Singapore continues to stifle fundamental freedoms despite UN human rights review

Singapore continues to stifle fundamental freedoms despite UN human rights review
Chan Heng Hee, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Singapore, May 2021

Ahead of the 38th Universal Periodic Review of Singapore's human rights record at the UN Human Rights Council, human rights organisations CIVICUS and FORUM-ASIA urged the government to address gaps in civic freedom. In a joint submission, CIVICUS and FORUM-ASIA noted that Singapore has ‘persistently failed to address unwanted restrictions on civic space’ since its 2016 review.

The organisations raised concerns that despite accepting recommendations on protecting civic space, the government has failed to address existing restrictions. The groups called on the government to protect human rights defenders, respect fundamental freedoms and to ratify human rights treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. They also urged states to hold Singapore accountable for its violations and failure to deliver on its human rights commitments.

During the UN review on 12th May 2021, a number of countries raised civic space concerns. They include the following:

  • Ensure that laws and policies on the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association comply with the relevant international human rights standards (Republic of Korea);
  • Introduce a freedom of information provision guaranteeing access to public information and data (Switzerland);
  • End the use of legal and administrative actions, including criminal defamation lawsuits that curb freedom of expression and peaceful assembly (United States of America);
  • Ensure the full enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression through the revision of the Internal Security Act and the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, in order to eliminate media censorship and prevent self-censorship (Belgium);
  • Renew efforts in favour of freedom of expression, in particular freedom of the press (France);
  • Ensure that freedom of opinion and expression as well as peaceful assembly are protected (Italy);
  • Amend Article 14 of the Constitution so that it clearly proclaims press freedom and freedom of expression and information without any restriction (Netherlands);
  • Ensure that the right to freedom of opinion and expression is protected, including via online public platforms (New Zealand);
  • Review and amend the Protection Against Online Falsehoods and Misinformation Act to establish an independent body to review possible cases of disinformation and to ensure consistency with accepted principles of international law (Canada);
  • Repeal the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulations Act (Denmark);
  • Amend or repeal the Sedition Act, the Administration of Justice Act and the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act to ensure they comply with international human rights standards (Germany);
  • Review the operation of the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act and the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act to ensure that they do not interfere with the right to freedom of expression (Ireland);
  • Review the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act as well as other laws such as the Defamation Act, to ensure that the right to free speech is sufficiently protected (Norway);
  • Amend the Public Order Act and relevant sections of the Penal Code to allow peaceful demonstrations without undue restrictions, and to guarantee the right to peaceful assembly to all (Portugal);
  • Revise the Public Order Law and the Penal Code to guarantee the right to peaceful assembly without discrimination (Mexico);

Despite the UN review, in recent months, Singapore has continued to attack fundamental freedoms and use laws against critics and human rights defenders. It has continued to wield repressive laws such as the Public Order Act and defamation provisions against human rights defenders, activists and journalists. It has also continued to criminalise individuals organising peaceful protests. Singapore has dropped two places in the Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index. Most recently, it issued a warning around an event discussing LGBTQI+ issues.

Peaceful assembly

Activists convicted for holding demonstration marking Operation Spectrum in 2017

On 15th February 2021, activist Jolovan Wham was convicted of three offences: violating the Public Order Act for organising an assembly without a permit, one offence of vandalism, and another offence of refusing to sign a police statement. The charges were related to a June 2017 demonstration marking the 30th anniversary of Operation Spectrum, where 22 people were arrested and detained without trial for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government.

In their 2017 demonstration, Wham and eight other Singaporeans wore blindfolds and held up the book ‘1987: Singapore’s Marxist Conspiracy 30 years on'. The book, which had been released the previous month, was written by contributors including former detainees of Operation Spectrum, who detailed their experiences of being detained without trial. Wham also stuck two pieces of paper with the message #notodetentionwithouttrial on train windows. He later posted photos of the demonstration on his social media accounts. Ten days after his silent protest he gave a statement to the police but refused to sign his statement when asked.

Wham pleaded guilty to the three charges and was handed a fine of S$8000 (USD 6000) or a default of imprisonment for 32 days. The judge considered two other offences related to a separate assembly in his sentencing. Wham paid only S$2,500 (USD 1,876) for refusing to sign the police statement relating to the case. He opted to serve the default jail term of 22 days for his other offences.

In a statement on his Facebook page on the day of the hearing, Wham said that he would serve a prison sentence to protest ‘laws and a judicial system which criminalises non-violent, peaceful assemblies’. He further asserted that the right to assembly is ‘fundamental to any democracy.’

As previously documented, Jolovan Wham has faced systematic persecution for his activism. He has faced charges under the Public Order Act, and contempt for his peaceful protests and for advocacy. In August 2020, he chose to serve a ten-day jail sentence instead of paying a fine after being found guilty of violating the Public Order Act for an indoor discussion which featured Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong.

Activist and politician investigated under the Public Order Act for holding up placards

Activist Gilbert Goh is facing investigation under the Public Order Act for holding up a placard outside the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) building on 1st May 2021. The placard read: “Please ban all flights from India. We are not racist! Just being cautious”. The police said that Goh did not have a permit for his protest.

The police also investigated People's Action Party MP Louis Ng under the Public Order Act for his posts in June 2020 which included photos showing him holding a ‘Support them’ sign with a smiley face, next to hawkers in the Yishun Park Hawker Centre to show support for them. Louis Ng was called in to provide a statement.

As previously documented, the Public Order Act has been used indiscriminately against activists and human rights defenders. The law defines assembly to cover even one-person peaceful protests. Activist Jolovan Wham, local artist Seelan Palay and protesters have faced charges under this law.

Police issue warning on holding protests around Myanmar

On 5th February 2021, days after the coup in Myanmar, the Singaporean police released an advisory stating that they were aware of social media posts by Myanmar nationals in Singapore planning protests and encouraging individuals to participate. It reminded individuals that organising or participating in public assemblies without a permit is illegal under the Public Order Act, and cautioned foreigners not to ‘import the politics of their own countries into Singapore’.

On 10th February 2021, three men, two Japanese and an Indonesian, allegedly staged a protest to condemn Myanmar's coup outside its Embassy in Singapore. The men are facing investigation for taking part in an unauthorised assembly. The police also reportedly seized two placards, three phones and a letter from the men.

Following the protest, the police again reminded individuals that assemblies without a permit are illegal and added that they would not grant any permit to ‘assemblies that advocate political causes of other countries’.


Singapore's World Press Freedom index classified as 'very bad'

Singapore has dropped two places in the Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index, from a previous rank of 158 to a rank of 160, putting it in the black or 'very bad' category. Its ranking had continued to worsen in previous years; it was ranked 151st in 2019 and 158th in 2020. The Index, published in April 2021, ranks countries based on indicators such as media independence, legislative framework and treatment of media workers. Its current score puts it below the scores of neighbouring Asian countries Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.

Among the reasons for the drop in rank are legal suits filed by the Prime Minister against critical journalists, the use of defamation clauses and the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), which has allowed the government to impose its own narrative of events.

As previously documented, POFMA has been used against the government's critics continuously, despite previous commitments by the government not to do so. Human rights groups have raised concerns on the full discretion given to government authorities to define what content constitutes misinformation and 'fake news'. The law also lacks protection for freedom of expression, opinion and information.

Blogger ordered to pay damages for sharing online article on Prime Minister

In March 2021, the High Court of Singapore ordered blogger Leong Sze Hian to pay Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong S$133,000 (USD 100,000) for civil defamation. As previously documented, Leong was sued for sharing a link to an article on his Facebook page claiming that the Prime Minister was a target of the investigation over the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal.

In his ruling, the judge stated that sharing the article was tantamount to publishing it and that Leong had been ‘drawing attention to the article and providing access to it in the post.’ The judge claimed that an interpretation that he was endorsing it was consistent with Leong Sze Hian’s description of himself as a ‘staunch government critic’.

Ian Seiderman, the ICJ’s Legal and Policy Director said: “The judgment imposes an exorbitant fine on Leong for merely sharing a link on Facebook, effectively punishing him for exercising his right to free expression online. International human rights law and standards are clear that individuals must not be sanctioned with defamation actions over comments about public figures, save in very exceptional circumstances where the person did so maliciously and knowing that the information expressed was factually false.”

Civil defamation suits have been used by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) against critics. In April 2021, blogger Roy Ngerng recently finished paying off the remaining S$144,000 (USD 108,000) of the S$150,000 (USD 112,000) that he was ordered to pay to the Prime Minister in a civil defamation suit. Ngerng was found to have defamed the Prime Minister in 2014 for his article raising concerns about transparency on the handling of pension funds by sovereign wealth firms. He claimed that the defamation ruling made it difficult to find employment in the country and that he had to move to Taiwan to find work.

New Naratif founder faces continued harassment

On 5th March 2021, the founder and Managing Director of independent news outlet New Naratif, PJ Thum was once again summoned for questioning relating to New Naratif’s alleged illegal conduct under the Parliamentary Elections Act (PEA). As previously documented, New Naratif is being investigated for its alleged publication of paid advertisements on Facebook in July 2020, ahead of the elections.

PJ Thum called it a ‘sustained campaign of harassment designed to silence and intimidate independent journalists and activists’. Under the PEA law, the scope of what can amount to election activity is extremely broad. Virtually any act of information dissemination or awareness-raising relating to key issues of public interest conducted in the lead-up to or during an election can fall under the law.

New Naratif claimed that during his first interrogation on 21st September 2020, Thum was questioned for four hours and his laptop and phone were taken.

Human rights organisations Amnesty International, Article 19, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, CIVICUS, FORUM-ASIA, Human Rights Watch and Scholars at Risk, which had earlier released a joint statement urging the government to withdraw its police report, reiterated their call to drop the investigation against PJ Thum and New Naratif. The organisations also called on Singapore to repeal or substantially amend its laws which have been used to target civil society.

News editor questioned over possible offence under the Administration of Justice Act

On 8th March 2021, The Online Citizen (TOC) editor Terry Xu wrote on his Facebook page that the police came to his house at 7:30 in the morning, took his phone and computer and asked him to attend questioning the next day. He was also told not to share details of the investigation.

After his questioning, he claimed that he was being investigated for a possible offence under the Administration of Justice Act for a letter published on 27th January 2021. His Facebook page on that day had screenshots of emails with the police regarding their refusal of his application to stage a ten-minute, one-man protest against the culling of stray dogs.

Terry Xu has faced reprisals for his work publishing articles critical of the government. As previously documented, he is facing criminal defamation charges, along with TOC contributor Daniel Augustin de Costa, for publishing a letter on TOC condemning government corruption.


Human rights lawyer fined by courts for undertaking his work

On 14th May 2021, the Singapore court of appeal imposed a fine of S$5,000 (USD 3,750) on human rights defender and prominent lawyer M Ravi over applications in a case involving a Malaysian drug trafficker on death row. The court reportedly found that he had acted improperly in making an “unmeritorious" bid to reopen the case.

Ravi had acted pro bono for Syed Suhail Syed Zin, 44, who was sentenced to death in December 2015 for trafficking. In September 2020, Ravi filed an application to the court for permission to reopen the case.

Malaysian human rights group slammed the fine as excessive saying: “The latest fine imposed on Ravi for doing his duty as defence counsel in a death penalty case is unprecedented, and clearly linked to his high-profile defence of many Malaysian drug mules on death row.”

M Ravi has been targeted and harassed constantly by authorities for his work, notably through the abuse of legal mechanisms.

Authorities warn US embassy over webinar on LGBTQI+ issues

On 19th May 2020, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) issued a statement in response to a webinar the US embassy had co-hosted with local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) non-profit organisation Oogachaga on 17th May, which marked International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.

The statement “reminded the US Embassy that foreign missions here are not to interfere in our domestic social and political matters, including issues such as how sexual orientation should be dealt with in public policy”. It added that “these are choices for only Singaporeans to debate and decide.”

In response to CNA's query, a spokesperson from the US embassy in Singapore said that "the United States promotes the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons worldwide and “regularly works with civil society partners on a wide range of issues to build awareness and advance the human rights of all persons”.

Oogachaga's executive director Leow Yangfa said they noted MFA's statement "with surprise" as the webinar was held to mark the publication of Professor Lee Badgett's book on “The Economic Case for LGBT Equality: Exploring Global Trends”.

Founded in 1999, Oogachaga describes itself on its website as “a community-based, non-profit, professional organisation working with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and queer (LGBTQ+) individuals, couples and families”.

Singapore continues to criminalise consensual sexual relations between men under the Criminal Code section 377A.In March 2020, the Singapore High Court upheld the legality of section 377A, ruling that the law is “not so patently unreasonable” that it cannot stand. The criminalisation of same-sex activity continues to have a serious negative impact on the lives of Singapore’s LGBTQI+ population.