Singapore is a parliamentary republic where the People’s Action Party, in power since 1959, dominates the political scene. The Elections Department declared Halimah Yacob president in 2017; she was the only candidate who qualified for the ballot, which was reserved that year for an ethnic Malay. Observers considered the 2020 general election to be free and open; the People’s Action Party won 83 of 93 parliamentary seats with 61 percent of the vote. The president subsequently reappointed party leader Lee Hsien Loong as prime minister.
The Singapore Police Force, under the direction of the Ministry of Home Affairs, maintains internal security. The Singapore Armed Forces, under the Ministry of Defense, have trained for deployment alongside the Home Affairs Ministry for certain domestic security operations, including joint deterrence patrols with police in instances of heightened terrorism alerts. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were no credible reports of abuses by members of the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: preventive detention by the government under various laws that dispense with regular judicial due process; monitoring private electronic or telephone conversations without a warrant; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including criminal libel laws; restrictions on internet freedom; substantial legal and regulatory limitations on the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; and existence of a law criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between men, although not enforced.
The government prosecuted officials who committed human rights abuses and were involved in corruption. There were no reports of impunity for such abuses.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention. The law permits arrest without warrant and detention without trial in defined circumstances. Persons detained under these circumstances have a right to judicial review of their case, but the scope is limited by the law. The government generally observed the laws.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
In most instances the law requires issuance of an authorized warrant for arrests, but some laws, such as the Internal Security Act (ISA), provide for arrest without a warrant if the government determines the suspect acted in a manner prejudicial to the security of the country. The law specifies that some offenses, such as robbery or rape, do not require an arrest warrant.
Those arrested according to regular criminal procedure must appear before a magistrate within 48 hours or be released. Authorities expeditiously charged and brought to trial the majority of those arrested. A functioning bail system existed.
Persons who face criminal charges are allowed access to counsel within a “reasonable,” but undefined, period of time. Any person accused of a capital crime is entitled to free counsel assigned by the state. The government also funded a Criminal Legal Aid Scheme run by the Law Society that covers additional, but not all, criminal offenses.
Arbitrary Arrest: Some laws, such as the ISA and the Criminal Law (temporary provisions) Act (CLA), have provisions for arrest and detention without a warrant, trial, or full judicial due process in defined circumstances when there is evidence that a person is associated with any of the criminal activities listed in the law that pose a threat to public safety, peace, and good order. ISA cases are subject to review by the courts to provide for compliance with its procedural requirements. Authorities invoked the ISA primarily against persons suspected of posing a security threat and employed the CLA mostly against persons suspected of organized crime activity or drug trafficking.
Pretrial Detention: Pretrial detention was not excessively long. Some individuals, however, were in prolonged detention without trial and with minimal judicial due process under laws that allowed for such detention.
The ISA and the CLA permit preventive detention without trial for the protection of public security, safety, or the maintenance of public order.
The government used the CLA against serious criminal activities involving narcotics, loan sharks, or criminal organizations. The law specifies the criminal activities for which individuals may be detained without trial or placed under police supervision. Before issuing a CLA detention order for an initial period of one year, the home affairs minister must obtain the consent of the public prosecutor. A Supreme Court judge chairs a committee that reviews all cases and conducts hearings at which detainees or their lawyers are present. The country’s president considers the committee’s recommendations when deciding whether to cancel, confirm, or amend the detention. The president may extend detention for unlimited additional periods of up to one year at a time. Each detention, however, is reviewed by a separate advisory committee on an annual basis. The CLA lapses unless parliament renews it every five years.
The CLA allows for supervision within the community through means such as curfews, residence limitations, requirements to report regularly to authorities, and limitations on travel.
The ISA authorizes the home affairs minister, with the consent of the cabinet and with formal endorsement from the president, to order detention without filing charges if the minister determines that a person poses a threat to national security. The initial detention may be for a maximum of two years, after which the minister may renew the detention indefinitely. ISA detainees are permitted legal counsel. An independent advisory board consisting of a Supreme Court judge and two other presidential appointees reviews each detainee’s case within three months of initial detention and at intervals of no longer than 12 months thereafter. If the advisory board recommends that the detainee be released but the minister disagrees, the president has discretion regarding the detainee’s continued detention.
As of October the government held 19 persons under ISA orders of detention for alleged involvement in terrorism-related activities, and one person was under ISA detention for espionage-related conduct.
In January authorities disclosed the detention in December 2020 of a boy age 16 under the ISA for planning to attack two mosques using a machete on the anniversary of the March 2019 Christchurch, New Zealand attacks. The government stated this was the first case of a far-right inspired terrorist plotting an act in the country and that he was the youngest detainee held under the ISA. The detainee was reportedly self-radicalized online and had taken concrete steps to prepare the attack.
In February, following a tip-off from the Ministry of Defense, authorities detained a man under the ISA for planning to attack and kill Jewish worshippers at the Maghain Aboth Synagogue (see section 6, Anti-Semitism).
In April authorities detained Ruqayyah binti Ramli, a 34-year-old woman, under the ISA for planning travel to Syria to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Ruqayyah, a former teacher at a religious school, had been subject to an ISA restriction order (see below) since August 2020 after she was radicalized by her Malaysian husband, who was detained under the ISA in July 2020 and deported to Malaysia. According to the government, Ruqayyah failed to respond to religious counseling and rehabilitation. Instead, her radical behavior escalated, and she continued communication online with overseas ISIS supporters.
In addition to detention, the ISA allows for issuance of restriction orders that require an individual to seek official approval for a change of address or occupation, overseas travel, or participation in any public organization or activity. Individuals subject to restriction orders could be required to report regularly to authorities. As of October, 28 individuals were subject to such restrictions for terrorism-related conduct. This number included both released ISA detainees and alleged terrorists whom authorities never detained.
In March the Ministry of Home Affairs announced that Sheik Heikel bin Khalid Bafana was released on a restriction order following detention since 2019 for his active involvement in the civil war in Yemen. In May Kuthubdeen Haja Najumudeen, a follower of Sri Lankan preacher Zahran Hashim, was released on a restriction order following his detention since 2019. Also in May, Ahmed Hussein Abdul Kadir son of Sheik Uduman was issued a restriction order after completing a prison sentence for terrorism financing offenses. He was previously detained under the ISA in 2018 before being charged with supporting ISIS and sentenced to 30 months’ imprisonment in October 2019.
There is also a category of restriction called “suspension direction” that replaces a suspended order of detention and may prohibit association with specified groups or individuals and overseas travel without prior written government approval. Suspension directions also include reporting conditions. As of October, one individual was subject to suspension directions for terrorism-related conduct.
In May, Mohamed Faishal bin Mohd Razali was released on a suspension direction after his detention under the ISA since 2018 for his aspiration to pursue armed violence in overseas conflicts.
The drug laws permit the involuntary admission of drug addicts to an approved institution for treatment and rehabilitation without judicial approval. If a suspected drug abuser tests positive for an illegal drug or displays signs of drug withdrawal, the director of the Central Narcotics Bureau may commit the person to a drug rehabilitation center for a six-month period, which a review committee of the institution may extend for a maximum of three years. By law the bureau director may order treatment for up to six months of a person determined by blood test or medical examination to be an abuser of intoxicating substances. The detained individual has the right to file a complaint to a magistrate who can issue an order to release the individual from the institution.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: The constitution provides the right of habeas corpus in regular criminal law, although not in ISA or CLA cases.
Under the CLA, the decision by the minister for home affairs regarding a suspect’s engagement in criminal activities is final and not subject to appeal, as is the minister’s subsequent decision on whether detention is necessary for reasons of public safety, peace, and good order, once concurrence by the public prosecutor is secured. The courts can review the decision, but only based on the tests of illegality, irrationality, and procedural impropriety.
Persons detained under the CLA and remanded for trial may apply to the courts for a writ of habeas corpus. Persons detained without trial under the CLA may challenge the substantive basis for their detention only to the CLA advisory committee, which is chaired by a Supreme Court judge.
Under the ISA, detainees may challenge their detention in the judicial system only by seeking judicial review of whether their detention complied with procedural requirements of the ISA; they have no right to challenge the substantive basis for their detention through the courts. Detainees under the ISA have a right to legal counsel and to make representations to an advisory board chaired by a past or sitting judge of the Supreme Court. The ISA specifically excludes recourse to the normal judicial system for review of a detention order made under its authority.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence. Some civil society activists and government critics expressed concern regarding undue government influence in the judicial system. Laws limiting judicial review, moreover, permitted restrictions on individuals’ constitutional rights.
The ISA and CLA explicitly preclude normal judicial due process and empower the government to limit, on broadly defined national security grounds, other fundamental liberties provided for in the constitution.
The law provides for a fair and public trial, except for persons detained under the ISA, CLA, and similar legislation. The judiciary generally enforced this right when applicable. Some commentators observed a small number of exceptions in cases involving direct challenges to the government or the ruling party. The judicial system generally provided an efficient judicial process.
In most circumstances the criminal procedure code requires that when a defendant is first charged in court, the charges must be framed, read, and explained to the defendant. After the charges are filed in court, the accused may seek advice of counsel before deciding whether to plead guilty or request a trial. At a pretrial hearing no earlier than eight weeks after criminal charges have been made, a judge determines whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed to trial and sets a court date.
Criminal defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence in most cases. Cases involving narcotics are an exception; the law stipulates that a person who possessed narcotics shall be assumed to be aware of the substance and places the burden on the defendant to prove otherwise. The law also stipulates that if the amount of the narcotic is above set limits, the defendant must prove he or she did not have the drug for trafficking purposes.
Trials are public and heard by a judge; there are no jury trials. Defendants have the right to be present at their trials and to be represented by an attorney. The Law Society administered a legal aid plan for persons facing criminal charges who could not afford an attorney. The state did so for anyone facing a capital charge. Defense lawyers generally had sufficient time and facilities to prepare an adequate defense. Criminal defendants who do not speak or understand English, or who have limited proficiency, are provided with translation services at no cost. Defendants have the right to question prosecution witnesses and to provide witnesses and evidence on their own behalf.
Defendants enjoy the right of appeal, which must be filed within 14 days in most cases. The criminal procedure code provides for an automatic appeal process for all death sentence cases. Those sentenced to death may ask for resentencing under certain circumstances, and judges may impose life imprisonment instead. The courts may offer certain offenders the option of probation or paying a fine in lieu of incarceration.
Persons detained under the ISA or CLA are not entitled to a public trial. Proceedings of the ISA and CLA advisory boards are not public.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
Access to the courts is open, and citizens and residents have the right to sue for infringement of human rights.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
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 the country 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. Government pressure to conform influenced some journalists and users of the internet. Freedom House reported that self-censorship occurred in media and among academics.
In previous years international and regional human rights organizations criticized the government’s use of the law to bring contempt of court charges as a means to curtail speech. In August the Attorney-General’s Chambers started proceedings against Terry Xu, editor of alternative news website the Online Citizen, for contempt of court under the Administration of Justice Act. In January the Online Citizen published a post on its website and Facebook page questioning the equitability of the justice system and by doing so allegedly impugned the integrity of the judiciary.
The law 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 of one. 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 concerning police operations if these actions could compromise the effectiveness and safety of the law enforcement operations. A breach of the order may lead to imprisonment for up to two years, a substantial fine, or both.
The law prohibits the public display of any foreign national emblems, including flags or symbols of political organizations or leaders. The law restricts the use of the coat of arms, flag, and national anthem.
The government-approved Speakers’ Corner was the only outdoor venue where citizens or Singapore-registered entities could give public speeches without a police permit, provided certain criteria were met. Speakers’ Corner may be used for exhibitions, performances, assemblies, and processions. 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 has 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. Only citizens or permanent residents of the country are allowed to attend events at Speakers’ Corner. If a police permit was obtained for an event there, non-resident foreigners may also attend.
Citizens need a permit to speak at indoor public gatherings 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 may be cited for noncompliance with the rules regarding public gatherings.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: According to the ISA and other legislation, 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 openly urged news media to support the government’s goals and help maintain social and religious harmony. The government enforced strict defamation and press laws, likely resulting in journalists and editors moderating or limiting what they published. The government also strictly enforced laws protecting racial and religious harmony. In October the government passed a bill repealing the 1938 Sedition Act, which criminalized conduct with seditious tendencies and allowed the courts to suspend the publication and circulation of newspapers and publications containing seditious content. The government argued that newer laws better covered the offenses; it also amended the Penal and Criminal Procedure Codes to include offenses from the repealed Sedition Act that were not covered by more recent laws.
There were no legal bans on owning or operating private press outlets, although in practice government managerial and financial control strongly influenced all print and some electronic media. Two companies, Singapore Press Holdings Limited and Mediacorp, owned all general circulation newspapers in the four official languages of English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. In September, Singapore Press Holdings, a publicly listed company with close ties to the government, transformed its media business into a not-for-profit company, SPH Media, independent of Singapore Press Holdings. The new company was to continue publishing the country’s main newspaper, the Straits Times, as well as Chinese, Malay, and Tamil newspapers, and other digital and print products. Besides initial funding from Singapore Press Holdings, the Ministry of Communications and Information proclaimed its willingness to provide funding to SPH Media. Khaw Boon Wan, who held several government cabinet positions in the past, was named SPH Media’s chairman. Both developments raised questions regarding the new media company’s editorial independence and integrity. For instance, at Singapore Press Holdings the government had to approve (and could remove) the holders of management shares, who appointed or dismissed the firm’s management. The country’s other major newspaper owner, Mediacorp, was wholly owned by Temasek Holdings, the government investment company. As a result, its coverage of domestic events and reporting of sensitive foreign relations topics usually closely reflected official 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 a few exceptions, authorities prohibited satellite dishes. Cable television was widespread, and subscribers had access to numerous foreign television shows and a wide array of international news and entertainment channels. The government did not censor international news channels, but entertainment programs must meet the content codes of the state’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA). Broadcasters often censored or edited content they anticipated would breach the IMDA code, such as content that normalized or positively portrayed lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) relationships. Residents routinely accessed uncensored international radio and television content via the internet.
The government may limit broadcasts or the circulation of publications by “gazetting” (listing) them under the Broadcasting Act and may ban the circulation of domestic and foreign publications. The law empowers the minister for communications and information to gazette or place formal restrictions on any foreign broadcaster it assesses to be reporting on domestic politics in a one-sided or inaccurate manner.
The government may require a gazetted broadcaster to obtain express permission from the minister to continue broadcasting. The government may impose restrictions on the number of households receiving a broadcaster’s programming and may impose a substantial fine on a broadcaster for failing to comply.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The IMDA, under the Ministry of Communications and Information, regulates broadcast, print, and other media, including movies, video materials, computer games, and music. Most banned publications were sexually oriented materials but also included some religious and political publications. On November 1, the IMDA banned the book Red Lines: Political Cartoons and the Struggle Against Censorship by Hong Kong-based Singaporean academic Cherian George and Singaporean cartoonist Sonny Liew under the Undesirable Publications Act for containing 29 images that were found to be offensive and to denigrate Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity. Among the images in question were the 2006 Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Prophet Muhammad.
The IMDA stated it had banned six other publications in the past five years for denigrating various religious communities. 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 law 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. The IMDA has the power to sanction broadcasters for transmitting what it believes to be inappropriate content. All content shown between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. must be suitable for viewers of all ages.
Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation is a criminal offense and may result in a maximum prison sentence of two years, a fine, or both. Critics charged that government leaders used defamation lawsuits or threats of such actions to discourage public criticism, coerce the press, and intimidate opposition politicians.
In March the Attorney-General’s Chambers ended criminal defamation proceedings against lawyer Ravi Madasamy after Ravi removed a November 2020 Facebook post suggesting that Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam “wields influence over the Chief Justice” and “calls the shots”; issued an apology accepting that the allegations were false; and published an undertaking not to repeat them. The Attorney-General’s Chambers did not acquit Ravi but issued a 24-month conditional warning, allowing authorities to revive the charge if Ravi breached any of the conditions.
In November the Online Citizen website editor Terry Xu and site contributor Daniel De Costa were convicted of criminal defamation for a 2018 article accusing the People’s Action Party (PAP) leadership of “corruption at the highest echelons.”
In March a court found government critic and blogger Leong Sze Hian guilty in a 2018 civil defamation suit filed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and ordered him to pay the prime minister 133,000 Singapore dollars (S$) ($97,200) in damages. In 2018 Leong had shared a news article on his Facebook page that alleged a secret deal between Lee and then Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak. The article alleged local banks assisted in laundering money from 1Malaysia Development Berhad. The judge reasoned that sharing the article was an act of “publishing.” In April the court ordered Leong to pay the prime minister an additional S$129,000 ($94,300) in disbursements and legal fees.
In September the High Court awarded Prime Minister Lee a total of S$210,000 ($153,000) in damages in two separate civil defamation lawsuits against Xu and the Online Citizen writer Rubaashini Shunmuganathan for a 2019 article repeating allegations arising from a dispute between Lee and his two siblings. In October the court ordered Xu to pay the prime minister an additional S$87,800 ($64,200) for costs and disbursements for the lawsuit.