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#35: Hug your loved ones "a little longer and a little tighter".

We’re now in that time of year where we all start winding down and looking back. I don’t know about you, but I’m super excited about the holidays. I think I’m actually going to take Christmas to the New Year off (I really need it), which means this is going to be the last issue of the newsletter for the year.

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A child and his fathers

I’m starting this week’s newsletter with some good news. The High Court has overturned a previous decision that barred a Singaporean gay man from adopting the child he fathered via a surrogate. The decision means that he’ll be able to formally adopt his child—who can then apply for Singaporean citizenship—and raise the boy with his long-time partner. It’s fantastic news for the family; I love how the father told TODAY that he and his partner hugged their five-year-old son “a little longer and a little tighter”.

This doesn’t automatically signal a new era for same-sex families in Singapore, though. Under Section 377A of the Penal Code, gay men are still essentially criminals, and this decision by the High Court doesn’t touch that. Lawyer Remy Choo breaks down for us, clearly and concisely, how narrow the basis of the decision in this case was.

The Ministry for Family and Social Development, who opposed the man’s appeal to adopt his own son, has said they’ll study the judgment and “consider if the relevant policies and legislation need to be reviewed and further strengthened.” The minister, Desmond Lee, has also come out to reiterate that the Singapore government doesn’t support the formation of same-sex families.

So this can’t be counted as a big win for Singapore’s LGBT rights movement, but it still warms my heart to know that at least one family is going to have a very happy, love-filled Christmas. 🎄

The “light touch” is dead, long live the “light touch”

There was a time when the PAP government said they would govern the Internet with a “light touch”. Unfortunately for all of us, what Singapore’s experiencing right now is more like clumsy, insistent groping.

Last weekend, the Infocomm Media Development Authority blocked access to the Singapore Herald because their editors didn’t take down “objectionable” articles on the Singapore-Malaysia maritime dispute.

It’s been a busy period for the IMDA because they also wrote to The Online Citizen—whose chief editor has been charged with criminal defamation—to “remind” them that they can only receive money from “verified local sources”.

This means that Singaporeans who donate to TOC have to provide their full name and IC numbers to prove that they really are citizens. In a climate like Singapore’s where there are still many people who are afraid of associating with “dissenters” like opposition parties or alternative websites, such requirements could actually put people off donating. (I know this firsthand because I’ve had people come up to me saying that they’re apprehensive about supporting New Naratif after seeing the government’s reaction to us, because they’re afraid of being found out to be members.)

What interests me most about what the IMDA has been up to these days is how it demonstrates the power that they already have. They’ve been able to demand that people and websites remove content without six hours, and they’re able to block websites. So why do we need more laws, more powers, to combat “fake news”?

On the role of the Attorney-General

Despite his little swipe at “people posing as human rights activists” (who is he talking about, I wonder? 🤔) I enjoyed reading this op-ed by former Attorney-General Walter Woon, in which he argues that the two functions of the Attorney-General be split up.

In Singapore, the Attorney-General is the government’s legal adviser—acting as their lawyer when necessary—and also the public prosecutor. The problem comes in when people aren’t able to tell which role the AG is playing at any particular point of time. I think this is especially problematic since our government has been dominated by one party for so long; as Woon says, there are plenty who believe that the AG is acting on the government’s instructions when they decide to prosecute certain individuals. (And hey, having an AG who used to be Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s personal lawyer and a deputy AG who was a former PAP MP doesn’t exactly help the optics.)

In an environment like Singapore’s, splitting up the two functions isn’t going to entirely silent concerns over of the public prosecutor’s perceived independence (or lack thereof), but it could help to deal with some conflicts of interests. For example, in death penalty cases, the AG acts as the public prosecutor at the trial and appeal stage. However, when it comes to appeal to the President (who defers to the Cabinet) for clemency, the AG steps in as the government’s legal adviser to provide advice on the case. It’s a scenario that clearly highlights the conflict. So I think we should give Woon’s suggestion a little more thought.

Still got some more…

The Ministry of Home Affairs has announced that the amendments to the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act will take effect on 1 January 2019. This temporary law that allows for preventive detention without trial has been in place since 1955, undermining the definition of the word “temporary”.

A Chinese national based in Shanghai has filed an application to declare Lim Tean, the leader of Singapore’s newest opposition party, bankrupt. He says Lim hasn’t repaid a loan of US$150,000. Lim is fighting the application. Bankrupts aren’t allowed to stand for elections, so if Lim’s declared bankrupt, he’ll be out of the running even before the race officially begins.

A nurse mixed up the dose selection and rate selection on a machine and ended up giving an elderly woman 10 times more anaesthesia than she should have had. 😱 Still, the coroner found that she had died of natural causes and that there was no direct link between the overdose and her death.

Looking ahead

Since this is the final issue for the year, I thought I’d do a bit of a look-ahead for 2019.

There are more than enough whispers about the general election taking place next year. Lee Hsien Loong will still be leading the party, but it’ll be the last election he’s going to fight at the helm of the PAP as they transition towards the 4G leadership.

What civil society is worried about, though, is that the election and leadership transition will bring a clampdown (which is arguably already happening). We’re still waiting on new anti-fake news legislation, which would be yet another lever of control the PAP government can hold over the heads of independent news websites, bloggers and journalists.

I’ll also be keeping my eye on the courts in 2019: Jolovan is still waiting for sentencing for his contempt of court case (as is John Tan), and also the verdict for his first illegal assembly trial. Then, of course, he has all his other charges to go. Terry Xu of TOC and Daniel de Costa will also have their criminal defamation charges to face, while Leong Sze Hian grapples with being sued by the prime minister. The Workers’ Party members, too, are waiting on the outcome of the lawsuit over the management of town councils under their charge.

2019 is also the 200th anniversary of Raffles’ landing in Singapore (and the 60th anniversary of the PAP coming to power), and we’re going to have the bicentennial commemoration of our own colonisation. 😐 I feel like this is a good time to point out that Michael Barr’s Singapore: A Modern History is pretty affordable on Book Depository.

Events and announcements

It’s Coda Culture’s 2018 annual show this evening from 7pm!

The International Center for Nonviolent Conflict is calling for applications for a seven-week online course on civil resistance entitled “Civil Resistance Struggles: How Ordinary People Win Rights, Freedom, and Justice”. It goes from 7 February to 29 March.

About the neighbours

This week, I’d like to point to two longform pieces on New Naratif about West Papua, which is such an under-covered part of Southeast Asia. Indonesia has occupied West Papua for decades, and our stories point to the challenges that independent Papuan journalists and pro-independence Papuan political prisoners face.

New Naratif, too, is gearing up for 2019 and raising funds to keep producing our stories—if you haven’t yet, please support our work and sign up as a member. You can also buy a copy of our book online.

And that’s it for this year! I hope everyone has a great Christmas and a happy New Year. And now I’ll leave you with Sebuah Lagu.