Singapore Public Order Act used to restrict or criminalise expression and peaceful assembly

Peaceful assembly

Public Order and Safety Act further curbs freedom of assembly

The new Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Act 2018 replacing the Public Order (Preservation) Act, was passed by the Parliament on 21st March 2018 and assented to by the President on 12th April 2018. Civil society groups believe the Act poses an additional threat to fundamental freedoms in Singapore.

As pointed out by local civil society groups AWARE, Function 8, HOME, Project X, Think Centre, and TWC2, the Act "introduces wide-reaching police powers, including to potentially deploy lethal force and to stop communications, not just during terrorist attacks, but also during peaceful protests". In the lead up to the passage of the law, the organisations said:

“This is a Bill with ramifications for civil society. Peaceful assembly is already outlawed in Singapore. The introduction of another Bill to provide the police with powers to potentially act oppressively against protestors casts a broader chilling effect on civil society…civil society is an important check and balance to ensure good governance, and we should be careful not to enact laws that have the effect of undermining this mechanism.”

FORUM-ASIA and Think Centre also highlighted that "as the police already has much power to curb the right to freedom of assembly under the existing Public Order Act, these new restrictions raise serious concerns". While the Ministry of Home Affairs assured the public that the law will not be used for daily policing and peaceful protests but large scale public disorder and serious incidents of violence, there is no clear definition in the law of what constitutes "serious incidents".

Local artist charged for solo demonstration under Public Order Act

On 17th May 2018, the Attorney General's Chambers (AGC) charged Seelan Palay, a local artist, for his involvement in a public procession on 1st October 2017. The one-man procession featured a political art piece titled “32 years: The Interrogation of a mirror”. The art piece was to publicise the cause of "the illegal detention of Dr Chia Thye Poh", a former elected Member of Parliament who was detained without trial. He was detained for allegedly “conducting pro-communist activities against the government” and was held from 1966 until 1998.

Palay obtained a permit for this protest and walked from Hong Lim Park to Parliament with his art, where the police sought to remove him. Police alleged that Palay did not specify in his permit request his intention to move from the park to outside Parliament. He was deemed to have committed an offence punishable under Section 16(2)(a) of the Public Order Act.

Pink Dot SG holds tenth Pride rally, despite restrictions

Despite restrictions. Pink Dot SG, Singapore’s most prominent lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) pride event, pulled of another successful Pride event in Hong Lim Park, on 21st July 2018, the tenth edition of the event.

Since 2017, the Pride event was affected by amendments to the Public Order Act passed in October 2016, which barred foreign companies from sponsoring events in Hong Lim Park, the only venue in the country where public protests are allowed. Further, the amendments in 2016 allow only Singaporeans and permanent residents to attend and speak at public rallies in the park.

The LGBTQ movement echoed three simple yet powerful words to a sea of pink lights created by thousands of attendees - We Are Ready. It was a call for inclusion, diversity and equality which was specifically laid out in the 10 declarations made on that day of the changes that the LGBTQ community and its allies in Singapore are ready for. These declarations include "a demand for a positive representation in the media of the LGBTQ community who is often portrayed negatively, inclusion in health and social services, for LGBTQ organisations to be able to register themselves under the Societies Act, and for equality under the eyes of the law."

In a statement released by Pink Dot SG on their website, Pink Dot SG spokesperson Paerin Choa said:

“As we celebrate this milestone, witnessing Speaker’s Corner awash in pink, let us remember that, just as we’ve been force[d] to erect barriers that separate us from friends and family members here, the LGBTQ community are likewise still restricted by discriminating laws and social prejudice.”

LGBTQ people continued to suffer discrimination in Singapore and Section 377A of the Penal Code criminalises consensual sexual relations between men.

Expression

Potential law on fake news

Although there are a variety of existing laws and regulations which address hate speech, defamation and the spreading of false news in Singapore, the government is planning to bring in a new law to tackle fake news. On 22nd March, officials of global tech giants including Facebook, Twitter and Google attended a parliamentary hearing by the "Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods" and expressed their concerns that such laws could be used to exert government control over the media.

In April 2018, during the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) High Level Dialogue on Managing Freedom of Expression in the Information Age, a range of civil society organisations including FORUM-ASIA, Pusat Komas, ASETUC, Maruah, SUARAM and EMPOWER Malaysia highlighted how laws on fake news are likely to further curb freedom of expression and opinion.

In June 2018, Senior Minister of State for Communication and Information, Janil Puthucheary, stated that the Select Committee is still in discussion on the matter but acknowledged the difficulty in tackling "fake news" with legislation.

Activist Jolovan Wham and politician John Tan charged for criticizing judiciary

On 11th May 2018, activist Jolovan Wham was charged with contempt for a posting on Facebook, in April 2018, stating that "Malaysia’s judges are more independent than Singapore’s for cases with political implications". Vice-chairman of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), John Tan, faced the same charge for expressing the opinion on his Facebook page, on 6th May, that Wham’s prosecution “only confirms that what he said is true”. The charges are the first of their kind under the new Administration of Justice (Protection) Act, which came into effect in October 2017.

The Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) asserted on 11th May that the both of them had "impugned the impartiality and integrity of Singapore's judicial system and posed a risk that public confidence in the administration of justice would be undermined".

Under Singapore’s Administration of Justice (Protection) Act, it is considered contempt to publish anything that imputes improper motives to or impugns the integrity, propriety, or impartiality of any court and poses a risk that public confidence in the administration of justice would be undermined. Those found in contempt face up to three years in prison and a fine of up to S$100,000 (USD 73,415).

Amnesty International has called on the Singapore government to drop contempt charges against the both of them and is concerned that "the law will bar human rights defenders and civil society from discussing any judicial proceeding, including cases of public interest and crucial importance to the enhancement of human rights in the country".

Prime Minister warns that free speech could lead to sedition, libel and contempt

In an interview with CNN on 11th June 2018, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stated that Singaporeans can say or publish what they want, "subject to the laws of sedition, libel and contempt". According to Human Rights Watch, these laws, along with a range of regulatory measures, impose severe restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression in Singapore.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch said:

“There is little real freedom in Singapore to speak critically of the government or the courts, or to peacefully protest state policies…Singapore’s broad laws on contempt, sedition, and libel, among others, are aggressively used against activists, bloggers, cartoonists, and the foreign media to stifle critical speech.”