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Singapore: Laws chill free speech, assembly

End repressive prosecutions, regulations, and civil suits

Blogger Roy Ngerng speaks to the media after attending a damages hearing in a defamation case by Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Supreme Court in Singapore, 1 July 2015
Blogger Roy Ngerng speaks to the media after attending a damages hearing in a defamation case by Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Supreme Court in Singapore, 1 July 2015

REUTERS/Edgar Su

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 13 December 2017.

The Singapore government's use of overly broad criminal laws, oppressive regulations, and civil lawsuits severely curtails freedom of speech and assembly, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

"Singapore promotes itself as a modern nation and a good place to do business, but people in a country that calls itself a democracy shouldn't be afraid to criticize their government or speak out about political issues," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Direct and indirect restrictions on speech and public protest have long stifled debate on matters of public interest in Singapore."

The 133-page report, "'Killing the Chicken to Scare the Monkeys': Suppression of Free Expression and Assembly in Singapore," is based on an in-depth analysis of the laws and regulations used by the Singapore government to suppress speech and peaceful assembly, including the Public Order Act, the Sedition Act, the Broadcasting Act, various penal code provisions, and laws on criminal contempt. Drawing on interviews with 34 civil society activists, journalists, lawyers, academics, and opposition politicians; news reports; and public statements by government officials, the report examines how these provisions have been used to limit individual rights to speech and assembly.

Human Rights Watch wrote to the prime minister of Singapore, the home affairs and law minister, the minister for foreign affairs, and the minister for communication and information requesting their views on the issues raised in the report but no government official or agency replied.

Individuals who are critical of the government or the judiciary, or speak critically about religion and issues of race, frequently face criminal investigations or civil suits, often with crippling damages claims, Human Rights Watch said.



The government's sustained harassment of outspoken individuals is exemplified by the case of activist Roy Ngerng, who wrote a popular blog criticizing government actions and policies and highlighting inequalities in Singapore. Over the course of six months in 2014, Ngerng was sued for defamation by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, fired from his job, and charged with unlawful demonstration and public nuisance. In 2016, after he openly supported the opposition candidate in a by-election, the authorities accused him of violating "cooling-off" rules on election advertising and called him in for intensive questioning by the police, who searched his home, seized his mobile phone and computers, and demanded the passwords to his social media accounts.

Bloggers, cartoonists, lawyers, and the foreign media are among the many who have faced contempt proceedings for criticizing the Singapore judicial system. In the most recent case, the attorney general sought and obtained judicial permission to bring contempt proceedings against Lee's nephew over a private Facebook post in which he noted that a litigious government and a "pliant" judiciary meant that international media was constrained in what it could report about Singapore.

Public protests in the city-state are extraordinarily restricted, Human Rights Watch said. The only place where public gatherings that are even remotely political can be held without a police permit is Speakers' Corner, a section of tiny Hong Lim Park. Even at Speakers' Corner, there are detailed restrictions on what can be said, and foreigners are barred from speaking or even being present. In one case, activist Jolovan Wham was given a "stern warning" in lieu of prosecution when two Hong Kong citizens participated in a protest he organized in support of Occupy Hong Kong, even though he had announced both in advance and at the event that foreigners were not permitted to participate.

Under a government order issued in late 2016, foreign or multinational companies are not permitted to support events at Speakers' Corner without a police permit. The government rejected the applications of 10 multinational companies that applied to support the 2017 Pink Dot celebration of LGBT pride.

The new report documents how various regulatory restrictions are used to limit discussion of political or "sensitive" issues in plays, films, and on the internet. The government frequently conditions licenses for public performances of politically themed plays on censorship of the script. It effectively prohibits all positive portrayals of LGBT lives on television, radio, or in film. In 2015, the government banned the showing of a promotional video for the annual LGBT Pink Dot celebration, even though the video simply featured a countdown and then the words "Pink Dot" and the date of the event.

Human Rights Watch called on the Singapore government to drop all pending charges for peaceful speech or assembly and amend or repeal the laws and regulations that restrict speech or assembly to bring those laws into line with international standards.

"Singapore's kneejerk response to sue or prosecute critics has for many years limited critical reporting on the city-state," Robertson said. "Singapore's trading partners should call on the government to modernize its views of human rights and end its repression of speech and assembly."

A note about the report title:

"Killing the chicken to scare the monkeys" is a Chinese proverb used the describe the practice of striking hard at a lesser enemy in order to scare a more powerful one. It was used repeatedly by interviewees during the course of the research for this report to describe the Singapore government's practice of cracking down hard on those who speak out to send a message to others. As one interviewee said, "It is less that they want to sue someone than that they want to send a message to others not to say things – to perpetuate a culture of fear. The person is unfortunate that they happened to fit the circumstances to send the message."

Continue reading HRW's statement for information on selected cases of suppression of free expression and assembly.

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