Singapore: Background and U.S. Relations*


Chanlett-Avery, Emma, Current Politics and Economics of South, Southeastern, and Central Asia


OVERVIEW

Though only about three times the size of Washington, DC, and with a population of 4.7 million, the city-state of Singapore punches far above its weight in both economic and diplomatic influence. Its stable government, strong economic performance, educated citizenry, and strategic position along key shipping lanes make it a major player in regional affairs. For the United States, Singapore is a crucial partner in trade and security cooperation as the Obama Administration executes its rebalance to Asia strategy.

Singapore's value has only grown as the Administration has given special emphasis to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a platform for multilateral engagement. Singapore's heavy dependence on international trade makes regional stability and the free flow of goods and services essential to its existence. As a result, the nation is a firm supporter of both U.S. trade policy and the U.S. security role in Asia, but also maintains close relations with China.

GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS

The People's Action Party (PAP) has won every general election since the end of the colonial era in 1959, aided by a fragmented opposition, Singapore's economic success, and electoral procedures that strongly favor the ruling party. Some point to shifts in the political and social environment that may herald more political pluralism, including generational changes and an increasingly international outlook among Singaporeans. In May 2011, opposition parties claimed their most successful results in history, taking six of parliament's 87 elected seats, and garnering about 40% of the popular vote. Though this still left the PAP with an overwhelming majority in Parliament, the ruling party described the election as a watershed moment for Singapore and vowed to reform the party to respond to the public's concerns.

Singapore's parliamentary-style government is headed by the prime minister and cabinet, who represent the majority party in Parliament. The president serves as a ceremonial head of state, a position currently held by Tony Tan Keng Yam. Lee Hsien Loong has served as prime minister since 2004. Lee is the son of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who stepped down in 1990 after 31 years at the helm. The senior Lee, 89 and widely acknowledged as the architect of Singapore's success as a nation, resigned his post as -Minister Mentor" following the 2011 elections, citing a need to pass leadership to the next generation.

In 2010, changes to the constitution guaranteed that more non-PAP members would be represented in the parliament. The electoral reforms were seen as an acknowledgement by the PAP that it must adjust to a more open and diverse Singapore. Singapore's leaders have acknowledged a -contract" with the Singaporean people, under which individual rights are curtailed in the interest of maintaining a stable, prosperous society. Supporters praise the pragmatism of Singapore, noting its sustained economic growth and high standards of living. Others criticize the approach as stunting creativity and entrepreneurship, and insist that Singapore's leaders must respond to an increasingly sophisticated public's demand for greater liberties for economic survival. Greater, and generally freer, use of the Internet may be threatening to some of the leadership; in the past the government attempted to tighten control over bloggers, who may not exercise the same restraint as the mainstream media in limiting criticism of the ruling party or touching on sensitive issues such as race, in Singapore's multiethnic environment.

Although it has been elected by a comfortable majority in every election since Singapore's founding, the PAP -places formidable obstacles in the path of political opponents," according to the U.S. State Department's 2012 Country Report on Human Rights Practices. The report states that -the PAP maintained its political dominance in part by circumscribing political discourse and action. …

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