Overview | Government

This series of profiles of foreign nations is part of the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The profiles offer brief, summarized information on a country's historical background, geography, society, economy, transportation and telecommunications, government and politics, and national security. Derived from The Library of Congress.


Government Overview: Singapore is a parliamentary republic. The constitution for the State of Singapore, based on that promulgated on June 3, 1959, was amended in 1965 at independence. The presidency is largely ceremonial, and the prime minister is the most powerful political figure. The current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, however, has been in office only since August 12, 2004, and serves under the advice of his father, long-time prime minister and now minister mentor, Lee Kuan Yew. The younger Lee assumed the office of prime minister when the incumbent Goh Chok Tung, who succeeded Lee Kuan Yew in 1990, stepped down, but Lee’s mandate was democratically confirmed in an election held on May 6, 2006. Goh Chok Tong serves as senior minister. The People’s Action Party (PAP), founded in 1954, has governed without serious opposition since 1959.

Constitution: The constitution of the Republic of Singapore, promulgated in 1965, has undergone two major revisions, once in 1985 and again in 1999. Based on English common law, it has 14 parts and 153 articles. Although it provides all the mechanics for a liberal democracy, Singapore’s one-party rule for more than 45 years has not offered the opposition a meaningful chance to develop.

Executive Branch: The president is Sellapan Rama—S.R.—Nathan, who ran unopposed and was elected to a six-year term by direct popular vote on August 18, 1999. He was sworn in for his first term on September 1, 1999, and on September 1, 2005, was sworn in for a second term without even being required to stand for election after the government declared his opponent ineligible to run. The largely ceremonial president and head of state is assisted by the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA), a body established by constitutional amendment in 1991. The president is required to consult the CPA before he vetoes the government budget or appoints government nominees to key posts. In other matters, such as withholding assent to certain bills passed by parliament, appointments to statutory boards, and withholding concurrence in regard to detention of persons in times of national emergency, the president may use his discretion on consulting the CPA. The CPA has six members: two appointed by the president at his discretion, two nominated by the prime minister, one put forward by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and another suggested by the chairman of the Public Service Commission. CPA members are appointed to initial six-year terms and can be reappointed for additional four-year terms. The current chairman of the CPA is Sim Kee Boon.

The head of government is the prime minister. The current incumbent, Lee Hsien Loong, has held office since August 12, 2004, and concurrently serves as minister of finance. The prime minister is assisted by a senior minister (since August 12, 2004, Goh Chok Tong, the former prime minister), a minister mentor (since August 12, 2004, Lee Kuan Yew, the prime minister’s father), two deputy prime ministers, and 14 other ministers. The president appoints as prime minister a member of Parliament believed likely to command the confidence of the majority of the members of Parliament. There is no set tenure for the office of prime minister. On the advice of the prime minister, the president appoints the other members of the cabinet. The cabinet, responsible collectively to the Parliament, oversees government policies and day-to-day administration of the affairs of state.

Legislative Branch: The unicameral 84-seat Singapore Parliament is modeled after the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy where members are voted in at regular general elections and the leader of the majority party is invited by the president to assume the post of prime minister. The prime minister then selects ministers from elected members of Parliament to form the cabinet, which in turn runs the executive branch of government. When the new Parliament first convenes, a speaker is elected. Each Parliament sits for five years from the date of its first session after a general election, and general elections are to be held within three months of the dissolution of Parliament. Members are elected by universal suffrage. The president appoints a maximum of nine “nominated members” from among persons who have rendered distinguished public service, brought honor to the republic, or made notable contributions in the fields of arts and letters, culture, the sciences, business, industry, the professions, social or community service, or the labor movement. Parliament also can seat up to six “non-constituency members” to represent a political party or several parties not a part of the government, although nominated and non-constituency members are prohibited from voting on amendments to the constitution, money and supply bills, no-confidence measures, and removal of the president from office. The constitution further provides for group representation in Parliament of the Malay, Indian, and minority communities.

Judicial Branch: The judicial branch is headed by a Supreme Court, whose chief justice is appointed by the president on the advice of the prime minister. Other Supreme Court judges then are appointed by the president on the advice of the chief justice. The Supreme Court consists of the Court of Appeals and the High Court. Supreme Court judges or former Supreme Court judges can sit as judges on the Court of Appeals and the High Court, as designated by the president after consultation with the prime minister. Judges normally serve until age 65. Subordinate courts include criminal courts, criminal mentions courts (at which charges are first placed), and traffic, night, coroners’, civil, and family courts, plus various other tribunals and services that support the subordinate court system. The Syariah Court, established in 1955, adjudicates Muslim marriages, divorces, property dispositions, and other matters relating to Muslim inheritance, betrothal, marriage, and divorce.

Administrative Divisions: Singapore is a unitary state with no second-order administrative divisions.

Provincial and Local Government: Singapore has no provincial or local government although there are some advisory bodies based on the 23 electoral divisions.

Judicial and Legal System: The legal system is based on English common law. According to Article 2 of the constitution, the laws of Singapore include written laws and any legislation of the United Kingdom or other enactments or instruments in operation in Singapore. Common law and any custom or usage having the force of law in Singapore also are in effect according to Article 2. Representation by legal counsel is provided by law, but the right to trial by jury was abolished in 1959 for all except capital offenses, and all jury trials were abolished in 1969.

Electoral System: Suffrage begins at 21 years of age and is universal and compulsory. Singapore has 23 electoral divisions or constituencies. Nine single-member constituencies and 14 group representation constituencies, each with between three and six individuals, are represented by 75 members of Parliament. Singapore has only two kinds of elections, presidential and parliamentary. According to the constitution, the president is elected by popular vote for a six-year term, but the current president, Sellapan Rama Nathan, was nominated unopposed and was elected to the presidency on August 18, 1999. He was sworn in for a second term on September 1, 2005, after the government had declared potential opponents ineligible to run. The leader of the majority party in Parliament or—although this has never happened—the leader of a majority coalition is normally appointed prime minister by the president. The People’s Action Party (PAP) dominated the most recent parliamentary elections held on May 6, 2006, as it has every election since 1959. The PAP, headed by Lee Hsien Loong, won 66.6 percent of the vote and 82 of the 84 seats in Parliament, including 37 seats that the opposition declined to contest. A third “non-constituent” seat was awarded to the opposition. The Workers’ Party of Singapore gained one regular and one non-constituent seat. The Singapore Democratic Alliance won a regular seat.

Politics and Political Parties: The majority party, which has been in power since 1959, is the People’s Action Party (PAP). Of the opposition parties, only the Workers’ Party of Singapore (WP) and the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA), an umbrella group, hold seats in Parliament. The SDA consists of the Singapore National Malay Organization (Pertuhan Kebangsaan Melayu Singapura—PKMS), National Solidarity Party (NSP), Singapore’s People’s Party (SPP), and Singapore Justice Party (SJP). Two opposition parties not holding seats in Parliament are the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). In the May 2006 parliamentary elections, the Singapore government continued its customary tradition of intimidation against opposition candidates, which consisted mainly of costly defamation lawsuits. Following the 2006 elections, the Asian Network for Free Elections, a watchdog group based in Bangkok, recommended that Singapore establish an independent election commission, which now reports to the prime minister.

Mass Media: The media industry is regulated by the government’s Media Development Authority. All newspapers in Singapore are required by law to be public companies and are regulated by the government. Major daily newspapers are published in various languages. English-language publications include the venerable Straits Times, founded in 1845; Business Times; and three tabloids, The New Paper, Streats, and Today. Chinese-language newspapers include Lianhe Wanbao, Lianhe Zaobao, Shin Min Daily News, and Toh Lam Hhat. Two other dailies are the Malay Berita Harian and Tamil Tamil Murasu. Weekly newspapers are offered in English and Malay, and most newspapers can be accessed on the Internet. There also is a lively magazine circulation with 17 domestic English, one Malay, and nine Chinese titles. Most broadcasting is produced by radio and television companies owned by the Media Corporation of Singapore and Radio Corporation of Singapore. Other radio stations include Radio Heart, Rediffusion, and SAFRA (Singapore Armed Forces Reservists’ Association) Radio. Cable, satellite, and traditional television broadcasters include CNBC (formerly stood for Consumer News Business Channel) Asia Pacific, Singapore CableVision, Singapore Television 12; SPH (Singapore Press Holdings) MediaWorks, and Television Corporation of Singapore. Broadcasts are in Chinese, English, Malay, and Tamil, but primarily in Chinese and English.

Foreign Relations: Singapore maintains diplomatic relations with 165 nations. Overseas, it has seven high commissions, 17 embassies, two permanent representations to the United Nations (UN), and 14 consulates general and consulates. Singapore hosts embassies or high commissions of 55 nations, 37 foreign consular posts, and offices of eight international organizations. In addition, more than 60 nonresident foreign ambassadors are accredited to Singapore. Singapore seeks to maintain a credible defensive military to undergird its foreign policy. It promotes good relations with its neighbors and any nation wishing to establish friendly relations. As a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Singapore is committed to maintaining a secure peaceful environment in and around Southeast Asia and in the Asia-Pacific region. After breaking off a long-term diplomatic relationship with the Republic of China on Taiwan in 1990, Singapore established relations with the People’s Republic of China. Since this change, numerous high-level delegations have traded visits and have developed a wide range of political, economic, cultural, and scientific and technical exchanges. Tensions over Singapore’s relations with Taiwan—emanating from both Beijing and Taipei—continue. Continued good relations with the United States are based on bilateral free trade and close military ties.

Membership in International Organizations: Singapore is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Nonaligned Movement, the United Nations (UN), and numerous other international organizations, including the Asian Development Bank, Asia Pacific Economic Forum, Bank for International Settlements, Colombo Plan, Commonwealth, Forum on Small States, Group of 77, International Atomic Energy Agency, International Aviation Organization, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, International Chamber of Commerce, International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, International Criminal Police Organization, International Development Association, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, International Finance Corporation, International Hydrographic Organization, International Labour Organization, International Maritime Organization, International Monetary Fund, International Olympic Committee, International Organization for Standardization, International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, International Telecommunication Union, Multilateral Investment Geographic Agency, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Permanent Court of Arbitration, UN Conference on Trade and Development, Universal Postal Union, World Confederation of Labor, World Customs Organization, World Health Organization, World Intellectual Property Organization, World Meteorological Organization, and World Trade Organization.

Major International Treaties: Singapore is a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons; Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty; Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons; and Convention on Biological and Toxin Weapons. Singapore also is party to the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, Montreal Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, United Nations (UN) Convention to Combat Desertification, UN Convention on Biological Diversity, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. It also is a party to the Endangered Species, Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, and Ship Pollution agreements.


Armed Forces Overview: The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) had 72,500 personnel on active duty in 2005, 35,000 of whom were conscripts. The service components are the army, numbering 50,000, with 35,000 conscripts; navy, 9,000, with 1,800 conscripts; and air force, 13,500, with 3,000 conscripts. There are an estimated 312,500 personnel in reserve status (army, about 300,000; navy, about 5,000; and air force, about 7,500). The SAF is led by a chief (a major general) supported by army, navy, and air force chiefs of staff. As of 2006, the Ministry of Defence was headed by Teo Chee Hean, who also oversees the administration of the Defence Policy Group, Defence Administration Group, Singapore Armed Forces, and Defence Science and Technology Agency.

Foreign Military Relations: The British Far East Command and the British naval presence in Singapore formally ended in 1971. At that time, Singapore became a participant in the Five-Power Defence Arrangement with Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, and a joint military force was in place until 1975. Singapore continues to provide facilities for servicing foreign naval vessels, but its official policy disallows the establishment of a naval base on the island by another country. Under the five-power arrangement, joint military and naval maneuvers are held annually. Singapore supports a strong U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. In 1990 the United States and Singapore signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that allows U.S. access to Singapore facilities at the Paya Lebar Airbase and the Sembawang wharves. In accordance with the MOU, the U.S. Navy established a logistics unit in Singapore in 1992. Furthermore, U.S. fighter aircraft are deployed periodically to Singapore for exercises, and U.S. Navy vessels visit Singapore. The MOU was amended in 1999 to permit U.S. naval vessels to berth at the Changi Naval Base, which was completed in 2001. In October 2003, Singapore and the United States announced their intention to expand cooperation in the area of defense and security and to negotiate a Framework Agreement for a Strategic Cooperation Partnership. Areas of cooperation include counterterrorism, counterproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, joint military exercises and training, policy dialogue, and technology exchange. Singapore has conducted joint naval exercises with the United States and has joined the United States-led Proliferation Security Initiative. Joint naval and air force exercises are held annually with Australia. Singapore maintains relationships with the armed forces of Australia, Brunei, France, Thailand, and the United States, primarily for the purpose of training. Although it does not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, Singapore maintains training facilities there. Most of Singapore’s major military imports since 1998 have been purchased from the United States. It also has acquired submarines from Sweden and has a frigate on order from France.

External Threat: Singapore faces a potential military threat from Malaysia if historical tensions were to reemerge. In particular, Singapore fears that the Malaysian state of Johor could cut off its water supply, an act that would be regarded as a casus belli. Singapore also is concerned about the possibility of a terrorist strike sponsored by the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiah (Community of Islam) or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a Philippines-based separatist group.

Defense Budget: Military expenditures in fiscal year (FY) 2005 were estimated at US$5.87 billion, or about US$1,349 per capita, representing about 5 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). The projected defense budget for FY 2006 is US$6.37 billion, an 8.5 percent increase over the previous year. Projected defense spending for 2006 represents 22.5 percent of the total federal budget.

Major Military Units: The army has three combined arms divisions, a rapid deployment division, and a mechanized division. Included in these organizations are nine infantry brigades with both active-duty and reserve personnel. The navy has a fleet with two flotillas and a submarine squadron and coastal, naval logistics, and training commands. The air force is organized into 20 combat, reconnaissance, transportation, support, and helicopter squadrons. It also has one squadron of unmanned aerial vehicles and an air defense division with four field defense squadrons.

Major Military Equipment: The army has an estimated 450 tanks (including 80 to 100 main battle tanks), 294 armored infantry fighting vehicles, more than 1,280 armored personnel carriers, 206 towed artillery pieces, an estimated 18 self-propelled artillery pieces, a variety of mortars, more than 30 antitank guided weapons, rocket launchers, recoilless launchers, 30 air-defense guns (some of which are self-propelled), and 75 or more surface-to-air missiles. The navy has three submarines with antisubmarine warfare capability, six corvettes, six fast missile attack craft, 11 offshore patrol vessels, four mine countermeasures ships, four amphibious ships, and two logistics and support ships. The air force has 111 combat aircraft, 110 helicopters, and 64 unmanned aerial vehicles. The air force’s air defense division has air-defense guns, antiaircraft and antiship missiles, and mobile radar equipment.

Military Service: Singapore has compulsory military service for males reaching the age of 18 and voluntary service for those reaching 16 years of age. The conscription term of service is 24 months. Reservists attend annual training until age 40 for enlisted ranks and age 50 for officers.

Paramilitary Forces: Singapore’s paramilitary consists of 93,800 active-duty personnel and 44,000 reserves. The active-duty paramilitary encompasses the Civil Defence Force, the Singapore Police Force, and the Singapore Gurkha Contingent.

Foreign Military Forces: In 2005 the United States had 89 liaison personnel assigned to Singapore (39 air force and 50 navy). New Zealand had an 11-person liaison support unit stationed in Singapore.

Military Forces Abroad: Since 1991, Singapore has taken part in 11 peacekeeping missions in various capacities, including the provision of medical support, provision of military advisers for national reconciliation, and supervision of United Nations (UN)-sponsored elections in Namibia, Guatemala, Cambodia, South Africa, and Afghanistan. Singaporeans also have held senior appointments in UN peacekeeping operations. In 1993, at the request of the UN secretary general, Singapore provided a special envoy to head a mission to broker a peaceful settlement between Russia and the Baltic States. In 1997 Singapore became only the seventh country to sign the memorandum of understanding on UN Standby Arrangements. Under its commitments, Singapore provides planning officers, military observers, medical personnel, and police officers on standby for the support of UN peacekeeping missions. Singapore forces also participated in the UN Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET) and the UN Mission in East Timor (UNMISET) during the unrest in East Timor before and after its independence from Indonesia in 2002. In 2005 Singapore military and police personnel were serving in UN Iraq/Kuwait Observer Mission (UNIKOM), Eritrea and Ethiopia (UNMEE), and East Timor (UNMISET), and also in New York at the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) provided medical and other humanitarian aid to Indonesia following the earthquake and tsunami in December 2004 and the earthquake in March 2005.

Additionally, in 2005 Singapore sent some 230 SAF personnel to flight training in Australia, 500 for helicopter training in Brunei, and 200 for flight training in France. The SAF maintains a joint artillery and combat engineer training camp in Thailand and a flight training detachment in the United States. The SAF also has three training camps (for infantry, artillery, and armored forces) in Taiwan. In 2002–4 there was discussion by Singapore about possibly moving some or all of these facilities to China’s Hainan Island.

Police and Internal Security: The Singapore Police Force has an estimated strength of 12,000, including 3,500 conscripts. There also are 21,000 reserve police officers. The Singapore Police Force includes the Police Coast Guard, which has inshore patrol craft and about 60 other boats.

Terrorism: Singapore perceives a threat from international terrorist organizations. As a consequence, the Five-Power Defence Arrangement, to which Singapore belongs along with Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, was expanded after 2001 to include counterterrorism. The Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiah (Community of Islam), an affiliate of al Qaeda, has operational units in peninsular Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, and Papua New Guinea. Another terrorist group of concern is the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a Philippines-based separatist group. Singapore maintains a high level of readiness and cooperation in the area of counterterrorism, especially in the wake of terrorist bombings in neighboring Indonesia, in Bali in 2002, and Jakarta in 2003. Singapore is believed to hold in indefinite detention between 36 and 40 individuals who are suspected of links to terrorist organizations. In February 2006, Mas Selamat Kastari, who was accused of plotting to crash an airplane into Changi Airport in retaliation for Singapore’s imprisonment of fellow Jemaah Islamiah members, joined the detainees when he was deported to Singapore after spending four years in custody in Indonesia. Particular emphasis has been placed on protective and preventive actions against attacks on critical infrastructure, cyberterrorism, and chemical and biological attacks. Maritime piracy, long a problem in the immediate area, is of special concern to Singapore. The threat of a terrorist ship hijacking, possibly with the placement of conventional or nuclear explosives onboard, has led Singapore to increase maritime security on its own and with its neighbors.

Human Rights: The Ministry of Home Affairs’s Internal Security Department enforces the Internal Security Act as a counter to potential espionage, international terrorism, threats to racial and religious harmony, and subversion. According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2005 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the government maintains effective control over all security activities, but there were some reports of human rights abuses of detainees by security forces during the year. The government generally respects the human rights of its citizens, but, nevertheless, retains broad powers to limit citizen rights and to handicap the political opposition. Caning, in addition to imprisonment, has been a routine punishment for numerous offenses. Preventive detention has been used to deal with espionage, terrorism, organized crime, and narcotics. Citizens’ privacy rights occasionally have been infringed, and the government has restricted freedom of speech and freedom of the press and limited other civil and political rights. Government pressure to conform has resulted in the practice of self-censorship by journalists.

The government has instigated court proceedings and defamation suits against political opponents and critics. Such suits have consistently been decided in favor of the government, a phenomenon that inhibits political speech and action and leads observers to believe that the ruling party uses the judicial system for political purposes. During 2005 a moderate level of debate occurred in the media on various public issues. However, the government has continued to prohibit discussion of sensitive ethnic or religious issues and has restricted freedom of assembly and freedom of association, and some religious groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unification Church, have been banned.

Index for Singapore:
Overview | Government


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