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Who would have believed that Singapore would rise to such international fame and become the vaunted "Asian Tiger" it has in recent decades? This small country's political stability and effective government have inspired many other nations to study its methods, and former prime minister (and current minister mentor) Lee Kuan Yew is counted among the most respected political figures in the world. When asked to explain how Singapore's astounding economic, political, and social success was made possible, Lee always takes the credit -- and deservedly so -- but in the face of international criticism for dictatorial policies, absolutist law enforcement, and human rights violations, he also stands first in line to take the heat.

The Government

Singapore is a republic that is governed by a parliament, the members of which are decided in general elections held at least every 5 years. Parliamentary procedure is based on the British model. A president, who has limited veto powers, serves as head of state; a prime minister serves as head of government. Currently, the positions of president and prime minister are held by S. R. Nathan and Lee Hsien Loong, respectively.

Since 1968, the People's Action Party, or PAP, has been the country's dominant political party, and while opposition parties exist, they have as yet been unable to effectively challenge PAP power.

In 1959, PAP leader Lee Kuan Yew was elected as prime minister, and since then his unfailing vision of a First World Singapore has inspired the policies and plans that created the political stability and economic miracle seen today. During his tenure, he mobilized government, industry, and citizens toward fulfilling his vision, setting the political agenda, building a strong economy from practically no resources except labor, and forging a nation of racial and religious harmony from a multiethnic melting pot. Singapore's government is characterized by conservative social and economic policies, bureaucratic efficiency, and low corruption. It also receives widespread criticism from international groups concerned with state censorship of media, tight regulation on political expression, and the mandatory death penalty for certain crimes.

Although Lee Kuan Yew no longer occupies the PM role (he stepped down in 1992), he holds a senior advisory position as minister mentor. Both critics and admirers refer to Lee as a strict yet generous "father" to the "children" of Singapore, raising them to a high position on the world stage yet dictating policies that have cost citizens many of their personal freedoms. You'll find that the average Singaporean expresses some duality about this: He or she will likely be outwardly critical of the government's disregard for personal freedoms and of policies that have driven up the cost of living, but will also recognize all that Lee has done to raise quality of life overall, expand opportunities for the future, and ensure tranquility at home -- achievements for which many are willing to sacrifice a certain amount of freedom to enjoy. For the most part, your average Singaporean wishes to see the current government continue its trajectory.

Chew on This -- Contrary to popular belief, it's perfectly legal to chew gum in Singapore, and you can bring in small quantities for personal consumption with no problems. It is, however, illegal to import and sell it. The story goes that after the multibillion-dollar Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system opened, vandals brought the network to a halt when they disposed of chewed gum by jamming the trains' door sensors. The ban took effect in 1992.

The Censorship Question

One infamous feature of Singapore's government is its control over media, both domestic and international. All national news publications have ties to the government, whose philosophy holds that the role of the media is to promote the government's goals. Articles are censored for any content that might threaten national security, incite riot, or promote disobedience or racism. Pornographic materials are also prohibited. Offenders face stiff fines.

It doesn't stop at the print media, either. Television is also censored, as is cable television content, and satellite dishes are banned. The Internet provided Singapore with a tough dilemma. By design, the Net promotes freedom of communication, which is taken advantage of by, among others, every political dissident and pornographer who can get his hands on a PC. This thought so concerned the Singapore government that it debated long and hard about allowing access to its citizens. However, the possibilities for communications and commerce and their implications for the future of Singapore's economy won.

The Economy

For Singapore, the global financial crisis disrupted almost 3 decades of annual national growth rates of between 7% and 9% -- with one of the most globalized economies in the world, the nation-state is very vulnerable to economic fluctuations around the world. In January 2009, the Singapore government revised its GDP growth forecast for the year to between -5.0 and -2.0 percent. Days later, it unveiled a S$20.5 billion economic stimulus package designed to help keep the country afloat. The move was unprecedented, as it was the first time the government had ever loosened its tight grip on its coffers. The money was spent mainly on measures to save jobs and correct structural unemployment problems. As a result, unemployment remained close to 2%.

In 2010, the GDP grew strong and steady -- by November the government estimated that the year's final tally would show 14.7% growth. However, this growth is expected to soften in 2011, reflecting Singapore's dependence on recovery in European and American export markets.

The city-state's biggest moneymakers are the electronics industry, financial and business services, transportation and communications, petroleum refining and shipping, construction, and tourism. Seventy-six percent of Singapore's exports (not counting oil exports) go to the United States, Malaysia, the European Union, Hong Kong, and Japan.

Singaporeans enjoy a high standard of living, with median annual household incomes reaching S$58,000, according to 2009 estimates.

Tourism

The Singapore Tourism Board has far-reaching influence that has helped to turn Singapore into a veritable machine for raising foreign cash. In 2009, 9.7 million tourists visited Singapore, spending S$12.4 billion during their stays. In 2010, visitor arrivals and expenditures have consistently broken records, thanks to the opening of the island's two enormous integrated resort complexes, Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.