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 offense.”
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.
In January former chairman of the opposition Reform Party Charles Yeo was charged with “wounding the religious feelings of the Christian community” with remarks on his Instagram and Facebook pages, and with posting a series of Instagram stories containing abusive remarks concerning a police officer between November 2020 and February 2021. Among other things, he allegedly referred to certain Christian church members as “homophobes with their trash agenda” who “distort the message of Christ,” and allegedly called the police officer “a pathetic coward and collaborator with an authoritarian regime.” Yeo relocated to the United Kingdom before the case was set for trial.
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. In September parliament passed legislation relaxing restrictions on the use of the country’s coat of arms, flag, and anthem, which heretofore could be displayed only during the July to September national-day period, by authorizing the minister for culture, community, and youth to permit their display outside that time. The new law, however, added the national pledge, flower, lion head emblem, and public seal as recognized symbols and increased penalties for misuse of these national symbols to a substantial fine, a jail term of up to six months, or both.
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, nonresident foreigners may also attend. In March Speakers’ Corner reopened for events following a two-year closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic and in April the first protest took place.
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.
Censorship or Content Restrictions 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, and authorities enforced strict defamation and press laws. Freedom House reported that “self-censorship is common, though newspapers occasionally publish critical content.” The government also strictly enforced laws protecting racial and religious harmony, which also applied to members of the media.
Although there were no legal bans on owning or operating private press outlets, government managerial and financial control strongly influenced all print and some electronic media. Two companies, SPH Media Trust and Mediacorp, owned all general circulation newspapers in the four official languages of English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. Following the restructuring of SPH Media Trust in 2021, the government announced in February it would provide the new not-for-profit company up to 180 million Singapore dollars ($135 million) annually over the next five years, raising further questions concerning the company’s editorial independence. At SPH Media Trust, the government continued to hold regulatory safeguards and approved (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. The two companies’ 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) that operates under the Ministry of Communications and Information and regulates broadcast, print, and other media. 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, or offended any religion.
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.
In previous years international and regional human rights organizations criticized the government’s use of the law to bring contempt of court charges against government critics. In August the Court of Appeal dismissed an application by Terry Xu, editor of alternative news website The Online Citizen, to stop the attorney general from continuing with contempt of court proceedings against him. The website published a post on its Facebook page in 2021 questioning the equitability of the justice system and thereby allegedly impugning the integrity of the judiciary. In September, following the suspension of its class license, The Online Citizen reactivated its website and social media accounts after Xu relocated to Taiwan. In response, the IMDA highlighted that the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) and the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA) would continue to apply to the outlet independent of where its company was located. The contempt of court case against Xu was ongoing as of December.
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 April The Online Citizen editor Terry Xu and site contributor Daniel De Costa were each sentenced to three weeks in jail for criminal defamation due to a 2018 article accusing the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) leadership of “corruption at the highest echelons.” De Costa was sentenced to an additional three months’ jail time for unauthorized access to an email account not belonging to him from which he submitted the article.
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 may 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.
The government invoked the POFMA 11 times during the year and issued 17 correction orders to 14 unique targets for content that government ministers deemed contained “falsehoods.” The law requires individuals or online platforms, on a case-by-case basis, 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. The law 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 substantial fine and, in the case of a continuing offense, a fine for each additional day the offense continues after conviction.
The government issued POFMA correction orders in response to published items on a wide range of matters; in 2021 COVID-19 “falsehoods” accounted for the majority of orders. Most orders directed individuals and internet platforms to publish corrections. In March and August, the POFMA Office issued its first “conditional warnings” to two Facebook users for disseminating falsehoods related to the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccines, meaning the users would face criminal charges if they reoffended during stipulated 12-month and 24-month periods, respectively. In one incident, the government issued a “targeted correction direction” requiring internet intermediaries to directly communicate a correction notice to all in-country users who had accessed the “falsehood” in question instead of just adding a correction to the “falsehood.” No ministries withdrew their orders following appeals by recipients.
In May the High Court dismissed the opposition Singapore Democratic Party’s appeal of a 2020 correction direction on grounds that the party knew its statement was false and made the post deliberately. The POFMA Office issued the correction direction after the party asserted during the 2020 election campaign that the government was “toying with the idea” of having a population of 10 million persons. The High Court held that the party had misquoted the former Housing Board chief executive on this question, knowing its assertion was untrue. The judge ordered the party to pay the attorney general legal costs of 7,000 Singapore dollars ($5,250). The party’s appeal to the Court of Appeal was dismissed in July and the judge ordered the party to pay the attorney general additional legal costs of 6,000 Singapore dollars ($4,500).
The Online News Licensing Scheme requires heavily visited internet sites focused on news regarding the country to obtain a license, submit a bond of 50,000 Singapore dollars ($37,500), 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. As of October, 11 major news sites operated with IMDA licenses. In February the Ministry of Communications and Information suspended the press accreditation for local media website Mothership for six months after Mothership broke an embargo on details that were not yet announced in parliament.
Smaller news sites that cover political topics are required to register under the Broadcasting Act for a Class License, which requires registrants to report their income sources and not receive foreign funding.
In July the hostile information campaign provisions of the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act took effect. Passed in 2021, the law aims to strengthen the country’s ability to “prevent, detect, and disrupt foreign interference” in domestic politics conducted through hostile information campaigns and the use of local proxies. The minister for home affairs may compel internet and social media service providers to disclose information, remove online content, and block user accounts. Under the provisions regarding local proxies, not yet in force, the minister for home affairs may take “countermeasures” against “politically significant persons” who are or are suspected of working on behalf of or receiving funding from “foreign political organizations” and “foreign principals.”
In November parliament passed the Online Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill as an addition to the Broadcasting Act. The law requires social media platforms, but not private messaging communications, to implement measures to limit users’ exposure to online content the government deems to be harmful to the country. The law allows the government to designate platforms with significant reach and impact as “regulated online communication services.” The law also empowers the IMDA to direct social media services to take down or disable access for in-country users to “egregious content” or to disallow specific accounts to interact with and communicate content to in-country users, as proposed in the Content Code for Social Media Services. Such content includes sexual harm, child sexual exploitation, cyberbullying, terrorism, inciting racial or religious tensions, self-harm, public health and security, and racial and religious intolerance. Platforms are also required to proactively detect and remove such content. Social media services that fail to comply with the proposed law may be fined up to one million Singapore dollars ($750,000) or receive a direction to have their services blocked in-country.
Restrictions on 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 may face legal and career consequences for critical speech. Publications by local academics and members of research institutions rarely deviated substantially from government views.
A 2021 survey among 198 academics showed that 77 percent reported at least “moderate” interference by nonacademic actors in their decision making and more than a quarter in some disciplines reported consistent censorship or self-censorship. According to the survey, however, most believed they had freedom to do research and teach.
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.
The IMDA regulates movies, video materials, computer games, and music. Most banned publications were sexually-oriented materials but also included some religious and political publications. In May the IMDA banned the Hindi-language movie The Kashmir Files for potentially causing enmity between different communities and disrupting religious harmony in the country. According to the IMDA, the film presented a provocative, one-sided portrayal of Muslims and depicted Hindus as persecuted in their ongoing conflict.
The IMDA stated it had banned six 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.
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 their 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.”
The government closely monitored political gatherings regardless of the number of persons present. Spontaneous public gatherings or demonstrations were virtually unknown.
In February activist Jolovan Wham was fined 3,000 Singapore dollars ($2,250) for illegal assembly at the main entrance to the former State Courts building, a prohibited area, in 2018. Wham was there to attend a hearing on a defamation case against Terry Xu, editor of the news website The Online Citizen, and site contributor Daniel De Costa. Before entering the building, Wham stood on the steps for 15 seconds, holding a piece of paper with the sentence “Drop the charges against Terry Xu and Daniel De Costa” printed on it while a woman photographed him. Shortly afterwards, he posted the photograph on his public social media accounts. After losing an appeal against his sentence in September, Wham spent 15 days in jail instead of paying the fine.
In June police started investigations against several persons, including human rights activists Kirsten Han and Rocky Howe, for holding two public assemblies outside Changi Prison Complex without a permit. The first was a gathering of four persons holding tea-light candles at a vigil outside the prison on March 29, the night before the execution of Abdul Kahar Othman for drug-related offenses. The second was when they and two others posed for photographs outside the prison on April 25, two nights before the execution of Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, also for drug-related offenses. Investigations were continuing as of December. On June 28, Human Rights Watch, the International Commission of Jurists, and five other international human rights NGOs urged authorities to drop their criminal investigations and cease the harassment through legal processes. They also criticized the Public Order Act for its “interferences with the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
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, although an organization may appeal to the minister of home affairs if the registration was unsuccessful and challenge a dissolution in court.
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.