Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
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 punishment by 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.
In September police Staff Sergeant Mahendran Selvaragoo was sentenced to 24 months’ imprisonment for seeking sexual favors in 2019 from two subjects of interrogation, as well as accessing the subjects’ personal devices for personal purposes without authority.
In November, Central Narcotics Bureau officer Vengedesh Raj Nainar Nagarajan went on trial for three counts of voluntarily causing hurt to extort a confession about drugs found in a suspect’s possession in 2017. The trial continued at year’s end.
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 about 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 nonviolent 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.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
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 data protection requirements, can intercept communications, and can 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. According to Privacy International, “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, 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.