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 involving criticism of the government and statements that the government contended 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 took place, to a minor extent in newspapers but more often 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 2013, 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. Organizers of events need not register them with the police in advance but must preregister them online with the government. While it is not necessary to declare speech topics in advance, regulations governing the Speakers’ Corner state: “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.” Permanent residents and other foreigners may also speak or participate in or organize activities at the Speakers’ Corner but are required to obtain a police permit. Those who organize “assemblies and processions” involving foreigners are also required to obtain a permit. The media reported police questioned several foreigners after they attended a candlelight vigil at Speakers Corner supporting prodemocracy demonstrators in Hong Kong. Police made no arrests.
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 threaten national interests, national security, or public order. The government has not invoked the ISA against political opponents 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 enforcing 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 the authorities believed 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. 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. The government investment company Temasek Holdings wholly owned MediaCorp. 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. 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.
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 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.
During the year the MDA banned the sale of an imported Archie comic book because of its depiction of same-sex marriage. On July 10, the National Library Board of Singapore (NLB) announced it would remove and destroy two children’s books that describe various family structures, including adoption by gay parents and interracial couples. The announcement and subsequent statement of support from the government sparked online and other protests and led to boycotts by writers and others of events involving the NLB. On July 18, the government announced that instead of destroying the books it would move them to an adults’ section of the library. In March the NLB banned and destroyed Who’s In My Family: All About Our Families, which highlights different types of families and includes references to gay couples.
Under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, the government may limit the circulation of foreign publications it determines interfere with domestic politics. The act 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 but exempted three others.
The government may “gazette” (limit) the circulation of publications. The government also may ban the circulation of domestic and foreign publications under provisions of the ISA and 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.
Libel Laws/National Security: Critics 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 May, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sued blogger Roy Ngerng for defamation over Ngerng’s allegations that Lee was guilty of criminal misappropriation of citizens’ contributions to the government’s Central Provident Fund (social security system). The High Court found the blogger guilty of defamation on November 7 and ordered him to refrain from publishing or disseminating such allegations. At the end of November, the court had not yet assessed damages.
In November 2013 authorities charged well-known blogger Alex Au with contempt of court for an article posted on his blog Yawning Bread. The Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) asserted the post contained allegations of wrongdoing by senior judicial officers. The AGC then filed a second complaint about another article that Au posted, although Singapore’s High Court originally rejected the complaint. During the year the High Court authorized the AGC to proceed with legal action against Au for both posts and heard the case on October 21. Both cases remained pending.
Although residents generally had unrestricted access to the internet, the government subjected all internet content to similar rules and standards as traditional media, as defined under the MDA’s Internet Code of Practice. 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 code. 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 effect. In 2013, 87 percent of households and 73 percent of individuals had internet access.
A 2013 regulation requires certain internet news sites to obtain a license. This requirement applies to sites that publish on average at least one article per week over a two-month period that relates to issues in Singapore and receives at least 50,000 monthly site visits over a two-month period from the 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 additional 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. The MDA stated it issued the regulation to regulate commercial news sites and promote conformity with other forms of media such as print and television. The minister of communications and information stated that the intent of the new regulation was not to target individual bloggers or blogs. The government asked the Mothership.sg and The Online Citizen, both online news sites, to register and neither raised any objections. In 2013 at least one website closed rather than comply with the registration requirement.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The autonomy of all public institutions of higher education and political research was limited. Although faculty members are not technically government employees, they were subject to potential government influence. Academics spoke and published widely and also 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 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.
In September authorities banned the documentary film To Singapore, With Love, which it described as undermining national security. The film tells the stories of nine individuals, including student leaders, trade unionists, and communists who fled Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s because they feared detention under the Internal Security 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.