Civil society in Singapore operates in a constrained, tightly-regulated environment in which economic development is prioritised above all else, the ruling party and state are closely entwined and there is little state tolerance of the expression of dissent.read more
In January 2019, Jolovan Wham, a human rights defender was found guilty by the Singapore District Court for organising an ‘illegal assembly without a police permit’ in violation of the Public Order Act, and for refusing to sign a police statement
On 3rd January 2019, Jolovan Wham, a human rights defender and former Executive Director of the NGO Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), was found guilty by the Singapore District Court for organising an ‘illegal assembly without a police permit’ in violation of the Public Order Act, and for refusing to sign a police statement. Jolovan refused to sign the statement as he was not given of copy of it.
Jolovan Wham was charged for organising a conference entitled ‘Civil Disobedience and Social Movements’ held on 26th November 2018. The conference featured the participation of fellow Singaporean activists Kirsten Han and Seelan Palay, and Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong.
His latest conviction has been condemned by international human rights groups such as the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) and International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). Human rights groups pointed out how the Public Order Act has been repeatedly used to target human rights defenders, and highlighted Singapore’s obligations to respect freedom of expression, assembly and association.
On 29th January 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders and Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association criticised the conviction. They said:
“This is clearly neither a necessary nor a proportional response to the actions of Jolovan Wham. We are concerned that this is yet another conviction which targets the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly in Singapore, and we urge the Government to reverse its tightening of civic space.”
The sentence is due on 11th February 2019. Anyone convicted under Public Order Act is liable to be fined up to 5,000 SGD (USD 3,702) or 10,000 SGD (USD 7,405) in case of repeat offenders; or to be imprisoned for up to six months. For refusing to sign the police statement, Jolovan Wham can be jailed for up to three months, fined up to SGD 2,500 (USD 1,851), or both.
As documented previously by the CIVICUS Monitor, in October 2018, Jolovan was found guilty under the 2017 Administration of Justice (Protection) Act, for ‘scandalising the court’ for writing on Facebook that ‘Malaysia’s judges are more independent than Singapore’s for cases with political implications.'
Terry Xu, editor of the independent news website The Online Citizen (TOC), and its alleged contributor Daniel Augustin De Costa, were taken to court on 13th December 2018. Both of them are charged with criminal defamation, while Augustin has also been charged with ‘unauthorised access to computer material’ in violation of the Computer Misuse Act. Offenders convicted of criminal defamation and Computer Misuse Act can be jailed for up to two years and fined.
Terry Xu is charged for publishing in September 2018 a letter condemning government corruption. The letter, signed by ‘Willy Sum’ and later identified as Daniel Augustin De Costa, was taken down two weeks later after an order from the Info-Communications Media Development Authority (IMDA). Nevertheless, in November 2018 the police seized computers and other devices used to operate the website from Xu’s residence.
Human Rights Watch condemned the defamation case, pointing out that:
“Singapore authorities have once again responded to criticism with criminal charges. The government should respond to any inaccuracies in the letter by seeking a correction, apology or retraction, rather than with a heavy-handed criminal prosecution.”
The organisation also said that 'criminal defamation violates international norms on freedom of speech that defamation should be considered a civil matter, not a crime punishable with imprisonment. Criminal defamation laws are a disproportionate and unnecessary restriction on free speech and create a chilling effect that effectively restricts legitimate as well as harmful speech'.
In December 2018, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong lodged a defamation suit against blogger Leong Sze Hian for posting on his Facebook page a link to an article alleging that Lee was the target of an investigation in neighbouring Malaysia over the scandal at sovereign wealth fund 1MDB. Lee claimed that the article, originally published by a Malaysian news portal, was false and without basis and that Leong had reposted the link to smear his reputation.
Leong, a government critic, has now filed a countersuit against Lee for alleged abuse of the judicial system. He claimed all he had done was to make the article available on his Facebook page 'without embellishment or comment' for less than three days. He further said in his suit that 'the predominant purpose of the claim is the use of the legal process to chill freedom of expression in Singapore'.
Constitutional provisions on the freedom of association are undermined, and the autonomy of civil society is limited, with no ability for registered CSOs to comment on issues that are deemed political, and peak bodies such as the National Trades Union Congress effectively co-opted by the state.
Constitutional provisions on the freedom of association are undermined, and the autonomy of civil society is limited, with no ability for registered CSOs to comment on issues that are deemed political, and peak bodies such as the National Trades Union Congress effectively co-opted by the state. Under the Societies Act, all organisations with 10 members or more must register, and the state may deny applications if they are deemed to be against vaguely-defined concepts such as good order, the national interest and public peace. No LGBTI CSO has been allowed to register. Vague and broadly defined laws give the state considerable powers of extended detention without trial, including on grounds of preventing terrorism under the Internal Security Act, and these can be used to detain civil society activists and human rights defenders. There are reports of physical and psychological mistreatment of those under detention, and it remains hard to obtain information on those detained. All trade unions are required to register under the Trade Union Act, with the authorities having wide powers to deny or withdraw registration. The regulatory environment also makes it difficult for CSOs to fundraise domestically and attract international resources.
While the Constitution appears to guarantee the freedom of assembly, in practice the state keeps a tight grip on public gatherings, which require police permission.
While the Constitution appears to guarantee the freedom of assembly, in practice the state keeps a tight grip on public gatherings, which require police permission. The Public Order Act and Public Entertainment and Meeting Act are used to suppress demonstrations, rallies and other such public events. There is one space, Speaker’s Corner, where citizens - but not residents without citizenship - can give speeches without a licence, but discussion of race and religion is prohibited, and public officials can withdraw approval. Three people who organised a peaceful protest at Speaker’s Corner were convicted in 2017. Otherwise, licences for public activities are hardly ever granted, and while there have been some spontaneous protests in recent years, criminal sanctions are in place for unauthorised gatherings, constituting a de facto ban on public protests. Even private meetings have been obstructed, and attempts by non-nationals to organise demonstrations broken up. While an annual LGBTI festival marked its eighth year in 2016, the state called on the many multinational corporate sponsors to cease their support, characterising it as foreign interference; subsequently, the state banned foreign companies from sponsoring events in the park where the festival is held.
All traditional media are owned by companies linked to the government, and are seen as biased towards the ruling party, particularly around elections.
All traditional media are owned by companies linked to government, and are seen as biased towards the ruling party, particularly around elections. The statutory Media Development Authority (MDA) has wide power and discretion over media. Vague terminology in laws give the state broad powers to penalise media content that is deemed critical of the government, offensive to the public, or against such contested notions as decency, good taste and national harmony. Surveillance is widespread, including through CCTV, internet monitoring and monitoring of communications data, and no judicial authorisation is required for the state to intercept and read communications. The use of online space to express dissent has brought new restriction: all online news sites must now be licensed and pay a bond and annual fees if they receive more than 50,000 unique views a month, and commit to removing immediately any content the MDA tells them to take down. They are also not allowed to receive international funding. Some sites have closed down in response. The MDA’s Internet Code of Conduct is binding on all content providers and prohibits what may be shared. Content that is seen as pro-LGBTI is routinely taken down. Defamation is a criminal offence punishable by up to two years in prison. Political figures, including the prime minister, bring or threaten defamation suits against people who criticise them, with bloggers and cartoonists often receiving defamation suits. The government has never lost a defamation case, calling judicial independence into question. People who criticise the judiciary are regularly threatened charged with contempt of court, an offence freshly codified under a new law in 2016, with punishments of up to three years in jail and heavy costs. Artistic freedom is also heavily constrained; the MDA must approve all theatre scripts, and all films and videos must be pass by censors. The consequence of this restriction is a climate of self-censorship.