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Summary Article: Singapore
From The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Country in southeast Asia, off the tip of the Malay Peninsula.

Government Singapore is a multiparty democracy with a prime ministerial political executive, but since independence one party, the People's Action Party (PAP), has dominated. The constitution of 1965, as amended in 2014, provides for a one-chamber parliament, whose 87 members are elected for five-year terms by universal suffrage from 13 single-member constituencies and from 16 four-to-six-member Group Representation Constituencies (GRC) through a simple plurality system. At least one member contesting the multimember GRCs must be of non-Chinese racial origin. Prior to the 2015 election, the government had also been able to nominate up to nine politically neutral members of parliament who could vote on all but financial and constitutional legislation.

Parliament debates and votes on legislation. Executive power is held by a prime minister and cabinet drawn from the majority party within parliament, and by a president who, since 1993, is directly elected, with some veto powers over the use of national financial reserves and some judicial appointments. The president serves a six-year term. Stringent eligibility rules ensure that the president is drawn from the country's political-economic establishment.

History Singapore was founded as a Malay kingdom some time between 1200 and 1300. It was known as Tumasik or, in Sanskrit, Singapura (the lion city). However, along with other parts of the Malay Peninsula, it was overrun and destroyed between 1360 and 1365 by Majapahit, a powerful Javanese kingdom.

The establishment of UK rule The island of Singapore was a swampy jungle when, in 1819, Stamford Raffles of the UK East India Company concluded a treaty with the nominal rulers of Singapore, Sultan Hussein and the Temenggong Abdul Rahman of Johore, allowing the company to establish a trading base near the River Rochor. In 1824 a treaty was signed ceding the entire island and most offshore islands to the company, and in 1832 Singapore was incorporated in the Straits Settlements.

The island rapidly developed as an entrepôt centre, with its population growing from 120 in 1819 to 40,000 in 1840. The rule of the British East India Company ended in 1858, in the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny, and the territory passed to the British crown. It was from their political and commercial base in Singapore that the British intervened in the Malay Straits during the 1870s (see Malayan history to 1963).

Singapore in World War II Between the two world wars the building of a great naval base at Singapore stressed the colony's strategic importance. The strategic concept upon which Singapore developed was that of a protected naval base from which a powerful fleet could operate, and it was therefore defended against sea attack by fixed coastal defences. Plans for defence along the Malay Peninsula were worked out when the base was completed, but these proved useless during World War II. The Japanese pushed the British forces down the Peninsula into Singapore in 1942 and on 15 February the British commander surrendered. The British retook the island on 5 September 1945.

The path to independence Progress towards internal self-government was rapid after 1945, with political agitation led by David Marshall, leader of the Labour Front. In consideration of Singapore's strategic importance it was made into a separate crown colony when the Straits Settlements were disbanded in 1946. The legislative council inaugurated in 1948 under the new constitution of 1946 had only nine elected members; in 1951 this was increased to 12.

In 1953 the governor appointed a commission under George Rendel to review Singapore's constitutional position, and its recommendations were accepted in 1955 by the UK. The following elections resulted in victory for the Labour Front, and Marshall became chief minister. He resigned in 1956 after disagreeing with the UK government on the question of greater local control over internal security.

Marshall's successor, Lim Yew Hock, reached agreement with the UK on self-government, the internal-security question being covered by the proposed establishment of an internal security council. The new constitution came into force in 1959, when Singapore was granted self-government with Lee Kuan Yew as prime minister, although the UK retained control of defence and foreign affairs.

Singapore in Malaysia In 1963 Singapore joined the new Federation of Malaysia. However, the existence of a large Chinese majority in Singapore, many of whom were hostile to central control by a predominantly Malay government, exacerbated racial and political tensions, and these led to Singapore's secession from Malaysia on 9 August 1965. Singapore became a republic within the Commonwealth in December 1965.

The authoritarian rule of Lee Kuan Yew From 1966 the People's Action Party (PAP) government under Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew embarked on a policy of making Singapore a tightly disciplined ‘garrison state’ on the Israeli model. Lee established a national army (with compulsory male military service), and extended the police force, the paramilitary bodies, and PAP community organizations. He brought the trade unions under PAP control, and legislated against political opposition. He also embarked on a large-scale public housing programme and developed the country's infrastructure, providing the foundations for economic growth.

One justification for the policy of strict regimentation and militarization was that Singapore, as a wealthy, largely Chinese city-state surrounded by a hostile Malay population, needed to protect itself; another was the need to achieve the political stability necessary for foreign investment; a third was the rundown of the UK military presence announced in the UK government's 1967 White Paper on defence. The PAP gained a monopoly of all parliamentary seats in the elections between 1968 and 1980.

After 1966, with the reopening of Indonesia to foreign investment, Singapore's servicing role in regional development was greatly enhanced. Under Lee's stewardship, Singapore developed rapidly as a commercial and financial entrepôt and as a centre for new export industries. The country's standard of living increased rapidly.

UK military withdrawal In 1967 the British military presence contributed 20% to Singapore's gross domestic product, but by 1971 this presence was minimal, and gradually the complex of military bases passed into local control. The British Far East Command ceased in 1971 and the British naval base was formally closed. In 1971 a consultative pact on the coordination of external defence was signed by Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK, creating the joint ANZUK force. This force was officially disbanded on 1 January 1975, although there remained a token British contribution to the area's integrated air-defence system and a commitment to consult with other members of the five-power defence agreement. The Singapore government continued to provide servicing facilities for foreign naval vessels, but official policy was against the establishment of a naval base on the island by any power.

Opposition to Lee During the early 1980s, as the pace of economic growth briefly slowed, opposition to the Lee regime surfaced. Support for the PAP fell from 76% to 63% in the December 1984 election, and two opposition deputies won parliamentary seats for the first time. Lee responded by taking a firmer line against dissent; J B Jeyaretnam, the Workers' Party leader, was found guilty of perjury in November 1986 and deprived of his parliamentary seat. Support for the PAP held steady, at 62%, in the September 1988 election and the opposition won only one seat.

In November 1990, Lee stood down as prime minister, handing over to his deputy, Goh Chok Tong. He gave up chairmanship of the PAP in December 1992, but remained a ‘senior member’ of Goh's cabinet. The PAP was returned to power with 61% of the vote in the general election held, ahead of schedule, in August 1991.

Singapore after Lee Under Goh, there was a more open and consultative style of leadership. In September 1993 Ong Ten Cheong became the country's first directly elected president, with increased executive power. In October 1996 parliament passed bills that would improve representation of minority races, including ethnic Indians and Malays.

In the general election of January 1997 the ruling PAP, led by prime minister Goh Chok Tong, reversed its recent slide in support and captured 65% of the vote (up 4% on 1991) and 81 seats in the 83-member parliament. The opposition only contested 36 seats, and it was reported that there were threats of withdrawal of government funding for housing renovation projects in any constituency that returned an opposition candidate.

Foreign policy Singapore allied itself closely with the USA 1965–74. From the mid-1970s, however, the country has pursued a neutralist foreign policy and improved its relations with China. It is a member of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Economic crisis In 1997–98, the country was affected by the broader Asian financial crisis and in late 1998 slipped into recession for the first time in 13 years, after two quarters of negative growth. The government responded by announcing pay cuts for government and private sector workers.

The 1999 presidential election was not contested because the government-appointed Presidential Elections Committee disqualified all but one candidate, S R Nathan. A former ambassador to the USA, Nathan, of Indian descent, was favoured by the government as a representative of the state's non-Chinese minorities. Nathan secured a second term, in August 2005, without an election.

Despite economic recession and rising unemployment, support for the PAP rose to 75% in the November 2001 general election, its best result in 20 years.

Terrorism and SARS In December 2001, Singapore uncovered a plot by the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist group to blow up embassies and infrastructure in the country, and 15 members of the group were arrested under the Internal Security Act.

In 2003, there was an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which claimed 33 lives.

Lee's son becomes prime minister In August 2004, Lee Hsien Loong, the son of Lee Kuan Yew, took over as prime minister, and Goh became a ‘senior minister’ in his cabinet. Lee Hsien Loong pledged to continue the policy of opening up Singapore's society and from January 2005, the government removed half-day working on Saturday to move to a five-day work week.

In February 2006, the government announced a S$2.6 billion progress package to distribute budget surpluses accumulated over recent years to citizens in the form of state pension bonuses, rent and utility rebates, and cash bonuses for low-wage workers. The opposition criticized this as a vote-buying exercise for the May 2006 general election, which the PAP went on to win with 66% of the vote and 82 of the 84 elected seats.

Under Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore developed closer economic ties with China. The global financial crisis of 2008–09 led to a 1% contraction in Singapore's economy in 2009, but it bounced back strongly in 2010, with GDP growth of 14%. The PAP won the April 2011 general election with a 60% share of the vote, and won 81 out of the 87 elected seats: the other 6 were won by the Workers' Party.

Immediately after the 2011 general election, ‘minister mentor’ Lee Kuan Yew and ‘senior minister’ Goh stepped down from the cabinet as Lee Hsien Loong put together a younger ministerial team. In September 2011, Tony Tan, formerly the deputy prime minister (1995–2005) became president.

The 2011 election had seen the opposition make gains because of voter concerns about immigration and income inequality. Prime minister Lee Hsien Loong acknowledged it had been a ‘watershed election’ which marked a ‘shift in the political landscape’. This was underlined in November 2012 when Singapore experienced its first strike since the 1980s: by Chinese bus drivers complaining against pay discrimination. In May 2013 there were large demonstrations against government plans to bring in foreign workers, and in December 2013 a riot took place involving 400 foreign workers, after an Indian migrant worker was kocked down and killed by a bus.

In March 2015 Lee Kuan Yew died. However, in the September 2015 general election the PAP recorded its best result since 2001, attracting 70% of the vote and winning 83 of the 89 seats, enabling Lee Hsien Loong to continue as prime minister.


National Heritage Board of Singapore


Singapore Government


Singapore skyline

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

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