Freedom of Speech: The constitution provides for freedom of speech and freedom of expression but imposes official restrictions on these rights, and 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. Increased debate regarding 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 did take place to a minor extent in newspapers but more so on the internet. 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. In the campaign leading to the by-election in January, opposition parties held rallies as often as the ruling party.
The government effectively restricted the ability to speak or demonstrate freely in public to a single location called Speakers’ Corner, 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.
Press Freedoms: 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 for 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. A government investment company wholly owned MediaCorp. SPH is 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 authorities prohibited satellite dishes with few exceptions. 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.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Media Development Authority (MDA), a statutory board under the Ministry of Communications and Information, continued to regulate heavily 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 the ministry 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.
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 bond of S$200,000 ($160,000), 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 communications and information to gazette or place formal restrictions on any foreign broadcaster deemed to be engaging in domestic politics. The government can 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 S$100,000 ($80,000) for failing to comply.
During the year the MDA refused to license one internet website and placed another “on notice” (see Internet Freedom below).
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 April cartoonist Leslie Chew was arrested and charged with sedition for a cartoon drawing published on his Facebook page entitled “Demon-cratic Singapore,” the Attorney General’s Chamber (AGC) stated it would drop the charges if Chew issued a public apology for defaming the government and court system. Chew refused stating that his artwork was fictional. In August the AGC decided to drop additional contempt of court charges after Chew apologized for scandalizing the judiciary system and removed some of his work from his Facebook page.
Also in April the Council for Private Education (CPE), a statutory board, threatened Han Hui Hui, a 21-year-old student, with a defamation suit for publishing allegedly defamatory e‑mails. Han’s e‑mails alleged that private schools in the country provided their students with answers to standardized tests. Han countersued the CPE claiming that a government body has no right to sue for defamation. On October 8, CPE and Han settled out of court, and the CPE stated that it would not sue Han provided there was no prejudice or liability towards CPE.
In November well-known blogger Alex Au was charged with contempt of court for an article that the AGC alleged challenged the fairness of the courts. A trial was pending.
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 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 MDA. Although a government-appointed review panel recommended that the government cease banning 100 specific websites for being pornographic, inciting racial and religious intolerance, or promoting terrorism and extremism, the ban remained. In 2012, 91 percent of residents had access to the internet.
In May the MDA announced a new regulation requiring certain internet news sites to obtain a license. This requirement applies to sites that publish on average over a two-month period one article per week relating to issues in Singapore and which receive a two-month average of at least 50,000 monthly site visits from unique addresses of Singapore-based internet providers. The license requires these sites to submit a bond of S$50,000 ($40,000) and to adhere to new requirements to remove prohibited content within 24 hours of notification from the MDA. Many citizens viewed this regulation as a way to censor online critics of the government. In June more than 2,500 persons participated in a protest against the new regulation. The MDA stated that it put the regulation in place to regulate commercial news sites and promote conformity with other forms of media such as print and television. The minister of communications and information publicly stated that the new regulation was not intended to target individual bloggers or blogs.
In July the MDA placed a newly formed independent news site named The Independent on notice to register under the Broadcasting Act in order to prevent the website from receiving foreign funding. The MDA stated it had received information that the news site was receiving foreign funding and reiterated that the law prohibits entities reporting on domestic current affairs from “being controlled by or coming under the influence of foreign entities or funding.” The Independent responded that it had never received foreign funding and publicly stated that it would “not ever come under the influence of foreign entities or funding.”
In November the government notified The Breakfast Network blog that it would be required to register under the Broadcasting Act. On December 10, The Breakfast Network stated it would close its website because it found the application and registration process to be unreasonably onerous and complicated. According to The Breakfast Network, the registration information the government required included aggregated subscriber data, personal information on volunteer contributors, and a list of subscribers and advertisers who provided more than 5 percent of the website’s revenue. Local NGOs commented that the MDA’s requirements made it difficult for new media entrants to comply. MDA insisted that the site’s corporate managers and editorial contributors be listed to ensure that foreign influence is not brought to bear on domestic politics. On December 13, the MDA announced that because The Breakfast Network had not registered under the Broadcasting Act it would not be permitted to reopen on any internet platform, including Facebook and Twitter.
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, they were subject to potential government influence. Academics spoke, published widely, and engaged in debate on social and political problems, although 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.
The Films Act 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 Films Act 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. Films, including banned films, were available through YouTube and other websites.
During the year an edited version of the locally produced satiric film Sex.Violence. FamilyValues, which was banned in 2012, was permitted a short release in certain theaters.