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The Great Paradox: World’s most powerful passport but lagging behind in civil liberties




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By Augustine Low

We carry the world’s most powerful passport, giving us unlimited freedom and access beyond our borders. But right here at home, it would seem that civil liberties are compromised and freedom is restricted, going by how Singapore is ranked under freedom indexes.

Such is the paradox for the Singaporean lot.

Last October, the Singapore passport was ranked the most powerful in the world by the global advisory firm Arton Capital. It ranks national passports according to visa-free cross-border access. The Singapore passport scored highest, with visa-free access to 159 countries.

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More recently, the Henley Passport Index, released last month, had Germany in top spot and Singapore in second. Whether first or second most powerful passport, Singaporeans enjoy top notch global mobility.

The freedom to travel visa-free almost anywhere in the world should be a privilege that Singaporeans applaud. But then the conundrum sets in when we realise that while freedom beyond is unlimited, civil liberties in Singapore are restricted. At least according to the third-party observers and surveyors of freedom indexes.

Take for example the inaugural 2018 World Electoral Freedom Index, which measures how free and fair electoral systems are across the world. The index uses a comprehensive range of 55 indicators. According to results released last month, Singapore was ranked a dismal 173 out of 198 countries surveyed.

Our neighbours Malaysia fared significantly better than us, with a ranking of 125. Others which surprisingly did better included Philippines (41), Libya (106), Bangladesh (107), Myanmar (169) and Rwanda (170).

Singapore is also consistently ranked abysmally low in the World Press Freedom Index. The index is recognised as a barometer of independence and freedom of the media in countries around the world.

The 2017 index has Singapore in the 151st spot out of 180 countries. Norway was ranked first, and others which emerged better off than Singapore included Indonesia (124), Cambodia (132), Thailand (142), Malaysia (144) and Russia (148). North Korea took the last spot (180).

Is the paradox – unlimited freedom beyond, restricted freedom within – by design or by accident?

It is a scenario that the PAP government may not be unhappy with. It could even be one that is calibrated. We could go so far as to call it a masterstroke of the government:

Let Singaporean spirits soar, free as the eagle, let them go where they will, but right here at home it’s back to the grind, where life isn’t too bad, although we have rules and boundaries and we keep the house in order any which way we see fit.


The majority of Singaporeans, it would appear, are happy with the trade-off.

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