Freedom of Speech: The constitution provides for freedom of speech and freedom of expression but imposes official restrictions on these rights, and in practice the government significantly restricted freedom of speech and of the press with regard to criticism of the government and statements that would undermine social or religious harmony. Government intimidation and pressure to conform resulted in self-censorship among many journalists. However, there was increased debate in newspapers and on the Internet on many public issues, such as the institution of a minimum wage, public transportation, the rights of domestic workers, immigration policy, salaries of elected officials, and the role of the president. The government-linked media extensively covered opposition parties and candidates.
Citizens need a permit to speak at indoor public gatherings that are outside the hearing or view of nonparticipants if the topic refers to race or religion. During the 2011 parliamentary elections, opposition parties held rallies as often as the ruling party.
The government effectively restricts the ability to speak or demonstrate freely in public to a single location called Speakers’ Corner, which is located in a public park adjacent to a noisy intersection. Prospective speakers must be citizens and show their identification cards. Events need not be registered in advance with the police but must be preregistered online with the government. While it is not necessary to declare speech topics in advance, regulations governing the Speakers’ Corner state that “the speech should not be religious in nature and should not have the potential to cause feelings of enmity, ill will, or hostility between different racial or religious groups.” Subject to obtaining a police permit, permanent residents and other foreigners may also speak or participate in or organize activities at the Speakers’ Corner.
Freedom of Press: Under 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 might threaten national interests, national security, or public order. The ISA has not been invoked against political opponents of the government since 1998.
Government leaders urged that news media support the goals of the elected leadership and help maintain social and religious harmony. In addition to strict defamation and press laws, the government’s demonstrated willingness to respond vigorously to what it considered personal attacks on officials led journalists and editors to moderate or limit what was published. In some instances, the government sued journalists or online bloggers for defamation or stories that undermined social and religious harmony.
The government strongly influenced both the print and electronic media. Two companies, Singapore Press Holdings Limited (SPH) and MediaCorp, owned all general circulation newspapers in the four official languages – English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. MediaCorp was wholly owned by a government investment company. SPH was a private holding company with close ties to the government; the government must approve (and can remove) the holders of SPH management shares who have the power to appoint or dismiss all directors or staff. As a result, while newspapers printed a large and diverse selection of articles from domestic and foreign sources, their editorials, coverage of domestic events, and reporting of sensitive foreign relations topics usually closely reflected official government policies and the opinions of government leaders.
Columnists’ opinions and letters to the editor expressed a moderate range of opinions on public issues, some critical of government policies.
Government-linked companies and organizations operated all domestic broadcast television channels and almost all radio stations. Only one radio station, the BBC World Service, was completely independent of the government. Some Malaysian and Indonesian television and radio programming could be received, but satellite dishes were prohibited, with few exceptions. Cable subscribers had access to numerous foreign television shows and a wide array of international news channels and many entertainment channels. International news channels were not censored but entertainment programs were censored to remove or edit coarse language, representations of intimate gay and lesbian relationships, and explicit sexual content.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Media Development Authority (MDA), a statutory board under the Ministry of Information, Communications, and the Arts (MICA), continued to heavily regulate broadcast and print media 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. Both the MDA and MICA developed censorship standards with the help of a citizen advisory panel. The ISA, UPA, and the Films Act allow 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 MDA has the power to sanction broadcasters for broadcasting 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. The MDA banned three films during the year including, in October, the locally produced satiric film Sex.Violence. FamilyValues because it “would undermine social harmony.” The film’s director appealed, but a decision regarding the ban had not been reached as of year's end.
Under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA), the government may limit the circulation of foreign publications that it determines interfere with domestic politics. The NPPA requires foreign publications with circulation of 300 or more copies per issue that report on politics and current events in Southeast Asia to register, post a S$200,000 ($153,000) bond, and name a person in the country to accept legal service. The requirements for offshore newspapers applied to nine foreign newspapers. Three other newspapers were exempted from the requirement.
The government may limit (or “gazette”) the circulation of publications. The government also may ban the circulation of domestic and foreign publications under provisions of the ISA and the UPA. The Broadcasting Act empowers the minister for information, communication, and the arts to gazette or place formal restrictions on any foreign broadcaster deemed to be engaging in domestic politics. A gazetted broadcaster can be required 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 a broadcaster may be fined up to S$100,000 ($76,500) for failing to comply.
Libel Laws/National Security: Critics have charged that government leaders used defamation lawsuits or threats of such actions to discourage public criticism and intimidate opposition politicians and the press. Conviction on criminal defamation charges may result in a prison sentence of up to two years, a fine, or both.
The attorney general may bring charges for contempt of court, and he used this power during the year to charge at least one author who published criticisms of the judiciary.
In February the first threat of legal action by a politician against an online media contributor occurred when lawyers for the minister of foreign affairs, K. Shanmugam, threatened sociopolitical commentator Alex Au with a defamation suit if Au did not remove an anonymous comment posted to his blog regarding the minister’s personal conduct. The lawyers also insisted that Au post the letter from their law firm on his Web site. The Attorney General’s Office subsequently threatened Au with contempt of court if he did not remove a post alleging that Singapore plastic surgeon Woffles Wu received special treatment before the Singapore courts. The Attorney General’s Office stated that Au would be in contempt for alleging that the courts were biased towards those who are well connected.
Also in February the sociopolitical blog TR Emeritus posted an apology to the prime minister for a post that alleged cronyism in the 2002 appointment of his wife, Ho Ching, as head of a state-owned holding company. The only editor of the blog resident in Singapore was served with a letter on behalf of Prime Minister Lee, which reportedly threatened to sue the blog for damages and costs if it did not remove the article and publish an apology.
In September former prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong accepted an offer of S$30,000 ($24,550) in settlement of Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) leader Chee Soon Juan’s 2005 conviction for slander for comments he made in the 2001 election campaign. The court entered a S$500,000 ($316,455) judgment against Chee, and, in 2006 following his failure to pay, declared him a bankrupt. The settlement allows Chee to travel internationally and seek public office.
Although residents generally had unrestricted access to the Internet, the government subjected all Internet content to the same rules and standards as traditional media. Individuals and groups could engage in the expression of views via the Internet, including by e-mail. Internet service providers (ISPs) are required to ensure that content complies with the MDA’s Internet code of practice. The MDA also regulates Internet material by licensing the ISPs through which local users are required to route their Internet connections. The law permits government monitoring of Internet use, and the government closely monitored Internet activities, such as social media posts, blogs, and podcasts. The MDA was empowered to direct service providers to block access to Web sites that, in the government’s view, undermined public security, national defense, racial and religious harmony, or public morals. Political and religious Web sites must register with the MDA. Although a government-appointed review panel recommended that the government cease banning 100 specific Web sites for being pornographic, inciting racial and religious intolerance, or promoting terrorism and extremism, the ban remained. The International Telecommunication Union reported that 85 percent of households had access to the Internet and 71 percent of individuals used the Internet in 2011.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
All public institutions of higher education and political research had limited autonomy from the government. Although faculty members are not technically government employees, in practice they were subject to potential government influence. Academics spoke, published widely, and engaged in debate on social and political issues. However, they were aware that public comments outside the classroom or in academic publications that ventured into prohibited areas – criticism of political leaders or sensitive social and economic policies or comments that could disturb ethnic or religious harmony or appeared to advocate partisan political views – could subject them to sanctions. Publications by local academics and members of research institutions rarely deviated substantially from government views.
Under the Films Act, the MICA minister is authorized to ban any film, whether political or not, that in his opinion is “contrary to the public interest.” The Films Act does not apply to any film sponsored by the government and allows the MICA minister to exempt any film from the act.
Certain films barred from general release may be allowed limited showings, either censored or uncensored. Films, including banned films, were available through You Tube and other Web sites.