Freedom of Speech and Expression: 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. Nevertheless, there was an increase in open debate regarding government policies, and government leaders used social media to engage citizens on various issues and concerns. In the campaign leading to the 2015 general election, no opposition parties reported facing restrictions in holding campaign rallies.
In August Parliament passed the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill, which identifies actions that constitute contempt of court to include disobeying court orders (unless it is due to an “honest” and “reasonable” failure to understand the obligations under the order), publishing material that prejudges pending proceedings or interferes with proceedings in progress, and making allegations of bias against judges. Several prominent lawyers and public figures openly questioned if the law excessively restricts public discussion of court proceedings.
In 2000 the government established Speakers’ Corner as the only outdoor venue where citizens could give public speeches without a Public Entertainment License. Originally, only Singapore citizens were permitted to use the location and were required to obtain a police permit. Over time the rules eased, although restrictions remained. Today, Speakers’ Corner may be used for exhibitions, performances, and demonstrations, and Singapore citizens do not need a police permit to organize or participate in these events. Permanent residents may participate in events but must obtain a police permit in order to speak at or organize an event. Foreigners and foreign entities, however, must obtain a police permit in order to speak at, participate in, or organize events at the Speakers’ Corner. In October the Ministry of Home Affairs clarified the definitions of “public speaking” and “organizing” at Speakers’ Corner. Public speaking includes speaking through remote means, such as teleconferencing or prerecorded messages. Organizing an event includes sponsoring, publicly promoting the event, or organizing its members or employees to participate in the event. All event organizers must 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 or cause discomfort or inconvenience to other park users and/or the general public.
Citizens need a permit to speak at indoor public gatherings outside the hearing or view of nonparticipants only if the topic refers to race or religion. Indoor, private events are not subject to the same restrictions. Organizers of private events, however, must be vigilant in ensuring uninvited guests do not find a way inside, or they could be cited for noncompliance and, inadvertently, violate the rules regarding public gatherings.
Press and Media 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 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 of 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. In February a foreign leader’s remarks on The Ellen Show regarding gay rights were edited and not broadcasted in the country. The segment was deemed “unsuitable for family audiences.”
Censorship or Content Restrictions: In September the Media Development Authority (MDA) and the Info-communications Development Authority merged to form a new agency, the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA). The MDA is a statutory board under the Ministry of Communications and Information that continues the former MDA’s role to regulate 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 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 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 June the producers of the musical Les Miserables removed a comical kiss between two men from all performances in order to retain a “General” rating (suitable for all ages). The MDA stated that such a scene would fall under an “Advisory” rating (mature content, parental guidance is advised).
In October the producers of the musical RENT decided to cut the same-sex kisses from several performances after the IMDA gave the show a rating of R18 (suitable for audiences age 18 and above), which required enforceable age restrictions. Without the same-sex kisses, the performances were rated as suitable for audiences age 16 and above.
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 ($144,000), 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 ($72,000) for failing to comply.
Libel Laws/Slander: 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 prison sentence of up to two years, a fine, or both.
Playing of musical instruments is banned during processions, including religious foot processions, to “deter public disorder which may be caused by rivalries between groups and to minimize the impact of the procession along the procession route.” During the annual Hindu Thaipusam procession in 2015, after failing to prevent some participants from playing drums, which contravened permit conditions, event organizers requested police support. Police arrested three men for vulgar speech and injury of police officers. The arrests prompted online comments, with some calling the ban on musical instruments unjustified and others alleging that the excessive police reaction provoked the situation. The AGC released a media statement to warn the public against making comments that could be considered contempt of court for interfering with the administration of justice. Local media ran stories with headlines such as “AGC warns against public or online comments on Thaipusam incident.” The online discussions stopped in short order. Following feedback from the Hindu Endowment Board on the importance of religious music to devotees participating in Thaipusam, the government relaxed this rule to allow more music. In January, after a 42-year absence, musical instruments were permitted at Thaipusam.
In August the government committed to promote an open, interoperable, reliable, and secure global Internet and affirmed that the same rights that persons have offline must be protected online. Although online end users 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 IMDA’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 IMDA 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 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. 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 2016, 88 percent of households and 81 percent of individuals had internet access.
The Online News Licensing Scheme (ONLS) 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 the country 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 ($36,000) 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 need 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 regulation was not to target individual bloggers or blogs. As of November, 11 news sites had received notification from IMDA to move to the ONLS to obtain licenses and acceded to the request. 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. Most websites registered upon request by the IMDA, with the exception of one that chose to shut down.
In September 17-year-old blogger Amos Yee received a sentence of six weeks in jail after he pled guilty to charges of obscenity and for “wounding religious feelings” by posting comments on the internet criticizing Christianity and Islam. In 2015 Yee was found guilty after posting a YouTube video criticizing the late prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and sentenced to four weeks in jail. During the 2015 trial, the AGC issued a take-down notice to local sociopolitical website The Online Citizen for publishing a letter from Yee’s lawyer that questioned the AGC’s process in submitting evidence as well as the suitability of a reformative training sentence for Yee on the grounds that the letter was in contempt of court.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There was limited autonomy of all public institutions of higher education and political research. Although faculty members were 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 public comment outside the classroom or in academic publications that ventured into prohibited areas--such as criticism of political leaders, sensitive social and economic policies, or comments that could disturb ethnic or religious harmony or appeared to advocate partisan political views--could result in 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.
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.
In 2014 the then MDA banned the film To Singapore, With Love, on the grounds that it undermined national security and stated that “the individuals in the film have given distorted and untruthful accounts of how they came to leave Singapore and remain outside Singapore.” The film featured interviews with political activists who had fled the country in the 1960s and 70s.