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
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were no reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits such practices, and the government generally respected these prohibitions.
The law mandates imprisonment and mandatory caning for approximately 30 offenses, such as certain cases of rape, robbery, and drug trafficking. Caning is discretionary for convictions on other charges involving the use of force, such as kidnapping or voluntarily causing grievous hurt. Caning also may be used as a punishment for legally defined offenses while in prison if a review by the Institutional Discipline Advisory Committee deems it necessary and the commissioner of prisons approves. Women and girls, men older than 50 years and boys younger than 16, men sentenced to death whose sentences were not commuted, and persons determined medically unfit were exempt from caning.
Impunity was not a significant problem in the security forces. The government took active steps to investigate and file charges against members of the security services when it deemed their behavior inappropriate or illegal.
The trial of Central Narcotics Bureau officer Vengedesh Raj Nainar Nagarajan began in late 2020 and was still underway as of December. Nainar was charged with three counts of voluntarily causing hurt by seeking to extort a confession concerning drugs found in a suspect’s possession in 2017.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
There were no reports regarding prison or detention center conditions that raised human rights concerns.
Physical Conditions: There were no major concerns regarding physical conditions or inmate abuse in prisons and detention centers.
Administration: Prisoners may file complaints alleging mistreatment or misconduct with judicial authorities without censorship and may request investigation of credible allegations of problematic conditions. When called upon, the Provost Unit investigates complaints. Criminal charges may be brought against government officials.
The Board of Visiting Justices, composed of justices of the peace appointed by the home affairs minister, examines the prison system and oversees any investigations undertaken by the Provost Unit. The board conducts regular prison inspections to monitor prisoners’ basic welfare and adherence to prison regulations. It may also conduct random visits. All inmates have access to the visiting justices. Authorities documented the results of investigations in a publicly accessible manner. Members of the Board of Visiting Justices visited prisons at least once a month.
The Institutional Discipline Advisory Committee renders an opinion to the commissioner of prisons on whether an instance of corporal punishment (which is permitted) was excessive.
The status of the suspect or convict determined the frequency and type of permitted visits. In general, authorities allowed family members and close relatives to visit inmates. Prison authorities must approve visits from nonrelatives.
Independent Monitoring: Authorities allowed members of the press to visit prisons with prior approval. It was not known if there were any visits during the year. The Ministry of Home Affairs also appointed a nongovernmental body composed of citizens to conduct regular prison inspections.
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.
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 constitution does not address privacy rights; statutory or common law provide remedies for infringement of some aspects of privacy rights. Several laws safeguard privacy, regulate access to and processing of personal data, and criminalize unauthorized access to data. Public agencies, however, are exempted from these data protection requirements; subject to public sector-specific laws, they can intercept communications and surveil individuals if it is determined to be in the national interest or necessary for investigations or proceedings.
The government generally respected the physical privacy of homes and families. Normally, police must have a warrant issued by a court to conduct a search but may search a person, home, or property without a warrant if they decide that such a search is necessary to preserve evidence or permissible according to discretionary powers of the ISA, CLA, and other laws.
Law enforcement authorities have broad powers to search electronic devices without judicial authorization, including while individuals are in custody. In 2020 Privacy International stated that, “Singapore has a well-established, centrally controlled technological surveillance system.” Law enforcement agencies, including the Internal Security Department and the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, had extensive networks for gathering information and conducting surveillance and highly sophisticated capabilities to monitor telephone, email, text messaging, or other digital communications intended to remain private. No court warrants are required for such operations and the law gives police access to computers and decryption information under defined circumstances.
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.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
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 regarding public order to prevent peaceful protest, especially by human rights defenders. Human Rights Watch lamented the government’s use of “laws that violate international standards . . . against the country’s few remaining dissenting voices.” Amnesty International called on the government to stop “its penalization, intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders and activists.”
In January police arrested three individuals under the Public Order Act for taking part in a public assembly without a permit. The three were part of a group of five who protested with placards and flags outside the Ministry of Education following a debate earlier that month concerning the ministry’s position on hormone therapy for transgender students (see section 6). The two others left the scene before police arrived. In November police issued warnings to six individuals involved in the protest, including the three arrested protesters, who received more severe conditional warnings that any criminal conduct during a specified future period could subject them to prosecution also for the January protest.
Also in January, a man, Yan Jun, was put on trial for holding an illegal one-person protest outside a western embassy in November 2020 and behaving in a disorderly manner. Yan was a repeat offender convicted of holding public assemblies without a valid permit in the past. He was sentenced to six months in jail and fined S$5,000 ($3,700).
In February police investigated three men – two Japanese, one Indonesian – for participating in a public assembly without a permit outside the Burmese Embassy after the military coup and issued them stern warnings. Police had previously issued a warning against plans to hold protests concerning the situation in Burma.
In March police started an investigation of PAP member of parliament Louis Ng for holding a public assembly without a permit in June 2020, after he took a photo of himself holding up a sign with a smiley face in support of local food centers and posted it on social media. Investigations continued as of December.
In August a district court heard arguments in an illegal assembly case under the Public Order Act against activist Jolovan Wham for holding up a sign and taking a photo outside the former State Courts building in 2018. The case continued as of December. At year’s end another illegal assembly case was pending against Wham for a one-person protest without a permit when he held up a sign with a hand-drawn smiley face outside a police station in 2020 to demonstrate support for two climate activists.
In December a court charged activist Gilbert Goh under the Public Order Act for staging a protest without a permit. In May Goh held a placard next to the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority Building demanding cancellation of all flights from India due to COVID-19. Goh was also issued a stern warning for failing to comply with conditions for organizing an assembly at Speakers’ Corner in 2019 after foreigners participated in the event, for which Goh had not obtained a police permit.
The government closely monitored political gatherings regardless of the number of persons present.
Spontaneous public gatherings or demonstrations were virtually unknown.
Freedom of Association
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.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country
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 continued to be restricted 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 between 18 and 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.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
f. Protection of Refugees
The government may, on a case-by-case basis, cooperate with organizations such as the Office of the 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.
g. Stateless Persons
As of December 2020, there were 1,095 stateless persons 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 76 percent of stateless persons have obtained permanent residency, but those who have not done so may not buy or rent real estate, are not entitled to government health or education subsidies, and may have difficulty securing employment.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in open and free periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. In five decades of continuous rule, however, the PAP employed a variety of measures that effectively limited the ability of the opposition to mount a serious challenge to its hold on power. In recent years the opposition won additional seats, although it still held a small fraction of seats in parliament.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: The law provides for the popular election of the president to a six-year term from among candidates approved by two committees selected by the government. The constitution also requires multiracial representation in the presidency. The office of the president is reserved for a member of a specific racial community (Chinese, Malay, or Indian and other minority communities) if no person belonging to that community had held the office of the president for any of the last five terms of office. The 2017 presidential election was thus restricted to eligible Malay candidates. In 2017 former speaker of parliament Halimah Yacob became president without a vote because she was the only candidate; two other applicants were ruled ineligible according to criteria applicable to private- sector candidates.
The 2020 parliamentary general election was free and open. In addition to the governing PAP, 10 opposition parties participated in the election, and all seats were contested for the second time since independence. The general elections operate according to a first-past-the-post system, and there are both single-member and group constituencies. The PAP won 61 percent of the popular vote, capturing 83 of 93 seats in parliament. The opposition Workers’ Party won 10 seats, the most seats won by the opposition since independence. Because a constitutional provision mandates at least 12 opposition members in parliament, two losing candidates from the newly founded Progress Singapore Party were also seated as nonconstituency members of parliament, chosen from the highest finishing runners-up in the general election.
In September police issued a “stern warning” to Dr. Thum Ping Tjin, director of Observatory Southeast Asia and publisher of sociopolitical website New Naratif, for “unauthorized paid election advertisements” published on the website during the 2020 general election campaign. Police opened an investigation following a report filed by the Elections Department concerning five paid advertisements New Naratif was not authorized to publish, a potential breach of the law. Police found the advertisements “were intended to prejudice the electoral prospects of a political party” but, in consultation with the Attorney-General’s Chambers, issued a stern warning “in lieu of prosecution.”
Political Parties and Political Participation: The opposition criticized the PAP for its abuse of incumbency to restrict opposition parties. The PAP maintained its political dominance in part by circumscribing political discourse and action. For example, government-appointed and predominantly publicly funded community development councils, which provide welfare and other services, strengthened the PAP’s position. The PAP also had an extensive grassroots system and a carefully selected, highly disciplined membership. The constitutional requirement that members of parliament resign if expelled from their party helped promote backbencher discipline.
The PAP controlled key positions in and out of government, influenced the press, and benefited from structural advantages such as the group constituency system and short campaign period that disadvantaged smaller opposition parties, according to some human rights groups. While the PAP’s methods were consistent with the law and the prerogatives of parliamentary government in the country, the overall effect was to perpetuate PAP power. The government created the institutionalized position of an official leader of the opposition in parliament following the 2020 general election, which the Workers’ Party accepted.
Although political parties were legally free to organize, authorities imposed strict regulations on their constitutions, fundraising, and accountability, including a ban on receiving foreign donations and a requirement to report donations. There were 33 registered political parties, 14 of which were active.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No law limits the participation of women and members of historically marginalized or minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Three of the 20 members of the cabinet were women, and seven were members of a minority group. The country’s female president was a minority-group member. Presidential elections may be reserved for certain racial communities. There are no other restrictions in law or practice against voting or political participation by members of minority groups; they were well represented throughout the government and civil service, except in some sensitive national security positions in the armed forces and intelligence community. The country’s group representation constituency system also requires at least one candidate from a racial minority group in each group constituency to provide representation in parliament.
Section 5. Governmental Posture Towards International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A variety of domestic human rights groups generally operated without government interference, but subject to close monitoring and legal restraints, and these organizations investigated and published their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views. NGOs were subject to registration according to the Societies Act or the Companies Act.
Some international human rights NGOs criticized the government’s policies in areas such as capital punishment, migrant workers’ rights, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and protection of the rights of LGBTQI+ persons. They charged that the government generally ignored such criticisms or published rebuttals.
Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
Rape and Domestic Violence: Under the law rape is a crime, with maximum penalties of 20 years’ imprisonment and the possibility of caning. There is no marital immunity for rape and the definition of rape is gender neutral. The law imposes up to twice the maximum penalty for offenses affecting the human body – “rape, hurt, or wrongful confinement” – committed by partners in a close or intimate relationship (even if unmarried) than it imposes for these offenses committed outside such relationships. Domestic violence is a crime. Victims may obtain court orders restraining the respondent and barring a spouse or former spouse from the victim’s home until the court is satisfied the spouse has ceased aggressive behavior. The government enforced the laws on rape and domestic violence.
Identity protection orders are mandatory for sexual crimes or child abuse even before a police report is lodged. Victims of sexual crimes may video-record their testimony instead of having to recount it in person. Victims may testify in closed-door hearings, with physical screens to shield them from the accused person. Lawyers may not ask questions concerning a victim’s sexual history unless the court grants them permission to do so.
Several voluntary welfare organizations that assisted abused women noted gender-based violence was underreported but that the number of reported incidents was increasing, which they stated was the result of advocacy campaigns to address social stigma.
Releasing statistics on family violence for the first time, police in January disclosed that in 2020, 5,135 reports were made, of which 1,115 were referred to family service centers or family violence specialist centers. Reported abuses included causing hurt, using criminal force, assault, criminal intimidation, and wrongful confinement. The Ministry of Home Affairs saw a 10 percent increase in family violence cases every month between April and December 2020, which it attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. In October a court sentenced a man to 29 years’ imprisonment and 24 strokes of the cane for raping his 13-year-old daughter and forcing his 15-year-old son to rape his biological mother. The judge termed the man’s acts “an assault on the basic values of being human.”
In January the Ministry of Social and Family Development launched the country’s first 24-hour national helpline dedicated to addressing family violence and other cases of abuse and neglect, providing support in the country’s four main languages. The helpline received 3,700 calls from January to June. Another 10 helplines to report child abuse and family violence remained in operation.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): Types I (a) and IV (as classified by the World Health Organization) FGM/C were practiced among a portion of the Muslim population. There was no legislation banning FGM/C and no official data on how prevalent the practice was, but 75 percent of Muslim women indicated they had undergone FGM/C, according to an End FGC Singapore survey with a sample size of 360 women in late 2020. Some medical clinics offer the procedure, requiring parents to consent and go through counseling, according to the Singapore Muslim Women’s Association. This medicalization, however, contravenes the global normative guidance by the World Health Organization and the UN Population Fund on this harmful practice. End FGC Singapore, a community-based movement, criticized the practice as covert and stated girls often may not know they underwent the procedure until later in life.
Sexual Harassment: Harassment is a crime, and the law covers harassment within and outside the workplace, cyberbullying, and bullying of children. The law also prescribes mandatory caning and imprisonment (see below) on conviction of any charge for “outraging modesty” that causes the victim to fear death or injury. The law also subjects to a fine persons convicted of using threatening, abusive, or insulting words or behavior. It also provides a range of self-help measures, civil remedies, and enhanced criminal sanctions to protect against harassment. Additionally, stalking is an offense punishable by a fine, imprisonment for up to 12 months, or both.
The law makes technology-related crimes such as voyeurism and sexual exposure criminal offenses. Doxing (publishing private information regarding a person or organization on the internet with the intent to harass) is also an offense.
In June amendments to the Protection from Harassment Act took effect, increasing protections for victims. It became easier to obtain protection orders; if a person was convicted of any previous harassment or hurt-related offense against the victim, the requirement to show that a provision under the act was contravened is deemed to be satisfied, and a protection order can be granted. Judges granting expedited protection orders must consider whether a criminal investigation is warranted and, if so, refer cases for police investigation. Breaches of orders are arrestable if harm was caused. Protection orders can be extended to persons related to the victim who might be harassed by the perpetrator. Domestic exclusion orders can be granted to protect victims residing with the harasser. The amendment also established a specialized Protection from Harassment Court to hear all criminal and civil harassment cases, such as doxing and threatening behavior, to provide faster relief. Applications for protection orders and orders relating to falsehoods are eligible for simplified court processes through an online portal and may be heard within 24 hours if actual violence or risk of violence is involved. Those who repeatedly breach protection orders are subject to up to twice the normal maximum penalty.
In September amendments to the Penal Code increased penalties for outrage of modesty from two to three years. According to police statistics, outrage of modesty incidents decreased by 17.8 percent in 2020 to 1,320 incidents.
The women’s rights advocacy group AWARE reported a 36 percent increase in technology-facilitated sexual violence in 2020 with 191 cases. Total cases of sexual violence increased from 777 in 2019 to 967 cases in 2020. In July AWARE and the National Youth Council jointly funded a new website to educate the community on the most common types of online harassment and to provide assistance.
A November 2020 national survey by AWARE found that two in five of the 1,000 respondents had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace and that 13 percent had been touched physically. Only one in three victims reported such incidents.
Media gave significant coverage to sexual harassment convictions throughout the year. The government ran awareness campaigns encouraging women to report molestation, and several members of parliament urged the government to address sexual harassment in the workplace more actively.
Following several sexual harassment cases in recent years, the National University of Singapore reported in August that from January through June, one researcher was dismissed for making inappropriate sexual remarks, sending inappropriate videos to two students, and touching one of them without consent; two students were expelled for sexual misconduct; and there were eight other cases of alleged sexual misconduct involving students.
Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities. The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services, including emergency contraception, for survivors of sexual violence.
Discrimination: Women enjoy the same legal rights as men, including civil liberties, employment, commercial activity, and education. Women were well represented in many professions (see section 7.d.).
Polygyny is permitted for Muslim men but is limited and strictly regulated by the Registry of Muslim Marriages, which oversees Muslim marriages and other family law matters. Polygynous marriages constituted 0.2 percent of Muslim marriages.
Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination
Various laws such as the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act and the Penal Code criminalize violence and incitement of violence against racial, ethnic, and religious minorities or groups. The government takes a proactive stance in fighting racial and ethnic discrimination and enforces the law effectively. Racially motivated violence was almost nonexistent, and even cases of racial discrimination were rare but did occur.
In May police arrested a 30-year-old ethnic Chinese man for making offensive racial remarks and assaulting a 55-year-old ethnic Indian woman. He was charged with one count of voluntarily causing hurt and one count of uttering words with intent to wound the racial feelings of a person. Court proceedings continued as of December. Prime Minister Lee, President Halimah Yacob, and several ministers condemned the attack and declared it went “against everything” the country’s multiracial society stood for. In July a 33-year-old man was arrested and charged with voluntarily causing hurt and intentional harassment after he punched and kicked an ethnic Chinese university student in a park and used a racist slur against another. Court proceedings continued as of December. Throughout the year individuals who committed racist or racially insensitive verbal offenses were prosecuted and sentenced under the law.
The Presidential Council on Minority Rights examines all pending bills so they do not disadvantage any particular group. It also reports to the government on matters that affect any racial or religious community.
Government measures to mitigate racial and ethnic biases and promote ethnic and racial harmony included mandated representation of all major ethnic groups in elected and non-elected government positions; allocation of public holidays for each racial group; and the use of four official languages, with an emphasis in schools on teaching English as the common language. There was no systemic racial discrimination in terms of access to education.
The opposition and civil society groups criticized various policies for their negative side effects on access to some services and the freedom of choice of residence. They also charged that the government’s policy of assigning each person a race besides the national identity would prevent the society from achieving a post-racial state and that forms of racial discrimination would persist in everyday situations such as house rentals and employment.
Ethnic Malays constituted approximately 15 percent of the population. The constitution recognizes them as the indigenous inhabitants of the country and charges the government with supporting and promoting their political, educational, religious, economic, social, cultural, and linguistic interests. The government took steps to encourage educational achievement among Malay students and upgrade skills among Malay workers, including through subsidies for tertiary education fees for poorer Malays. Malay educational performance has improved, although ethnic Malays have not yet reached the educational or socioeconomic levels achieved by the ethnic Chinese majority, the ethnic Indian minority, or the Eurasian community. Malays remained underrepresented at senior corporate levels and, some asserted, in certain sectors of the government and the military. This reflected their historically lower educational and economic levels, but some argued it also was the result of employment discrimination.
Birth Registration: Citizenship derives from one’s parents as long as one parent is a citizen of the country and the parents are registered as legally married. The law requires that all births be registered within 42 days. Dual citizens born abroad to citizen parents must renounce their foreign citizenship after turning 21 to retain their citizenship.
Child Abuse: The law criminalizes mistreatment of children, including physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. The government enforced the law and provided support services for child abuse victims.
The Ministry of Social and Family Development investigated 1,313 child abuse cases in 2020, a 21 percent increase from 2019 and the highest number in 10 years.
The courts sentenced several men to long prison terms for sexually abusing their children. In February a perpetrator was sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment and 24 strokes of the cane for raping his daughter. In April and July two other perpetrators were sentenced to 24 strokes of the cane each, and to 28 years’ and 29 years’ imprisonment, respectively, for sexually assaulting their daughters.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The law characterizes unmarried persons younger than age 21 as minors and persons younger than 14 as children. Individuals younger than 21 who wish to marry must obtain parental consent, and the couple must attend a mandatory marriage preparation program. Individuals younger than 18 also require a special license from the Ministry of Social and Family Development to wed or, if they are marrying under Muslim law, they require permission from the kadi (a Muslim judge appointed by the president), who should grant permission only under special conditions.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law criminalizes human trafficking, including child sex trafficking, and authorities enforced the law.
The age of consent for noncommercial sex is 16. Sexual intercourse with a person younger than 16 is punishable by a maximum of 10 years in prison, a fine, or both, and if the victim is younger than 14 it is punishable by up to 40 years in prison and a fine or caning.
The law prohibits commercial sex provided by anyone younger than age 18. Authorities may detain (but generally do not prosecute) persons younger than 18 whom they believe to be engaged in commercial sex. They prosecute those who organize or profit from commercial sex, bring women or girls to the country for commercial sex, or coerce or deceive women or girls into commercial sex.
The law protects minors from sexual exploitation and makes a distinction between child pornography and other types of pornography. It is a separate offense to use or involve a child younger than age 16 in the production of child-abuse material and a crime to be involved in the supply and consumption of child-abuse material. The law criminalizes offenses, such as sexual intercourse, pornography, or sexual grooming, committed in the context of exploitative relationships when the victim was older than age 16 but younger than age 18, even if the victim had consented.
In September the Penal Code was amended to increase the maximum imprisonment from one to two years for engaging in sexual activity in the presence of a minor between ages 14 and 16 or causing a person of that age to view sexual images. The same penalty applies if the victim was between ages 16 and 18 and the offender was in an exploitative relationship with the minor. By law those convicted under the Penal Code for any offenses committed against vulnerable victims – children younger than age 14, persons with mental or physical disabilities, and domestic workers (see section 7.e.) – are subject to up to twice the maximum penalty.
In January the High Court sustained the prosecution’s appeal in the case of a 25-year-old man who had sex with a then 13-year-old in 2017 and increased his prison sentence from 24 to 33 months.
International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
Although estimates varied widely, the government estimated there were approximately 2,500 members in the Jewish community. In February, following a tip-off from the Ministry of Defense, authorities detained Amirull bin Ali, a 20-year-old man, under the ISA for planning to attack and kill Jewish worshippers with a knife at the Maghain Aboth Synagogue. According to the government, Amirull, a full-time national serviceman with the Singapore Armed Forces when arrested, had been self-radicalized online. The government stated this was the first time an individual was motivated by the Israel-Palestine conflict to plot an attack in the country (section 1.d.).
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Persons with Disabilities
There is no comprehensive legislation addressing equal opportunities for persons with disabilities in education or employment or preventing discrimination.
The Ministry of Social and Family Development is responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities and coordinates implementation of the government’s 2017-21 policy plan for programs and services in the disability sector, which focuses on greater inclusiveness. The law provides grants, legal protection, and training to employers and persons with disabilities to provide better safeguards for employees, including persons with disabilities.
In December 2020 the government launched an Enabling Lives Initiative grant for public education to build positive attitudes towards persons with disabilities. In April it launched a pilot program to improve case management support for persons with disabilities who had high support needs and their families. Three SGUnited Jobs and Skills schemes were also set in motion during the year for persons with disabilities: place-and-train programs, attach-and-train programs, and skills development programs. Sign-language interpretation was provided for live televised broadcasts of key national communications, and all public buses were wheelchair accessible. These initiatives formed part of the country’s 2017-21 Third Enabling Masterplan, a national road map to building a more inclusive society for persons with disabilities.
The government maintained a comprehensive code on barrier-free accessibility and standards for facilities for persons with physical disabilities in all new buildings and mandated the progressive upgrading of older structures. The SG Enable program, established by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, administered several assistance schemes for persons with disabilities, and provided a job training and placement program for them. In July a “Caregiver Action Map” was launched to provide social service agencies and other organizations that seek to develop or improve support for caregivers of persons with disabilities with guidance on how this could be achieved. The map was developed by the Coalition of Partners for Caregivers Support and will be facilitated by SG Enable and the Institute of Policy Studies.
The country’s 2020 census for the first time included data on persons with disabilities, defined as persons who had difficulties performing basic activities such as seeing, hearing, remembering, self-care, communicating, or moving around. In total, 97,600 residents ages five and older had difficulties performing at least one basic activity. Organizations supporting persons with disabilities welcomed the data to help address specific community needs but criticized the omission of specific reference to persons with disabilities.
The government reported that in 2020 companies hired more than 9,200 persons with disabilities through use of government-sponsored support programs, an increase of 2.2 percent from 2019.
The Disabled People’s Association, an advocacy group, indicated that discrimination against persons with disabilities was underreported because affected individuals either did not file a complaint or were unaware of their rights and the available resources. The Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices received an average of two complaints per year of discrimination against persons with disabilities between 2014 and the first half of 2021. The Disabled People’s Association also reported private discrimination against persons with disabilities who were seeking employment.
The country provided a high level of educational support for children and minors with disabilities from preschool to university. Children with moderate to severe educational needs were required to participate in compulsory education until they reached age 15. Elementary and secondary levels both included mainstreaming programs and separate education schools. All primary schools and most secondary schools had specialist support for students with mild disabilities. Mainstreaming programs catered primarily to children with physical disabilities. Separate education schools, which focused on children who required more intensive and specialized assistance, were operated by social service organizations and involved a means-tested payment of fees. The Special Educational Needs Support Offices, established in all publicly funded tertiary education institutions including universities, provided support for students. Informal provisions permitted university matriculation for those with visual, hearing, or physical disabilities through assistive technology devices and services such as note taking.
The law allows voters who are unable to vote in the manner described by law to receive assistance from election officials, who are under oath to maintain voting secrecy. For the 2020 general election, the government improved support for persons with disabilities. Voters with visual disabilities could cast their vote independently with stencils, wheelchair users could use a portable booth placed on their laps, and those with physical disabilities could instruct election officials to mark the ballot paper on their behalf. Polling stations were barrier-free with special drop-off points.
In February a 34-year-old woman was sentenced to 8.5 years’ imprisonment for physically abusing a woman with a mild intellectual disability. The perpetrator pleaded guilty to two counts of voluntarily causing hurt and one count of twisting the victim’s toe with a pair of pliers until it fractured. She had splashed hot water on the victim and used a hammer to strike her mouth, causing her to lose two teeth. She and her family had repeatedly abused the victim, now age 30, since 2016.
HIV and AIDS Social Stigma
Although no legislation bars employers from discriminating against job applicants based on their HIV status, government guidelines for employers state that employees who are dismissed based on their medical status, including HIV-positive status, have grounds for wrongful dismissal claims against their employers. Many persons living with HIV were, however, afraid to disclose their status during the job application process and, during employment, feared dismissal if they were discovered to have made a false declaration.
The government discouraged discrimination, supported initiatives that countered misperceptions regarding HIV or AIDS, and publicly praised employers that welcomed workers with HIV or AIDS. HIV-positive foreigners, however, were barred from obtaining work permits, student visas, or immigrant visas.
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Section 377A of the Penal Code criminalizes consensual male-male sexual conduct, subject to up to two years’ imprisonment. Authorities have not enforced this law since 2010 and have stated since then that they do not intend to do so. There were no indications the provision was used intentionally to intimidate or coerce. Its existence, however, intimidated some gay men, particularly those who were victims of sexual assault but would not report it to police for fear of being charged with violating Section 377A.
In January the Court of Appeal heard the appeal of three plaintiffs against a March 2020 High Court decision to dismiss a constitutional challenge to section 377A. In the hearing Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon declared that the 2007 political compromise to keep section 377A but not enforce it should be factored in when determining whether the law should be repealed. The court reserved judgment and a decision was pending as of October.
No laws explicitly protect the LGBTQI+ community from discrimination based on sexual orientation. Moreover, since single persons are prevented from purchasing government housing reserved for married couples until age 35 and same-sex marriage is not permitted, LGBTQI+ couples were unable to receive certain government services and benefits available to other citizens before reaching 35.
Same-sex partners were covered under the Protection from Harassment Act and enjoyed access to legal protections such as expedited protection orders in cases of harassment or violence, including by close and intimate partners.
LGBTQI+ persons experienced discrimination in the military, which classifies individuals by sexual orientation and evaluates them on a scale of “effeminacy” to determine fitness for combat training and other assignments. Openly gay servicemen faced threats and harassment from their peers and were often ostracized.
Individuals were prohibited from updating their gender on official documents unless they underwent sex reassignment surgery.
Critics remained concerned that media censorship resulted in underrepresentation of the LGBTQI+ community. In September, Heckin’ Unicorn, a local firm that sells pride products, maintains a blog, and supports LGBTQI+ initiatives, stated that in regulating media content with a classification system, the IMDA “through its legally enforceable guidelines” played “a huge part in erasing LGBTQ+ voices in Singapore.” The IMDA censored films and television shows with LGBTQI+ themes. According to the IMDA website, authorities allow the broadcast of LGBTQI+ themes on television “as long as the presentation does not justify, promote, or glamorize such a lifestyle” (see section 2.a.).
In July police began to investigate a 23-year-old man who threatened violence against the LGBTQI+ community in a viral Instagram video and later issued him a 12-month conditional warning for criminal intimidation and intentionally causing alarm. Also in July police issued a two-year conditional warning to a man for harassing the staff of a restaurant in January and throwing at the staff a pride flag the shop had displayed.
The rights of transgender persons and the use of hormone therapy prompted a wider public debate after a transgender student accused the Ministry of Education in a January Reddit post of preventing her from beginning hormone replacement therapy and threatening to expel her from her all-boys school if she did not wear the boys’ uniform. Rejecting the accusations, the ministry stated it was in no position to interfere with a medical treatment and that the decisions lay with clinics and the parents in the case of minors. Several LGBTQI+ advocacy groups expressed solidarity with the student and declared that transgender persons faced violence and discrimination at home and in schools. This resulted in an unauthorized protest outside the ministry (see section 2.b.). In a parliamentary debate, then education minister Lawrence Wong cautioned that “issues of gender identity have become bitterly contested sources of division in the culture wars in some western countries and societies. We should not import these culture wars into Singapore or allow issues of gender identity to divide our society.”