Civic space in Singapore remains rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. There are ongoing concerns about use of restrictive laws, including defamation laws, to criminalise criticism of the authorities by human rights defenders, journalists and critics and the restrictions on peaceful assembly, including protests held by one person, under the 2009 Public Order Act (POA). Further, there are laws restricting media freedom, and the 2019 Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) has been used to harass the political opposition, HRDs, journalists and civil society.

Singapore has yet to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which imposes obligations on states to respect and protect the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. Further, numerous recommendations to establish a national human rights institution have been ignored.

On 28th November 2022, parliament repealed Section 377A of Singapore’s Penal Code which criminalised consensual same-sex relations between men. However, this was overshadowed by the constitutional amendment barring judicial review of laws and policies that discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons. According to human rights groups, this amendment undermines the rule of law and will in effect curtail independent judicial oversight and review over institutionalised discrimination against LGBTI persons and members of their families.

In recent months, POFMA correction directions have been issued against critics. A film on religious and LGBTQI+ issues was banned by authorities and there are concerns about a new online safety law. The authorities have continued to harass activists for their social media posts while peaceful protesters have continued to be investigated or convicted.

Expression

POFMA correction direction issued against economist and media outlet

A former chief economist of Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC, Yeoh Lam Keong and The Independent Singapore (TISG) website were issued with a correction direction after they posted statements deemed to be false under the anti-fake news law, better known as the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) 2019.

On 7th November 2022, after Parliament passed a Bill allowing the Goods and Services Tax to be hiked in stages over the next two years, Yeoh wrote that this "seems completely unnecessary at the moment as we have a S$30 billion structural fiscal surplus that we have not even begun to publicly delineate clear spending big plans for”.TISG reproduced this statement in two separate articles on 9th and 12th November 2022.

On 18th November 2022, the Ministry of Finance (MOF) claimed that the statements were false, and as a result, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong directed the POFMA Office to issue correction directions to Yeoh and The Independent Singapore.

Both were required to insert a notice against the original offending online posts or articles, with a link to the government's clarification.

This was the second correction direction issued to Yeoh, the first being on 14th October 2022 over statements about the Housing Board’s deficits and Singapore’s past reserves. Independent news site The Online Citizen was also issued a correction direction over the same statements.

As previously documented, Singapore has used the POFMA law against opposition groups and critical online media. POFMA is a sweeping piece of legislation which permits a single government minister to declare that information posted online is “false” and to order the content’s “correction” or removal if deemed to be in the public interest. Human rights groups have highlighted how the Act contains vague and overbroad provisions; offers unfettered discretion to ministers and government authorities in making decisions; and lacks protection for freedom of expression and opinion, and access to information.

Film on religious and LGBTQI+ issues banned by authorities

In October 2022, Singapore authorities banned a film, claiming that “it denigrates a religious community and has the potential to cause enmity and social division in Singapore’s multi-racial and multi-cultural society”, according to a joint statement by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY).

#LookAtMe is a film about twin brothers, one gay and one straight, whose lives are turned upside down after one twin derides a homophobic pastor of a right-wing church through a video.

The movie by director Ken Kwek had its World Premiere at the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) in July 2022 where he received high praise.

In an interview, Ken Kwek commented: “the laws on freedom of expression are very regressive. There is a lot of censorship in the media, the depiction of LGBTQ characters is heavily circumscribed in broadcast television and radio. It’s quite a repressive society in many ways.”

Initially keen to seek the film ban’s reversal, the production team decided not to dispute the ruling after learning that the IMDA appeals procedure costs $355 ($500).

Concerns about new online safety law

The Singaporean parliament passed the Online Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments) Act on 9th November 2022. The new law aims to enhance online safety and requires social media platforms to scrap or block harmful online content such as sexual violence and terrorism. If the social networking site refuses to comply, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) has the authority to direct internet service providers to ban access. Providers who fail to comply with these directions could be subjected to fines of up to S$1 million (USD 736,862)

This law, along with two related regulations — the Content Code for Social Media Services (CCSMS) and the Code of Practice for Online Safety (CPOS) - will likely be implemented in 2023

Some initial concerns have been raised about the law. According to Dhevy Sivaprakasam, the Asia Pacific policy counsel at Access Now, legality requires rules to be clearly defined so people who use the internet, internet intermediaries - including social media services - courts, and authorities know exactly what content is impermissible online. The Online Safety law, however, currently does not meet this threshold. Its vague definitions of “egregious content” risk overbroad enforcement - including censoring information that “advocates or instructs” content “likely to cause feelings” of racial or religious ill will or hostility, which can even include legitimate reporting or advocacy discussing race and religion online.

Further, adequate independent oversight and remedial mechanisms are fundamental to ensure human rights-centric implementation. The law’s current prescribed process for appealing a content removal decision is to submit such appeals to the minister, who has executive powers to determine regulations in the first place. This raises real risks of unfettered discretion by authorities charged with implementing the law.

Activist receives conditional warning for social media post

The judicial harassment of activist and journalist Kirsten Han has persisted. On 21st October 2022, the Singaporean police issued a 12-month-conditional warning to her for a Facebook post that she published on 10th May 2022.

The conditional warning was issued after she received a call from an investigating officer at the Ang Mo Kio Police Division on 11th October 2022, asking her to meet with the chief investigation officer investigating offences stemming from the six-month-old Facebook post.

After showing up at the Ang Mo Kio Police Division Headquarters, she was given a conditional letter stating that her Facebook post “amounted to contempt of court”, and that the Attorney-General Chambers had instructed the police to issue her a conditional warning under Section 3(1)(a) of the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act 2016 (“AOJPA”).

The letter further warned her that if she committed any offence over the next 12 months, the AGC reserved the right to charge her for whatever offence she had committed, plus contempt of court.

Kristen stated that she inquired as to which sections of her Facebook post scandalised the judiciary in accordance with section 3(1)(a) of the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act. However, the police declined to entertain her request.

Kristen reacted to the decision by stating: “I am interpreting this as harassment and intimidation from the Attorney-General’s Chambers, using the Singapore Police Force as their messenger to do so. I find it very unfair that the AGC has simply decided that my five-month-old Facebook post is in contempt of court, and aren’t even articulating why it is in contempt of court, but just issuing me a conditional warning out of the blue”.

Subsequently she filed an application to ask the court to declare that her post was not in contempt of court, and to quash the conditional warning she received. Additionally, she also asked that the court order the police to give her a copy of the report lodged against her.

This is the last of a long series of investigations against her by the authorities for her activism. As previously documented on 24th June 2022, the Bedok Police Division summoned Han and Rocky Howe, a member of the Transformative Justice Collective (TJC) for potential violations of the Public Order Act 2009. They were accused of participating in two public assemblies organised without permission from the authorities in March and April 2022, respectively. As a result of the June 2022 investigation, Rocky Howe filed an application on 23rd September 2022, seeking, among other things, a declaration that the police had abused their powers in investigating him for allegedly participating in an 'illegal procession.'

Ongoing judicial harassment of human rights lawyer

On 19th October 2022, human rights lawyer M. Ravi received a notice from the police informing him that the Criminal Investigation Department were now investigating him for criminal defamation and scandalising the judiciary in posts related to the death penalty shared on his public Facebook page on 20th and 25th April and 5th May 2022.

Human rights lawyer M Ravi had provided pro bono services to countless persons on death row and spoken out on human rights in Singapore. Because of this he has been targeted and harassed constantly by authorities for his work, notably through the abuse of legal mechanisms as well as disciplinary proceedings.

Most recently, in June 2022, the High Court ordered Ravi and his supervising solicitor Cheng Kim Kuan to pay the Attorney-General SGD 20,000 (USD 14,500) in costs for a failed application on behalf of 17 death-row inmates who alleged that, as ethnic minorities, they were more likely to be investigated, prosecuted and sentenced for drug offences. The High Court ruled that the application lacked basis and was an abuse of process. In August 2022, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) declared that it was deeply concerned about reports of punitive cost orders against lawyers who have represented clients on death row.

Peaceful Assembly

Protester fined for staging a solo protest

On 19th August 2022, Gilbert Goh Keow Wah was fined a total of S$3,200 (USD 2,370) for a protest he staged near the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) building without a permit and for refusing to sign a police statement.

It was reported that he was only going to pay S$2,000 (USD 1,482) - the penalty for his public assembly charge. He opted to serve the default jail term of three days for his other offence.

As previously documented, Goh was charged in December 2021 for a solo protest on 1st May 2021, during which he hoisted a sign near the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) in Kallang Road that stated: ‘"Please ban all flights from India. We are not racist! Just being cautious". He moved to three different locations around the ICA building and held the placard for up to 29 seconds, according to reports.

On 11th May 2021, he was also accused of refusing to sign a police statement he made at the Bedok Police Division headquarters after the authorities began investigating him. On 26th July 2022, the court convicted him under the Public Order Act.

The Public Order Act has been systematically used to clamp down even on solo peaceful protests. In May 2018, local artist Seelan Palay was charged for a one-man procession, which featured a political art piece on detention without trial, and then spent two weeks in prison. In November 2019, lone protester Yan Jun was arrested for his action against corruption at Raffles Place.

In October 2020, a group of UN Special Rapporteurs expressed serious concerns about the use of the Public Order Act to severely restrict civic space, and to prosecute the legitimate exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.

Workers investigated for protest demanding their salaries

On 18th October 2022, nine workers protested outside a building in Ang Mo Kio by blocking the entry and exit, waving banners with the corporate name Shanghai Chong Kee and demanding their salaries.

The workers were from Zhengda Corporation - a subcontractor engaged by Shanghai Chong Kee.

The protest emerged after a dispute between the Shanghai Chong Kee company and sub-contractor Zhengda Corporation. The sub-contractor said that that the company Shanghai Chong Kee did not make payment for weeks.

The police launched an investigation under the draconian Public Order Act which restricts the right to protest without a police permit and also notified the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) of the incident.

On the same day, personnel from the Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC), a non-governmental organisation, visited a dormitory of Shanghai Chong Kee's workers and spoke with 30 of them. They reported that most of them faced work-related problems and in some instances had to pay for own their meals and transportation.

On 21st October 2022, the Ministry of Manpower issued a statement stating that they and Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management were assisting the migrant workers with their wage claims. Following an investigation, they discovered that 268 migrant employees were due wage payments. On 9th November 2022, Senior Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad said that as of 31st October, Shanghai Chong Kee has settled part of the payments but the MOM will continue to work with them on the payment schedule for the remaining amount.

Woman investigated for staging a protest in front of the Chinese embassy

On 28th November 2022, a woman was investigated and her passport confiscated by the police for holding a protest without a permit outside the Chinese Embassy in Singapore.

The mask-wearing individual posted a selfie with a sign that said, “Release innocent arrested people. Only scientific isolation. Stop violent policing. Let students’ lives return to normal.” She also posted a tweet stating that “I am alone outside the Embassy of China in Singapore @ 150 Tanglin road. If I do not reply within 24 hours here, I may have been illegally taken into the embassy.”

The police said in a statement that they were alerted to the incident at about 12.55pm and directed her to stop the protest as it constitutes an offence under the Public Order Act.