Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
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 Speech: 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.
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 March activist Jolovan Wham refused to pay a fine of 5,000 Singapore dollars (S$) ($3,700) for a 2018 Facebook post claiming that “Malaysia’s judges are more independent than Singapore’s for cases with political implications.” Instead Wham served a one-week jail sentence starting March 31.
Also in March police raided the offices of lawyer Ravi Madasamy and of Terry Xu, editor of alternative media website The Online Citizen Asia, after the website published a story questioning why the government extradited one of Madasamy’s clients to Malaysia. Authorities initiated an investigation for contempt of court against Madasamy, Xu, and two others. The case was ongoing at year’s end.
In July the high court found Li Shengwu, a nephew of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, guilty of contempt and fined him S$15,000 ($11,000). Li paid the fine but he refused to admit guilt. He had posted private Facebook comments in 2017 criticizing the “litigious” nature of the government and claiming that it “has a pliant court system,” screenshots of which were later shared publicly.
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 about 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. Some civil society groups expressed concern that authorities could use the law to stop activists documenting the abuse of police powers, such as when authorities use force to break up a large but peaceful demonstration.
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 could give public speeches without a public entertainment license. Speakers’ Corner may be used for exhibitions, performances, assemblies and processions, and citizens do not need a police permit to hold these events. 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.
Citizens need a permit to speak at indoor public gatherings outside of the hearing or view of nonparticipants 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 could be cited for noncompliance with the rules regarding public gatherings.
Freedom of Press and 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, including in cases it considered personal attacks on officials, likely resulting in journalists and editors moderating or limiting what they published. The government also strictly enforced laws protecting racial and religious harmony.
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. Singapore Press Holdings is a publicly listed company with close ties to the government, which must approve (and may remove) the holders of management shares, who appoint or dismiss the firm’s management. The government investment company Temasek Holdings wholly owned Mediacorp. As a result, 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, and intersex (LGBTI) 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 in the country. 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. 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 December the district court charged lawyer Ravi Madasamy with criminal defamation of Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam. In a Facebook post, Madasamy suggested that, according to a fellow lawyer, the minister “wields influence over the Chief Justice” and “calls the shot and controls.” At year’s end, the case continued.
The Online Citizen website editor Terry Xu went on trial in October on charges of criminal defamation lodged in 2018 for publishing a reader’s letter accusing the People’s Action Party (PAP) leadership of “corruption at the highest echelons.” The letter’s author, Daniel De Costa, also charged with criminal defamation, went on trial at the same time. In June a high court judge dismissed De Costa’s third constitutional challenge on the case. Both cases continued as of December.
Separately, in November the trial began in a 2019 civil defamation suit brought by Prime Minister Lee against Xu over his refusal to take down and apologize for an article about a dispute between Lee and his two siblings. In March the high court dismissed Xu’s application to obtain documents from Lee and during the November hearing, Xu announced that he would no longer seek to bring Lee’s siblings as third parties in the suit. The case continued as of December.
In October and November, the high court heard arguments in a 2018 civil defamation suit filed by the prime minister against financial advisor Leong Sze Hian after Leong shared a news article on his Facebook page that alleged a secret deal between Lee and former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak. The article alleged local banks assisted in laundering money from 1Malaysia Development Berhad. Lee sought S$150,000 ($112,000) in damages and the case continued as of December.
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 can direct service providers to block access to websites that, in the government’s view, undermine public security, national defense, racial and religious harmony, or public morals. Political and religious websites must register with the IMDA.
Individuals and groups could express their views via the internet, including by email, and the internet is readily accessible. The government, however, subjected all internet content to similar rules and standards as traditional media, as defined by the IMDA’s Internet Code of Practice. Internet service providers are required to provide content that complies with the code. The IMDA licenses the internet service providers through which local users are required to route their internet connections. The IMDA investigates content that is potentially in breach of the code when it receives complaints from members of the public.
Since the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) came into effect in October 2019, the government has invoked it 34 times and issued 76 orders against content the ministers deemed contained “falsehoods.” The law requires online platforms to publish corrections or remove online information that government ministers consider factually false or misleading, and which they deem likely to be prejudicial to the country, diminish public confidence in the government, incite feelings of ill will between persons, or influence an election. POFMA is not supposed to apply to opinions, criticisms, satire, or parody. Individuals in breach of the law may face a substantial fine and imprisonment for up to five years, with penalties doubled if the individual used bots. A platform that fails to remove false content may receive a much steeper fine and, in the case of a continuing offense, a fine for each additional day the offense continues after conviction.
As of October most POFMA orders directed individuals and internet platforms to publish corrections, but the government also issued orders disabling in-country users’ access to several Facebook pages and blocking access to the website for the Malaysia-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) Lawyers for Liberty. The number of POFMA orders increased during the COVID-19 pandemic as the government sought to correct alleged falsehoods about the virus. News outlets like The Online Citizen website, Yahoo! Singapore, and Channel News Asia were required to publish correction notices on articles containing claims regarding the application of the death penalty in prisons, speculation over the annual salary of the prime minister’s wife as the head of quasi-sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings, and criticism of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic by an opposition politician. No ministries withdrew their orders following appeals by recipients. Two recipients of orders, The Online Citizen and the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, filed appeals with the country’s highest court, the Court of Appeal, against their respective POFMA correction orders. They argued that the burden of proof that a statement is false should be on the government and that a correction order should be issued only if the statement-maker refuses to carry a government response. The hearings occurred in September and the cases continued at year’s end.
The Online News Licensing Scheme requires heavily visited internet sites focused on news about the country to obtain a license, submit a bond of S$50,000 ($38,000), and 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 cited the need to regulate commercial news sites and promote conformity with other forms of media such as print and television. All 11 major news sites operated with IMDA licenses; the most recent addition was the alternative media website The Online Citizen, which joined two other licensed non-state-linked publications.
Smaller news sites that cover political topics are required to register under the Broadcasting Act Class License so that registrants do not receive foreign funding.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
Public institutions of higher education and political research had limited autonomy. Although faculty members were not technically government employees, they were potentially subject to 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 fields could result in sanctions. Freedom House noted that self-censorship on topics related to the country occurred among academics, who can face legal and career consequences for critical speech. Publications by local academics and members of research institutions rarely deviated substantially from government views.
In October the Raffles Hall Association, an alumni group of former National University of Singapore students, replaced Hong Kong-based Singaporean academics Cherian George and Donald Low as guest speakers for a webinar on “Public Discourse: Truth and Trust” without an explanation or any notification to the speakers. Raffles Hall Association had previously promoted the event in a Facebook post, citing a new book by George and Low that advocated ruling PAP reforms, but later released a post with a new set of speakers. After the topic arose on social media, one of the replacement speakers withdrew from the event, explaining that the organizers had not fully briefed him on what had transpired. The university stated the association was an “autonomous alumni group” not governed by the university, but George told local media the organizers had informed him that the university wanted the event canceled.
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 ministry to exempt any film from the act.
Certain films barred from general release may be allowed limited showings, either censored or uncensored.
Although the constitution provides citizens the right to peaceful assembly, parliament imposed restrictions in the interest of security, public order, or morality. Public assemblies, including political meetings and rallies, require police permission. It is a criminal offense to organize or participate in a public assembly without a police permit, and those convicted may be assessed a substantial fine. Repeat offenders face a steeper fine.
By law a public assembly may include events staged by a single person. Citizens do not need permits for indoor speaking events, unless they touch on “sensitive topics” such as race or religion, or for qualifying events held at Speakers’ Corner. The Commissioner of Police may decline to authorize any public assembly or procession that could be directed towards a political end and be organized by, or involve the participation of, a foreign entity or citizen. Police may also order a person to “move on” from a certain area and not return to the designated spot for 24 hours.
International human rights organizations criticized authorities’ use of the law and concerns about public order to harass human rights defenders and prevent peaceful protest.
In March police questioned, investigated, and issued “stern warnings” to two climate change activists for participating in a public assembly without a permit. In separate cases, Wong J-min, age 18, and Nguyen Nhat Minh, age 20 held up a placard in public to protest climate change, had photos taken of themselves, and posted those on social media.
As of December several illegal assembly cases were pending against activist Jolovan Wham. In November, Wham was charged with illegal assembly for two separate incidents when he held up signs in public and posted photos on social media. In one case, Wham in March held up a sign with a hand-drawn smiley face outside a police station to demonstrate support for two climate activists, an illegal one-person protest without a police permit. In August the Court of Appeal rejected Wham’s final appeal against his January conviction for organizing an indoor public assembly without a permit in 2016. Wham refused to pay the fine and instead served a 10-day jail sentence starting August 21. The event was entitled, “Civil Disobedience and Social Movements,” and included a Skype address by Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong.
Some civil society groups and members of parliament expressed concern that the government’s use of a law to maintain public order (see section 2.a.) conflated peaceful protests and terrorist violence. The law’s illustrations of “large-scale public disorder” included a peaceful sit-down demonstration that attracts a large group of sympathizers and starts to impede the flow of traffic, interfering with local business activities.
The government closely monitored political gatherings regardless of the number of persons present.
Spontaneous public gatherings or demonstrations were virtually unknown.
Most associations, societies, clubs, religious groups, and other organizations with more than 10 members are required to register with the government. The government could deny registration to or dissolve groups it believed were formed for unlawful purposes or for purposes prejudicial to public peace, welfare, or public order, although it approved the majority of applications in recent years. The government has absolute discretion in applying criteria to register or dissolve societies.
The government prohibits organized political activities except by groups registered as political parties or political associations. These may not receive foreign donations but may receive funds from citizens and locally controlled entities. The ruling PAP was able to use nonpolitical organizations, such as residential committees and neighborhood groups, for political purposes far more extensively than could opposition parties. Due to laws regulating the formation of publicly active organizations, there were few NGOs apart from nonpolitical organizations, such as religious or environmental groups.
The constitution and the law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, although it limited them in certain circumstances.
In-country Movement: The ISA permits authorities to restrict a person’s movement, and they did so in the case of some former ISA detainees. Several dozen suspected terrorists were subject to such restrictions. Freedom of movement for migrant workers required to quarantine under temporary COVID-19 legislation was restricted for more than six months during the pandemic and remained significantly more limited and controlled than for the rest of the population (see section 7.e.).
Foreign Travel: The government may refuse to issue a passport; this was done primarily on security grounds.
Persons with national service reserve obligations (male citizens and permanent residents between ages 18 and 40 (for enlisted men) or 50 (for officers)) are required to advise the Ministry of Defense of plans to travel abroad. Men and boys age 13 and older who have not completed national service obligations are required to obtain exit permits for international travel if they intend to be away for three months or more.
The law allows the government to deprive naturalized citizens of citizenship if they have engaged in activities deemed harmful to public safety and order or resided outside of the country for more than five consecutive years and either did not register annually at a consulate or were believed by the government to have no intention of retaining citizenship.
The government may, on a case-by-case basis, cooperate with organizations such as UN High Commissioner for Refugees to repatriate or send refugees to a third country.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status.
As of December 2019 there were 1,252 stateless persons living in the country. Many were reportedly born in the country before independence but did not or could not meet requirements for citizenship then in force. Others were permanent residents who lost their foreign citizenship, or were children born to foreign nationals who are not recognized as citizens in their home countries. Stateless persons may apply for citizenship.
Approximately 78 percent of stateless persons have obtained permanent residency, but those who have not may not buy or rent real estate, are not entitled to government health or education subsidies, and may have difficulty securing employment.