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 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 resulted in self-censorship among some journalists and users of the internet.
In August police issued warnings to YouTube star Preeti Nair and her brother, rapper Subhas Nair, for promoting racial disharmony through a rap video in which they criticized the ethnic Chinese community. The siblings’ video mocked a recent “Brownface” advertisement in which an ethnic Chinese actor played four different characters, including an Indian man with artificially darkened skin, and a Malay Muslim woman wearing a hijab. Four ministers criticized the siblings’ “offensive” video, which included vulgarities, and the government issued a takedown notice for it to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
In April activist Jolovan Wham and opposition politician John Tan Liang Joo, of the Singapore Democratic Party, were each fined S$5,000 ($3,630) plus legal costs for contempt of court. They were convicted in October 2018 after Wham posted on Facebook that “Malaysia’s judges are more independent than Singapore’s for cases with political implications” and, when Wham was prosecuted, Tan commented that the case “only confirms that what he said is true.”
In April the Court of Appeal ruled that papers for contempt of court proceedings were properly served on Li Shengwu, a nephew of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in 2017. Li had posted private Facebook comments in 2017 criticizing the “litigious” nature of the government and the “pliant court system.” The case was ongoing as of November. While media and internet users have shared the facts of the case, many have been circumspect in commenting further because publishing material that prejudges a pending issue in court proceedings may constitute contempt of court.
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 that it could. 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. A breach of the order may lead to imprisonment for up to two years, a fine of up to S$20,000 ($14,500), 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 in the instance that authorities used 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.
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.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: According to the ISA, the government may restrict or place conditions on publications that incite violence, counsel disobedience to the law, have the potential to arouse tensions in the country’s diverse population, or threaten national interests, national security, or public order.
Government leaders openly urged news media to support its goals and help maintain social and religious harmony. The government enforced strict defamation and press laws, including in what it considered personal attacks on officials, resulting in journalists and editors moderating or limiting what was published. The government sued journalists or online bloggers for defamation or for stories that authorities believed undermined 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 (SPH) and MediaCorp, owned all general circulation newspapers in the four official languages of English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. SPH 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 SPH 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 government 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 did censor entertainment programs to remove or edit representations of intimate gay and lesbian 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 deemed to be engaging in domestic politics.
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 fine a broadcaster up to S$100,000 ($72,500) for failing to comply.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Info-communications Media Development Authority (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 believed 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 conviction on criminal defamation charges 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 September, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sued Terry Xu, editor of the sociopolitical website The Online Citizen, for defamation following Xu’s refusal to take down and apologize for an article about a dispute between Lee and his two siblings. In a separate case, Xu was charged in December 2018 for criminal defamation after he published a reader’s letter in which the author accused the PAP leadership of “corruption at the highest echelons.” The letter’s author, Daniel De Costa, was also charged with criminal defamation. De Costa lodged a constitutional challenge against the charge, with hearings scheduled for November.
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. 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 ensure that content complies with the code. The IMDA also regulates internet material by licensing 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.
In October the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) went into effect. It requires online platforms to publish corrections or remove online information that government ministers consider factually false or misleading, and which it deems likely to be prejudicial to the country, diminish public confidence in the government, incite feelings of ill will between people, or influence an election. POFMA is not supposed to apply to opinions, criticisms, satire, or parody. Individuals in breach of the law may be fined up to S$50,000 ($36,300) and imprisoned for up to five years, with penalties doubled if the individual used bots. A platform that fails to remove false content may be fined up to S$ one million ($725,000) and, in the case of a continuing offense, a maximum fine of S$100,000 ($72,500) for each additional day the offense continues after conviction.
The Online News Licensing Scheme requires more heavily visited internet sites focused on news about the country to obtain a license. The license requires these sites to submit a bond of S$50,000 ($36,300) and to adhere to additional requirements to remove prohibited content within 24 hours of notification from the IMDA. Many citizens viewed this regulation as a way to censor online critics of the government. The IMDA stated there was a need to regulate commercial news sites and promote conformity with other forms of media such as print and television. All 11 major news sites operate with IMDA licenses; the most recent addition was the independent website TOC, which joined two other non-state-linked publications that are licensed.
Smaller news sites that cover political issues are required to register under the Broadcasting Act Class License to ensure that registrants do not receive foreign funding.
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 areas could result in sanctions. Publications by local academics and members of research institutions rarely deviated substantially from government views.
In September, Yale-NUS College, the country’s only liberal arts college, canceled a course entitled “Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore” two weeks before its start date. University administrators said that the program risked exposing students to legal liabilities, did not critically engage with the range of perspectives needed to examine the issues, and that some of the program’s speakers could advance partisan political interests. The president of Yale University said on September 29 that the cancellation decision was made “internally and without government interference”; however, the incident sparked debate on the parameters of academic freedom.
The law authorizes the minister of communications and information to ban any film, whether political or not, that in his opinion is “contrary to the public interest.” The law does not apply to any film sponsored by the government and allows the minister to exempt any film from the act.
Certain films barred from general release may be allowed limited showings, either censored or uncensored.
In March, IMDA canceled a small concert by Swedish satanist black metal band Watain. IMDA initially agreed to the band performing for an age 18 and older audience and with specific references, songs, and acts removed from the performance, but retracted its permission on the day of the concert after the Ministry of Home Affairs raised security concerns about the group. Minister for Home Affairs K. Shanmugam said that allowing the band to play would be against “public order interest and affect our religious and social harmony.”
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 fined up to S$3,000 ($2,180). Repeat offenders may be fined up to S$5,000 ($3,630).
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.
In September police opened an investigation into Nafiz Kamarudin and his wife for illegal public assembly. Earlier that month the pair wore T-shirts with antideath penalty slogans to the Yellow Ribbon Prison Run, which is held to support prisoner rehabilitation. Race organizers said that Nafiz could not use the event to campaign against existing laws, and police said citizens should express their views at Speakers’ Corner.
As of November several illegal assembly cases were pending against activist Jolovan Wham. Wham said he would appeal the High Court’s October dismissal of his appeal against a conviction in January on a charge of organizing a public assembly without a permit in 2016. Wham was sentenced to either a S$3,200 ($2,320) fine or 16 days’ imprisonment for the illegal assembly and for refusing to sign a statement he gave to police about the case. The indoor 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 Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Act (see section 2.a.) conflates peaceful protests and terrorist violence. The law’s illustrations of “large-scale public disorder” include a peaceful sit-down demonstration that attracts a large group of sympathizers and which after a week starts to impede the flow of traffic and interfere 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.
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. The majority of applications in recent years were approved. 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 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) apart from nonpolitical organizations, such as religious or environmental groups.
In October parliament passed legislation to amend the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, although implementation was pending as of November. Senior leadership and a majority of board members of any religious group will need to be citizens or permanent residents of the country and, with some exemptions, foreign donations and foreign affiliations must be declared to authorities. Authorities will be able to restrict or prohibit foreign donations and foreigners in leadership roles.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
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.
Foreign Travel: The government may refuse to issue a passport; in practice 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.
In June a permanent resident, Thirumal Pavithran (an Indian national), was jailed for 10 weeks after he remained outside the country for more than five years after his exit permit expired. Those convicted of remaining outside the country without a valid exit permit can be jailed for up to three years and fined up to S$10,000 ($7,250) for each charge.
The law allows the government to deprive naturalized citizens of citizenship if they have resided outside of the country for more than five consecutive years or have engaged in activities deemed harmful to public safety and order.
e. Internally Displaced Persons
f. Protection of Refugees
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status. 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.
g. Stateless Persons
As of 2018 there were 1,303 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 80 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.