Civil Liberties in Singapore: An Overview

A backgrounder on the situation in Singapore, periodically revised and updated. If you're new to Singapore politics/civil society, you can use this as a crash course!

This backgrounder is adapted from a piece I first wrote for heinrich böll stiftung about freedom of expression and civil liberties in Singapore, published in April 2019. I’ve decided to re-publish it, revising and updating it periodically so it can be used as a sort of one-stop crash course on Singapore and the state of civil and political rights. It’s quite changed from the original by now!

Last updated: 23 June 2020

Singapore’s political context

While Singapore has impressed the world with its economic achievements, there’s much to be desired when it comes to the issue of political rights and civil liberties. 

It’s essentially a one-party state: the People’s Action Party, or PAP, were voted into power in 1959, and have won every election since. Today, there are only nine opposition Members of Parliament and nine non-partisan Nominated Members of Parliament in a 100-seat House, which means that bills and amendments—even to the Constitution—are easily passed with little to no challenge.

The PAP’s long reign is important to keep in mind, because it forms the political backdrop against which generations of Singaporean lives have unfolded. Singaporeans born after 1959 (i.e. those below the age of 60) have no memory of a time when the “Men in White”—a well-known term for the PAP, whose members don white uniforms during election time—haven’t been dominant. For these Singaporeans, there is little distinction between the party and the government, and it’s all tied into our notions of our country. We’ve experienced no other political reality on our island.

This dominance means the PAP has the power to craft narratives and national myths—perpetuated through multiple channels, from the education system to the mainstream media—which shape the political imagination of the people (making it hard to picture different possibilities) and guide the direction in which the country develops. For example, the idea of an independent media being the “Fourth Estate” is rejected in Singapore; instead, the press was seen as part of the “nation-building” effort, more about informing and educating people about government policies than holding politicians to account. Furthermore, Singaporean understanding of our own history is also often mediated through the government, as access to archival material and other sources can be tricky. 

The PAP often frames the situation as a “trade-off” between economic growth and security, and civil and political rights. Singapore’s curbs on civil liberties are portrayed as part of a “social contract” between the people and the state; as the narrative goes, Singaporeans have willingly allowed restrictions on our fundamental freedoms in exchange for clean streets and an attractive-looking GDP.

Freedom of expression and Singapore’s media scene

The restriction of freedom of expression in Singapore is not a recent problem. It can be traced back decades: to laws, such as the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, that brought the mainstream media to heel, and to defamation suits that high-ranking members of the PAP filed against news publications (such as the Far Eastern Economic Review or the International Herald Tribune) and political opponents (such as the late opposition politician J B Jeyaretnam and current secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party Chee Soon Juan). More recently, ordinary citizens have also found themselves on the receiving end of such defamation suits: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong successfully sued blogger Roy Ngerng, and is currently suing financial advisor Leong Sze Hian for sharing an article on Facebook (the trial has been set for July 6 to 10, 2020). He is also suing Terry Xu, the chief editor of independent news website The Online Citizen, for an article published on the website.

Such high-profile examples of clampdowns on free speech and press freedom have become part of the Singaporean consciousness, and have pretty much normalised, leading to more of a culture of self-policing than resistance. Journalists in mainstream media newsrooms get used to dealing with calls from government ministries, and some even embrace that fact that they produce propaganda. Self-censorship is rife in Singapore, not just within the media industry, but also among public servants, academics, and ordinary citizens. This culture of self-censorship and fear is widely acknowledged, and has featured in plays like Tan Tarn How’s Fear of Writing and Press Gang.

The lack of space for dissenting viewpoints in the traditional mainstream media gives the Internet extra significance when it comes to political discourse and discussion. Where, in some other countries, the Internet and social media might have simply offered increased convenience in disseminating a range of views, in Singapore, the online sphere is practically the only space that exists for wider political talk that isn’t automatically dominated by the PAP. Over the years, citizen journalists and bloggers, such as those at The Online Citizen, have also reported on, or opened up discussions of, un- or under-reported issues in the mainstream media.

The PAP government previously said that they would regulate the Internet with a “light touch”, but bloggers and journalists have taken issue with moves such as a licensing regime introduced in 2013 that required websites (as identified by the authorities) to register for a licence with the Media Development Authority (since reorganised into the Infocomm Media Development Authority). These websites are expected to put down a performance bond of S$50,000 and commit to removing objectionable content within 24 hours. This “light touch” approach is now considered a thing of the past, particularly with the passage of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, or POFMA (more on that later).

The Online Citizen, currently Singapore’s longest-running independent news website, has endured a series of government actions that have stifled its growth and development. In 2011, the website was gazetted by the Prime Minister’s Office as a “political association”, which meant that it was required to adhere to political donation laws that banned it from receiving funding from foreign sources and limited the amount of anonymous donations it could receive every year. It was removed from the list of political associations in 2018, then registered with the IMDA under conditions that continue to block the site from receiving any foreign funding.

Over the past decade, more independent media outlets have sprung up online. But starting up is far easier than achieving sustainability, and multiple outlets—such as SIX-SIX and The Middle Ground—have folded over the years due to the lack of funding. With little in the way of local philanthropy or financial backing for independent media ventures, regulatory restrictions (or perceived social taboos) against foreign sources of funding (including grants from foundations), and the lack of a culture of paying for online news, those who have made forays into the Singaporean independent media scene have struggled to balance the books and stay in the black. Those who appear to be thriving, such as Mothership.sg, count government agencies among its long-term advertising partners; an arrangement that would be impossible for more critical outlets.

Further restrictions to civil liberties

While freedom of expression has been a long-term issue for Singapore's political and civil society scene, recent developments have led many to observe that there has been a tightening of control by the PAP government, particularly following the general election in 2015, where the party was returned to power in a position of strength with almost 70% of the vote.

There have been reports of academics being blacklisted and shut out of employment in academia in Singapore. Public cases include journalism professor Cherian George, who lost his position at the Nanyang Technological University in 2013 after being denied tenure for the second time, artist and assistant professor Lucy Davis, whose Employment Pass was not renewed three years after she lost her permanent residency status, and historian Thum Ping Tjin, who has since been subject to smear campaigns by members of the PAP.

Multiple individuals—including, but not limited to, Singaporean activists—have been called in for investigations into “illegal assemblies”, although none of these gatherings caused any public disturbance. 

Singapore’s Public Order Act prohibits public “cause-related events”—even if only one person is involved—unless granted permission by the police. The definition of “cause-related event” is extremely broad: in 2018, The Online Citizen’s chief editor Terry Xu was required to cancel his plans to collect signatures for a parliamentary petition at an MRT station after the police informed him that it would be illegal for him to do so without a permit. In March 2020, two young climate strikers posed separately for photos in which they held up signs drawing attention to Big Oil’s presence in Singapore. Although they hadn’t lingered in those public places, their action still resulted in them being investigated for participation in public assemblies without permit. When activist Jolovan Wham recreated one of their photos—replacing the original placard with one of a smiley face—he was also investigated for allegedly violating the Public Order Act. Such investigations have also involved confiscations of electronic devices like mobile phones and laptops, leading to concerns about privacy. While most investigations have eventually been concluded with written warnings from the police, some cases, like those of artist Seelan Palay and solo protester Yan Jun, have led to charges and conviction in court.

Non-Singaporeans are not immune to these restrictions, and are in fact even more restricted in terms of expressing themselves in physical spaces. In November 2019, a restaurant owner from Hong Kong was banned from Singapore after he was investigated for allegedly organising a public assembly without a permit. He had organised an event inviting people to share their views about the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. In December 2019, an Indian national was investigated for the same offence after he posted a photo of himself holding a placard protesting India’s citizenship law at Marina Bay. As non-citizens, such individuals are at risk of having their visas revoked and being deported, or even banned, from Singapore.

There is currently no one in Singapore’s civil society with quite as many pending cases as civil rights activist Jolovan Wham. Out of three “illegal assemblies” investigated—an indoor forum on civil disobedience and social movements, a silent protest on an MRT train, and a candlelight vigil for an imminent execution—he was the only one charged. He was also charged for refusing to sign his statement to the police in all three of these investigations; he’s said that, as a principle, he would prefer not to sign documents that he can’t get a copy of. Another charge of vandalism was added because Wham had allegedly put up two signs printed on A4 paper in the MRT carriage during the silent protest. (While there is no caning for the first conviction of vandalism, Wham could be in danger of judicial corporal punishment should he ever be charged with the offence again.)

Wham has since been convicted of organising an illegal assembly in the case relating to the indoor forum—he is still in the middle of appealing this conviction.

Wham was also the first to be charged and convicted of scandalising the judiciary under Singapore’s Administration of Justice (Protection) Act, alongside Singapore Democratic Party chairman John Tan. Wham had commented on a Facebook post that he found Malaysian judges to be more independent than Singaporean ones when it comes to political cases. After the Attorney-General’s Chambers commenced proceedings against Wham, Tan had commented that their action had merely proved Wham right—this, as it turned out, was also enough to get Tan in hot water. Following conviction, Tan has also been barred from contesting in the next general election. Wham has since served a week in prison in lieu of paying a S$5,000 fine.

Apart from the ongoing civil defamation case brought by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, The Online Citizen’s chief editor Terry Xu is also facing a charge of criminal defamation for the publication of a readers’ letter that made reference to “multiple policy and foreign screw-ups, tampering of the Constitution, corruption at the highest echelons”. The author of the letter, Daniel de Costa, has also been charged.

Also pending are contempt of court proceedings against Li Shengwu, nephew of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Li’s father, Lee Hsien Yang, and his aunt, Lee Wei Ling, are currently locked in a bitter feud with their elder brother, who they have accused of misusing his power. Li had published a “friends only” post on Facebook in which he mentioned that “the Singapore Government is very litigious and has a pliant court system”. Li has since announced that he will no longer be participating in the contempt proceedings.

Singapore’s “fake news” bill

The latest piece of legislation with severe implications for freedom of expression in Singapore is the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA). Tabled in the PAP-dominated Parliament on 1 April 2019, the law was passed on 8 May 2019, and came into effect on 2 October 2019.

POFMA is a piece of legislation that has been two years in the making, and is ostensibly about allowing Singapore to combat “fake news” and misinformation campaigns. However, rights groups, press freedom organisations, and businesses alike have pointed out the law’s ambiguous wording, and the fact that it grants the government sweeping powers to determine what is “fake” and dictate the “truth”.

Under POFMA, any government minister is empowered to order correction notices, the removal of content, and the blocking of access to content online. Failure to comply with such orders could result in heavy fines and imprisonment. Although the law allows for appeals to the High Court, these potentially costly appeals can only be made after one has applied to the minister in question for review. In any case, compliance with the order is required from the outset.

The bill also proposes that ministers can make a website or page a “declared online location” as long as it has had three orders against it within the past six months. Once so declared, a website will not be able to generate revenue, whether through ads, subscriptions, or donations. Such a provision, if the bill is passed, could be the death knell for independent news websites like The Online Citizen, for whom funding is a perennial issue.

As of June 1, 2020, over 50 POFMA directives have been issued by various government ministers via the POFMA Office. While the earliest orders were all directed at critics of the PAP, such as Progress Singapore Party member Brad Bowyer, the Singapore Democratic Party, and Lim Tean, leader of People’s Voice, POFMA directions have also been issued against misinformation related to the COVID-19 outbreak in Singapore. Orders have also been issued to internet service providers and internet intermediaries like Facebook to block access to websites and pages, such as the website of Malaysian NGO Lawyers for Liberty, or the Facebook page of the anti-PAP site States Times Review.

Some orders, though, have demonstrated the limitations of the law. For instance, the Minister for Communications and Information, S Iswaran, was pushed to issue Facebook an order to disable access to the States Times Review’s Facebook page after the publisher, Alex Tan, refused to comply with earlier correction directions. Tan is a Singaporean who has relocated to Australia; he is now a naturalised Australian citizen. After access to the States Times Review’s page was blocked for Singaporean Facebook users, Tan simply set up a new page. In early May 2020, the government issued orders to block Tan’s own Facebook page, as well as Singapore States Times, another page he was running. In late May 2020, the government once again issued an order to Facebook to block Tan’s new page, National Times Singapore, after Tan continued to ignore POFMA orders. All in all, the government has issued disabling orders against four Tan-administered pages, but with him out of the country, there is little more that they can do.

The Singapore government has been defensive of its use of the law. It has accused the Washington Post of “perpetuating false allegations” in its reporting on POFMA, taking issue with the paper’s decision not to publish the response of the Singapore ambassador to the US in full. Singapore’s High Commissioner to the UK also defended the use of POFMA by rebutting an article in the Economist, as has the Singapore consul-general in Hong Kong.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Singapore, the government has used the law to correct falsehoods about the virus’ spread, and has used the pandemic to justify POFMA’s existence. However, the law has not been used to tackle misinformation circulating on closed messaging apps like WhatsApp; instead, the government has issued public clarifications on their websites and social media platforms in such cases.

Why is the PAP government cracking down on freedom of expression?

There’s been no official reason for the tightening of control, and it is unlikely that there will be one any time soon. But there are theories that this tightening of control is connected to the ongoing leadership transition within the party.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said that he intends to step down from the premiership by 2022. Current Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Heng Swee Keat is seen as the anointed successor, following his appointment as first assistant secretary-general of the PAP in the last party election, but his path towards greater prominence has been described as “awkward”.

On top of this, observers are also pointing to “signs of disaffection” even among those who would usually be considered part of the establishment elite. Most obvious, of course, is the extremely high-profile Lee family feud that grabbed headlines internationally in 2017.

Criticism and allegations that come from the prime minister’s own siblings attract more attention and are harder to brush aside than flak from activists and opposition politicians. Although the feud has largely retreated from the media spotlight, Lee Hsien Yang has openly backed former PAP Member of Parliament, Tan Cheng Bock, whose new Progress Singapore Party launched with some fanfare in 2019. When Lee Hsien Loong sued financial advisor Leong Sze Hian for defamation, his younger brother donated a “meaningful sum” to Leong’s legal fund.    

However, opposition parties have not built much momentum on the issues surfaced by the family feud. Although it caused some excitement at the time of its launch, the Progress Singapore Party has flown into some turbulence, with members leaving or being expelled. Two former members, Ravi Philemon and Michelle Lee, have gone on to set up yet another new political party, Red Dot United.

A COVID-19 election

The COVID-19 pandemic is still causing disruptions around the world, and Singapore is itself still in the middle of a gradual reopening after having gone into a partial lockdown from April 7 to June 1. Despite this, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong advised President Halimah Yacob to dissolve Parliament on 23 June, and Singaporeans will vote on 10 July 2020.

Although the Parliamentary Elections (COVID-19 Special Arrangements) Act was pushed through Parliament to address the circumstances of a COVID-19 election, the law does not provide specific details about campaigning rules, nor does it set out provisions for overseas voters. The Elections Department announced safety measures for voting, such as temperature screening at polling stations, and time-bands for voting so as to prevent long queues. It later published preliminary guidelines for campaigning: while walkabouts and door-to-door visits are allowed, safe distancing rules that ban gatherings of larger than five people continue to apply. Physical rallies will not be allowed; instead, political candidates will be allocated three minutes of airtime on broadcast channels on top of two party political broadcasts. Live-streaming facilities will also be made available for parties that would like to use them for e-rallies. (You can read more about how I think these COVID-19 guidelines will impact the election here.)

Singapore’s electoral process has long been skewed to the advantage of the incumbent PAP, but a COVID-19 election looks to tilt this playing field even further. Singaporeans have already observed that a series of ministerial broadcasts, aired before the election campaigning period officially began, were akin to rally speeches for the PAP. ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a Southeast Asia NGO, released a report stating that Singapore’s elections are “neither free nor fair”, and that holding an election during the pandemic could worsen things.

Singapore’s civil society scene

All that’s been described above makes it difficult for civil society to thrive, mature, and grow in Singapore. But that has not stopped Singaporeans from trying. NGOs continue to serve marginalised communities, walking the tricky line between pushing the boundaries in their advocacy (which tends to displease the authorities), and working with the government to tweak and improve policies. Young Singaporeans have also proven themselves very savvy and adept at using technology and social media to highlight important causes, such as LGBT rights, anti-sexual harassment campaigns, political education, and the climate crisis.

With so many of us more or less house-bound during the “circuit breaker” partial lockdown, civil society organisations and informal groups of Singaporeans have also taken advantage of technology like Zoom to organise webinars and online discussions, reaching large numbers of people. While this would have been difficult to achieve given the restrictions on public assemblies in physical spaces, the Internet and video conferencing technology has offered opportunities to engage in discussions outside of the establishment hegemony.

Singapore’s political climate is generally hostile to activism, yet this has not been able to completely suppress an appetite among a segment of the population for more critical discourse and political debate. While the country’s civil society would still be considered immature and still somewhat atomised in comparison with countries with more vibrant grassroots activism and collective organising, it should still be given credit for growing and learning within a difficult environment.