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Singapore

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression but allows parliament to impose such restrictions on freedom of speech as it “considers necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of Singapore or any part thereof, friendly relations with other countries, public order or morality and restrictions designed to protect the privileges of Parliament or to provide against contempt of court, defamation or incitement to any offence.”

Freedom of Expression: The government significantly restricted any public statements that it contended would undermine social or religious harmony, or that did not safeguard national or public interest. Although government pressure to conform resulted in self-censorship among some journalists, there was an increase in open debate regarding some government policies. Overall, however, more people were publicly sanctioned for criticism of the government or its policies than in the previous year.

The Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Act, which took effect in May, gives the minister for home affairs discretion to authorize special police powers if a “serious incident” such as a terrorist attack is occurring or there is a threat that it could. These powers allow the commissioner of police to prohibit anyone from taking or transmitting photographs or videos in a defined area, or from making text or audio messages about police operations. A breach of the order may lead to imprisonment for up to two years, a fine of up to S$20,000 ($14,600), or both.

In May the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) initiated contempt of court proceedings against two individuals it deemed to have made allegations of bias against judges or to have prejudged pending proceedings. These were the first such proceedings under legislation that took effect in October 2017. Activist Jolovan Wham was convicted in October for a Facebook post alleging that that “Malaysia’s judges are more independent than Singapore’s for cases with political implications.” Opposition politician John Tan Liang Joo, of the Singapore Democratic Party, was convicted at the same time for commenting on his Facebook page in May that Wham’s prosecution “only confirms that what he said is true.” Both were awaiting sentencing as of November. Any person found guilty under the law may be fined up to S$100,000 ($73,000), jailed for up to three years, or both.

As of December procedural appeals continued in the AGC contempt of court proceedings opened in August 2017 against Li Shengwu, a nephew of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Li had posted private Facebook comments in July 2017 criticizing the “litigious” nature of the government and the “pliant court system.” The case is the first the AGC has filed because of private Facebook comments and the AGC used novel grounds to serve papers on Li extra-judicially, one of the procedural issues under review. While media and netizens shared the facts of the case, many were circumspect in commenting further because publishing material that prejudges a pending issue in court proceedings may constitute contempt of court.

The government-approved Speakers’ Corner was the only outdoor venue where citizens could give public speeches without a Public Entertainment License. Speakers’ Corner may be used for exhibitions, performances, assemblies and processions, and citizens do not need a police permit to hold these events. All event organizers must, however, preregister online with the National Parks Board and must provide the topic of their event. Regulations state that the event should not be religious in nature or cause feelings of enmity, ill will, or hostility between different racial or religious groups. The commissioner of parks and recreation reserves the right to cancel or disallow any event or activity that he or she believes may endanger, cause discomfort to, or inconvenience other park users or the general public.

Citizens need a permit to speak at indoor public gatherings outside of the hearing or view of nonparticipants if the topic refers to race or religion. Indoor, private events are not subject to the same restrictions. Organizers of private events, however, must prevent inadvertent access by uninvited guests, or they could be cited for noncompliance with the rules regarding public gatherings.

Press and Media Freedom: According to the ISA, the government may restrict or place conditions on publications that incite violence, counsel disobedience to the law, have the potential to arouse tensions in the country’s diverse population, or threaten national interests, national security, or public order.

Government leaders urged news media to support its goals and help maintain social and religious harmony. In addition to enforcing strict defamation and press laws, the government’s vigorous response to what it considered personal attacks on officials led journalists and editors to moderate or limit what was published. In previous years, the government sued journalists or online bloggers for defamation or for stories that authorities believed undermined racial and religious harmony.

Government managerial and financial control strongly influenced all print and some electronic media. Two companies, Singapore Press Holdings Limited (SPH) and MediaCorp, owned all general circulation newspapers in the four official languages of English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. SPH is a publicly listed company with close ties to the government, which must approve (and may remove) the holders of management shares, who appoint or dismiss SPH management. The government investment company Temasek Holdings wholly owned MediaCorp. As a result, coverage of domestic events and reporting of sensitive foreign relations topics usually closely reflected official government policies and views.

Government-linked companies and organizations operated all domestic broadcast television channels and almost all radio stations. Only one radio station, the BBC’s World Service, was completely independent of the government. Residents could receive some Malaysian and Indonesian television and radio programming, but with few exceptions authorities prohibited satellite dishes. Cable subscribers had access to numerous foreign television shows and a wide array of international news channels and many entertainment channels. The government did not censor international news channels but did censor entertainment programs to remove or edit coarse language, representations of intimate gay and lesbian relationships, and explicit sexual content. Residents routinely accessed uncensored international radio and television content via the internet.

The government may limit broadcasts or the circulation of publications by “gazetting” them under the Broadcasting Act and may ban the circulation of domestic and foreign publications under provisions of the ISA or Undesirable Publications Act. The law empowers the minister for communications and information to gazette or place formal restrictions on any foreign broadcaster deemed to be engaging in domestic politics.

The government may require a gazetted broadcaster to obtain express permission from the minister to continue broadcasting in the country. The government may impose restrictions on the number of households receiving a broadcaster’s programming and may fine a broadcaster up to 100,000 Singapore Dollars (SGD) ($73,000) for failing to comply.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) is the statutory board under the Ministry of Communications and Information that regulates broadcast, print, and other media, including movies, video materials, computer games, and music. Banned publications consisted primarily of sexually oriented materials but also included some religious and political publications. The IMDA develops censorship standards including age-appropriate classification of media content with the help of various citizen advisory panels. The law allows the banning, seizure, censorship, or restriction of written, visual, or musical materials if authorities determine that such materials threaten the stability of the state, contravene moral norms, are pornographic, show excessive or gratuitous sex and violence, glamorize or promote drug use, or incite racial, religious, or linguistic animosities. The IMDA has the power to sanction broadcasters for transmitting what it believed to be inappropriate content. All content shown between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. must be suitable for viewers of all ages.

In March, despite 134 critical submissions from the arts community, the legislature passed an amendment to the Films Act that gives IMDA officers power to enter and search premises and seize evidence without a warrant for “serious offenses,” such as those involving films prohibited on public interest grounds or the unlicensed public exhibition of a film.

In September authorities imposed limitations on a documentary about the lives of Christian pastors in a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI)-affirming church in Taiwan, The Shepherds. IMDA restricted screenings to members of the Singapore Film Society and specified that panelists at a post-screening dialogue were not permitted to advocate for same-sex marriage.

Libel/Slander Laws: Critics charged that government leaders used defamation lawsuits or threats of such actions to discourage public criticism, coerce the press, and intimidate opposition politicians. Conviction on criminal defamation charges may result in a maximum prison sentence of two years, a fine, or both. In November police opened an investigation into alleged criminal defamation by Terry Xu on his sociopolitical website, The Online Citizen (TOC), after Xu published a reader’s letter in which the author accused the PAP leadership of “corruption at the highest echelons.”

INTERNET FREEDOM

The law permits government monitoring of internet use, and the government closely monitored internet activities, such as social media posts, blogs, and podcasts. The IMDA was empowered to direct service providers to block access to websites that, in the government’s view, undermined public security, national defense, racial and religious harmony, or public morals. Political and religious websites must register with the IMDA.

Individuals and groups could engage in the expression of views via the internet, including by email. The government, however, subjected all internet content to similar rules and standards as traditional media, as defined by the IMDA’s Internet Code of Practice. Internet service providers are required to ensure that content complies with the code. The IMDA also regulates internet material by licensing the internet service providers through which local users are required to route their internet connections. The IMDA investigates content that is potentially in breach of the code when it receives complaints from members of the public.

The Online News Licensing Scheme requires more heavily visited internet news sites to obtain a license. The license requires these sites to submit a bond of 50,000 SGD ($36,500) and to adhere to additional requirements to remove prohibited content within 24 hours of notification from the IMDA. Many citizens viewed this regulation as a way to censor online critics of the government. The IMDA stated there was a need to regulate commercial news sites and promote conformity with other forms of media such as print and television. As of November all major news sites were operating with IMDA licenses; the newest was the independent website TOC. Several other such sites have closed since 2016 (four reportedly closed in the reporting year), when 11 held licenses.

Smaller news sites that cover political issues are required to register under the Broadcasting Act Class License to ensure that registrants do not receive foreign funding.

The internet was widely available and used. According to the International Telecommunications Union, approximately 85 percent of the population had access to the internet.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

Public institutions of higher education and political research had limited autonomy. Although faculty members were not technically government employees, they were potentially subject to government influence. Academics spoke, published widely, and engaged in debate on social and political problems, although public comment outside the classroom or in academic publications that ventured into prohibited areas could result in sanctions. Publications by local academics and members of research institutions rarely deviated substantially from government views.

In April Donald Low, an associate dean of the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, resigned his position. In April 2017 Low criticized remarks by Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, who in turn criticized Low. Low also gained media notice after criticizing a budget speech by Minister of Finance Heng Swee Keat and for praising a blogger convicted of derogatory internet remarks about Christians. Some critics commented publicly claimed that Low’s resignation may have resulted from political pressure, although he himself declined to comment on the grounds for his departure.

The law authorizes the minister of communications and information to ban any film, whether political or not, that in his opinion is “contrary to the public interest.” The law does not apply to any film sponsored by the government and allows the minister to exempt any film from the act.

Certain films barred from general release may be allowed limited showings, either censored or uncensored.

In January IMDA banned a documentary, Radiance of Resistance, which was to be shown as part of the Singapore Palestinian Film Festival. IMDA stated, “the skewed narrative of the film is inflammatory and has the potential to cause disharmony amongst the different races and religions in Singapore.”

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

Although the constitution provides citizens the right to peaceful assembly, parliament imposed restrictions in the interest of security, public order, or morality. Public assemblies, including political meetings and rallies, require police permission. By law a public assembly may include events staged by a single person. Citizens do not need permits for indoor speaking events, unless they touch on “sensitive topics” such as race or religion, or for qualifying events held at Speakers’ Corner. Per 2017 amendments to the Public Order Act, the Commissioner of Police may decline to authorize any public assembly or procession that could be directed towards a political end and be organized by, or involve the participation of, a foreign entity or citizen. The amendment followed a 2016 LGBTI “Freedom to Love” rally, after which the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a press statement stating “foreign entities should not interfere in our domestic issues, especially political issues or controversial social issues with political overtones.”

Police may also order a person to “move on” from a certain area and not return to the designated spot for 24 hours.

In April police denied a request by activist Terry Xu to stage a one-person, silent sit-in protest without signage for one hour. Police stated the late-night protest, which would have been held in the central business district during the weekend, carried “a risk of causing public disorder, as well as damage to property.”

In October artist Seelan Palay was convicted of breaching the Public Order Act for taking part in a public procession without a permit in October 2017. He was fined 2,500 SGD ($1,820) but served two weeks in jail in lieu of the fine. Seelan had obtained a permit to stage a performance art piece as a protest in Hong Lim Park, but he later continued his solo protest by walking from the park to parliament buildings, holding a mirror. Prosecutors alleged Seelan did not specify in his permit request that he intended to move from the park to outside parliament.

Some civil society groups and members of parliament expressed concern that the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Act (see section 2.a.) conflates peaceful protests and terrorist violence. The law’s illustrations of “large-scale public disorder” include a peaceful sit-down demonstration that attracts a large group of sympathizers and which after a week starts to impede the flow of traffic and interfere with local business activities.

The government closely monitored political gatherings regardless of the number of persons present.

Spontaneous public gatherings or demonstrations were virtually unknown.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

Most associations, societies, clubs, religious groups, and other organizations with more than 10 members are required to register with the government under the Societies Act. The government could deny registration to groups it believed were formed for unlawful purposes or for purposes prejudicial to public peace, welfare, or public order. The majority of applications in recent years were approved. The government has absolute discretion in applying criteria to register or dissolve societies.

The government prohibits organized political activities except by groups registered as political parties or political associations. These may not receive foreign donations but may receive funds from citizens and locally controlled entities. The ruling PAP was able to use nonpolitical organizations, such as residential committees and neighborhood groups, for political purposes far more extensively than could opposition parties. Due to laws regulating the formation of publicly active organizations, there were few nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) apart from nonpolitical organizations, such as religious or environmental groups.

In April the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA) declined to register OSEA Pte. Ltd., a local branch of a UK-based company that provides training and other support to journalists, as well as editorial services to a website called New Naratif. New Naratif’s director PJ Thum and editor-in-chief Kirsten Han organize “democracy workshops” and are considered critical of the government. New Naratif also has subscribers not based in the country. ACRA explained that registration of OSEA would be contrary to national interests, as OSEA’s purposes were “clearly political in nature” and its parent company had received a 75,000 SGD ($54,700) grant from a foreign charitable foundation. In September Minister of Finance Heng Swee Keat rejected an appeal against ACRA’s decision.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in open and free periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. Voting is compulsory and 93.7 percent of eligible voters voted in the 2015 general election. In five decades of continuous rule, the PAP has employed a variety of policies that effectively limited the ability of the opposition to mount a serious challenge to its hold on power. In recent years, however, the opposition won additional seats, although it held a small fraction of parliamentary seats in the sitting parliament.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The law provides for the popular election of the president to a six-year term from among candidates approved by two constitutionally prescribed committees selected by the government. The constitution also requires multiracial representation in the presidency. The office of the president is reserved for a member of a specific racial community (Chinese, Malay, or Indian and other minority communities) if no person belonging to that community had held the office of the president for any of the last five terms of office. The 2017 presidential election was reserved for eligible Malay candidates. In September 2017 former speaker of parliament Halimah Yacob became president without a vote because she was the only eligible candidate; two other applicants were ruled ineligible according to criteria applicable to private sector candidates.

The 2015 parliamentary general election was free and open to a viable opposition. There were eight opposition parties, and all seats were contested for the first time since independence. The ruling party won 69.9 percent of the popular vote, capturing 83 of 89 seats in parliament. The opposition Workers’ Party won the six seats it had carried in 2011. The general elections operate according to a first-past-the-post system. A constitutional provision assures at least nine opposition members in parliament; there were three nonconstituency members from the Workers’ Party in the parliament, chosen from the highest-finishing runners-up in the general election.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The opposition criticized what it described as PAP abuse of its incumbency to restrict opposition parties. The PAP maintained its political dominance in part by circumscribing political discourse and action. For example, government-appointed and predominantly publicly funded Community Development Councils, which provide welfare and other services, strengthened the PAP’s position. The PAP also had an extensive grassroots system and a carefully selected, highly disciplined membership.

The PAP controlled key positions in and out of government, influenced the press, and benefited from weak opposition parties. While the PAP’s methods were fully consistent with the law and the normal prerogatives of a parliamentary government, the overall effect was to perpetuate PAP power. The constitutional requirement that members of parliament resign if expelled from their party helped promote backbencher discipline.

Although political parties were legally free to organize, authorities imposed strict regulations on their constitutions, fundraising, and accountability, including a ban on receiving foreign donations. There were 31 registered political parties, 12 of which were active.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No law limits the participation of women and minorities in the political process, and they did participate. Presidential elections may be reserved for certain racial communities. There are no other restrictions in law or practice against voting or political participation by minorities; they were well represented throughout the government, except in some sensitive national security positions.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future