NOTE: I am no longer updating this piece. I've written a new version of this overview, which you can find here.
This backgrounder is adapted from a piece I first wrote for heinrich böll stiftung about freedom of expression and civil liberties in Singapore, published in April 2019. I’ve decided to re-publish it, revising and updating it periodically so it can be used as a sort of one-stop crash course on Singapore and the state of civil and political rights. It’s quite changed from the original by now!
Last updated: 22 December 2020
Singapore’s political context
While Singapore has impressed the world with its economic achievements, there’s much to be desired when it comes to political rights and civil liberties.
It’s essentially a one-party state: the People’s Action Party, or PAP, were voted into power in 1959, and have won every election since. Today, there are 10 opposition Members of Parliament, two Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMP), and nine non-partisan Nominated Members of Parliament in 104-seat House, which means that bills and amendments — even to the Constitution — are easily passed with little to no challenge.
The PAP’s long reign is important to keep in mind, because it forms the political backdrop against which generations of Singaporean lives have unfolded. Singaporeans born after 1959 have no memory of a time when the “Men in White” — a well-known term for the PAP, whose members don white uniforms during election time — haven’t been dominant. For these Singaporeans, there is little distinction between the party and the government, and it’s all tied into our notions of our country. We’ve experienced no other political reality on our island.
This dominance means the PAP has the power to craft narratives and national myths — perpetuated through multiple channels, from the education system to the mainstream media — which shape the political imagination of the people (making it hard to pursue, or even picture, different possibilities) and guide the direction in which the country develops. For example, the idea of an independent media being the “Fourth Estate” is rejected in Singapore; instead, the press was seen as part of the “nation-building” effort, more about informing and educating people about government policies than holding politicians to account. Furthermore, Singaporean understanding of our own history is also often mediated through the government, as access to archival material and other sources can be tricky.
The PAP often frames the situation as a “trade-off” between economic growth and security, and civil and political rights. Singapore’s curbs on civil liberties are portrayed as part of a “social contract” between the people and the state; as the narrative goes, Singaporeans have willingly allowed restrictions on our fundamental freedoms in exchange for clean streets and an attractive-looking GDP.
Freedom of expression and Singapore’s media scene
The restriction of freedom of expression in Singapore is not a recent problem. It can be traced back decades: to laws, such as the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, that brought the mainstream media to heel, and to defamation suits that high-ranking members of the PAP filed against news publications (such as the Far Eastern Economic Review or the International Herald Tribune) and political opponents (such as the late opposition politician J B Jeyaretnam and current secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party Chee Soon Juan). More recently, ordinary citizens have also found themselves on the receiving end of such defamation suits: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong successfully sued blogger Roy Ngerng, and is currently suing financial advisor Leong Sze Hian for sharing an article on Facebook. He is also suing Terry Xu, the chief editor of independent news website The Online Citizen, for an article published on the website.
Such high-profile examples of clampdowns on free speech and press freedom have become part of the Singaporean consciousness, and have been normalised, leading to a culture involving more self-policing than resistance. Journalists in mainstream media newsrooms get used to dealing with calls from government ministries, and some even embrace the fact that they produce propaganda. Self-censorship is rife in Singapore, not just within the media industry, but also among public servants, academics, and ordinary citizens. This culture of self-censorship and fear is widely acknowledged, and has featured in plays like Tan Tarn How’s Fear of Writing and Press Gang.
The lack of space for dissenting viewpoints in the traditional mainstream media gives the Internet extra significance when it comes to political discourse and discussion. Where, in some other countries, the Internet and social media might have simply offered increased convenience in disseminating a range of views, in Singapore, the online sphere is practically the only space that exists for wider political talk that isn’t automatically dominated by the PAP. Over the years, citizen journalists and bloggers, such as those at The Online Citizen, have also reported on, or opened up discussions of, un- or under-reported issues in the mainstream media.
The PAP government previously said that they would regulate the Internet with a “light touch”, but bloggers and journalists have taken issue with moves such as a licensing regime introduced in 2013 that required websites (as identified by the authorities) to register for a licence with the Media Development Authority (since reorganised into the Infocomm Media Development Authority). These websites are expected to put down a performance bond of S$50,000 and commit to removing objectionable content within 24 hours. This “light touch” approach is now considered a thing of the past, particularly with the passage of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, or POFMA.
The Online Citizen, currently Singapore’s longest-running independent news website, has endured a series of government actions that have stifled its growth and development. In 2011, the website was gazetted by the Prime Minister’s Office as a “political association”, which meant that it was required to adhere to political donation laws that banned it from receiving funding from foreign sources and limited the amount of anonymous donations it could receive every year. It was removed from the list of political associations in 2018, then registered with the IMDA under conditions that continue to block the site from receiving any foreign funding.
Over the past decade, more independent media outlets have sprung up online. But starting up is far easier than achieving sustainability, and multiple outlets — such as SIX-SIX and The Middle Ground — have folded over the years due to the lack of funding. With little in the way of local philanthropy or financial backing for independent media ventures, regulatory restrictions (or perceived social taboos) against foreign sources of funding (including grants from foundations), and the lack of a culture of paying for online news, those who have made forays into the Singaporean independent media scene have struggled to balance the books and stay in the black. Those who appear to be thriving, such as Mothership.sg, count government agencies among its long-term advertising partners; an arrangement that would be impossible for more critical outlets.
Apart from these websites, numerous Facebook pages also share political content. Around the 2020 general election period, Facebook removed a few pro-PAP pages for “inauthentic behaviour”.
Further restrictions to civil liberties
While freedom of expression has been a long-term issue for Singapore's political and civil society scene, recent developments have led many to observe that there has been a tightening of control by the PAP government, particularly following the general election in 2015, where the party was returned to power in a position of strength with almost 70% of the vote. (In 2020, they received 61.2% of the vote.)
There have been reports of academics being blacklisted and shut out of employment in academia in Singapore. Public cases include journalism professor Cherian George, who lost his position at the Nanyang Technological University in 2013 after being denied tenure for the second time, artist and assistant professor Lucy Davis, whose Employment Pass was not renewed three years after she lost her permanent residency status, and historian Thum Ping Tjin, who has since been subject to smear campaigns by members of the PAP.
Multiple individuals — including, but not limited to, Singaporean activists — have been called in for investigations into “illegal assemblies”, although none of these gatherings caused any public disturbance.
Singapore’s Public Order Act prohibits public “cause-related events” — even if only one person is involved — unless granted permission by the police. The definition of “cause-related event” is extremely broad: in 2018, The Online Citizen’s chief editor Terry Xu was required to cancel his plans to collect signatures for a parliamentary petition at an MRT station after the police informed him that it would be illegal for him to do so without a permit. In March 2020, two young climate strikers posed separately for photos in which they held up signs drawing attention to Big Oil’s presence in Singapore. Although they hadn’t lingered in those public places, their action still resulted in them being investigated and later issued stern warnings by the police. When activist Jolovan Wham recreated one of their photos — replacing the original placard with one of a smiley face — he was charged for allegedly violating the Public Order Act. Such investigations have also involved confiscations of electronic devices like mobile phones and laptops, leading to concerns about privacy. While most investigations have eventually been concluded with written warnings from the police, some cases, like those of artist Seelan Palay and solo protester Yan Jun, have led to charges and conviction in court.
Non-Singaporeans are not immune to these restrictions, and are in fact even more restricted in terms of expressing themselves in physical spaces. In November 2019, a restaurant owner from Hong Kong was banned from Singapore after he was investigated for allegedly organising a public assembly without a permit. He had organised an event inviting people to share their views about the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. In December 2019, an Indian national was investigated for the same offence after he posted a photo of himself holding a placard protesting India’s citizenship law at Marina Bay. As non-citizens, such individuals are at risk of having their visas revoked and being deported, or even banned, from Singapore.
There is currently no one in Singapore’s civil society with quite as many pending cases as civil rights activist Jolovan Wham. Out of three “illegal assemblies” investigated—an indoor forum on civil disobedience and social movements, a silent protest on an MRT train, and a candlelight vigil for an imminent execution—he was the only one charged. He was also charged for refusing to sign his statement to the police in all three of these investigations; he’s said that, as a principle, he would prefer not to sign documents that he can’t get a copy of. Another charge of vandalism was added because Wham had allegedly put up two signs printed on A4 paper in the MRT carriage during the silent protest. (While there is no caning for the first conviction of vandalism, Wham could be in danger of judicial corporal punishment should he ever be charged with the offence again.) In 2020, Wham was also charged with two further instances of alleged illegal assemblies: in both cases, he had merely posed for photos while holding up signs.
Wham was also the first to be charged and convicted of scandalising the judiciary under Singapore’s Administration of Justice (Protection) Act, alongside Singapore Democratic Party chairman John Tan. Wham had commented on a Facebook post that he found Malaysian judges to be more independent than Singaporean ones when it comes to political cases. After the Attorney-General’s Chambers commenced proceedings against Wham, Tan had commented that their action had merely proved Wham right — this, as it turned out, was also enough to get Tan in hot water. Following conviction, Tan was barred from contesting in the 2020 general election.
In both this contempt of court case and the case of the indoor forum, Wham was convicted and fined. He refused to pay the fines, choosing instead to serve time in prison. He spent one week in prison for the first case, and 10 days for the second.
Apart from the ongoing civil defamation case brought by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, The Online Citizen’s chief editor Terry Xu is also facing a charge of criminal defamation for the publication of a readers’ letter that made reference to “multiple policy and foreign screw-ups, tampering of the Constitution, corruption at the highest echelons”. The author of the letter, Daniel de Costa, has also been charged. The trial is ongoing.
Singapore’s “fake news” bill
The latest piece of legislation with severe implications for freedom of expression in Singapore is the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA). Tabled in the PAP-dominated Parliament on 1 April 2019, the law was passed on 8 May 2019, and came into effect on 2 October 2019.
POFMA is a piece of legislation that has been two years in the making, and is ostensibly about allowing Singapore to combat “fake news” and misinformation campaigns. However, rights groups, press freedom organisations, and businesses alike have pointed out the law’s ambiguous wording, and the fact that it grants the government sweeping powers to determine what is “fake” and dictate the “truth”.
Under POFMA, any government minister is empowered to order correction notices, the removal of content, and the blocking of access to content online. Failure to comply with such orders could result in heavy fines and imprisonment. Although the law allows for appeals to the High Court, these potentially costly appeals can only be made after one has applied to the minister in question for review. In any case, compliance with the order is required from the outset.
The bill also proposes that ministers can make a website or page a “declared online location” as long as it has had three orders against it within the past six months. Once so declared, a website will not be able to generate revenue, whether through ads, subscriptions, or donations. Such a provision, if the bill is passed, could be the death knell for independent news websites like The Online Citizen, for whom funding is a perennial issue.
As of 11 July 2020, POFMA has been used over 70 times by various government ministers or ministries. While the earliest orders were all directed at critics of the PAP, such as Progress Singapore Party member Brad Bowyer, the Singapore Democratic Party, and Lim Tean, leader of People’s Voice, POFMA directions have also been issued against misinformation related to the COVID-19 outbreak in Singapore. Orders have also been issued to internet service providers and internet intermediaries like Facebook to block access to websites and pages, such as the website of Malaysian NGO Lawyers for Liberty, or the Facebook page of the anti-PAP site States Times Review.
During the 2020 general election, permanent secretaries of various government ministries were appointed alternate authorities to the ministers. POFMA orders were issued against claims made by opposition politicians during the campaigning period, but appeared to have little impact on the vote-share. It is notable that, in the period following the election, no new POFMA orders have been issued.
Some POFMA orders have demonstrated the limitations of the law. For instance, the Minister for Communications and Information, S Iswaran, was pushed to issue Facebook an order to disable access to the States Times Review’s Facebook page after the publisher, Alex Tan, refused to comply with earlier correction directions. Tan is a Singaporean who has relocated to Australia; he is now a naturalised Australian citizen. After access to the States Times Review’s page was blocked for Singaporean Facebook users, Tan simply set up a new page. In early May 2020, the government issued orders to block Tan’s own Facebook page, as well as Singapore States Times, another page he was running. In late May 2020, the government once again issued an order to Facebook to block Tan’s new page, National Times Singapore, after Tan continued to ignore POFMA orders. This cat-and-mouse game has continued, with the government issuing disabling orders and Tan shifting to new pages. With him out of the country, there is little more that they can do, even as he ignores their directions.
The Singapore government has been defensive of its use of the law. It has accused the Washington Post of “perpetuating false allegations” in its reporting on POFMA, taking issue with the paper’s decision not to publish the response of the Singapore ambassador to the US in full. Singapore’s High Commissioner to the UK also defended the use of POFMA by rebutting an article in the Economist, as has the Singapore consul-general in Hong Kong.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Singapore, the government has used the law to correct falsehoods about the virus’ spread, and has used the pandemic to justify POFMA’s existence. However, the law has not been used to tackle misinformation circulating on closed messaging apps like WhatsApp; instead, the government has issued public clarifications on their websites and social media platforms in such cases.
Why is the PAP government cracking down on freedom of expression?
There’s been no official reason for the tightening of control, and it is unlikely that there will be one any time soon. But there are theories that this tightening of control is connected to the ongoing leadership transition within the party. The party is in the midst of moving from its third-generation (or 3G) government led by Lee Hsien Loong, to a fourth-generation (or 4G) government led by current Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Heng Swee Keat. Heng, though, has not been particularly inspiring, with his path towards greater prominence described as “awkward”. In the 2020 general election, he led the East Coast GRC team, and won with only about 53% of the vote. Lee has now said that he will not be stepping down until Singapore is returned to a good position after the pandemic.
On top of this, observers are also pointing to “signs of disaffection” even among those who would usually be considered part of the establishment elite. Most obvious, of course, is the extremely high-profile Lee family feud that grabbed headlines internationally in 2017.
Criticism and allegations that come from the prime minister’s own siblings attract more attention and are harder to brush aside than flak from activists and opposition politicians. Although the feud has largely retreated from the media spotlight, Lee Hsien Yang created a stir in 2020 when he joined the new Progress Singapore Party, founded by former PAP Member of Parliament, Tan Cheng Bock.
A COVID-19 election
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong advised President Halimah Yacob to dissolve Parliament on 23 June, and Singaporeans voted on 10 July 2020 even though the country was still in the middle of a gradual opening from a partial lockdown.
Due to concerns about the pandemic, physical rallies were banned, and much of the election campaigning shifted online. Candidates and parties used social media — particularly platforms like Facebook and Instagram — to reach out to their voters, live-streaming and holding talk shows.
Singapore’s electoral process has long been skewed to the advantage of the incumbent PAP; ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a Southeast Asia NGO, released a report ahead of 10 July stating that Singapore’s elections are “neither free nor fair”, and that holding an election during the pandemic could worsen things. It was widely expected that a COVID-19 election would play straight into the PAP’s hands. Opposition politicians openly worried about an “opposition wipeout” delivering a 100% PAP Parliament.
But this did not come to pass. Instead, the opposition made further in-roads into Parliament. The Workers’ Party won 10 seats; they had not only retained Aljunied GRC (won in 2011 at a time when it was believed that opposition parties would never be able to snatch GRCs from the ruling party), but also won the newly formed Sengkang GRC. The Progress Singapore Party were also offered two Non-Constituency Member of Parliament seats. Given the largest presence of opposition in Singapore’s independent history, the Workers’ Party leader Pritam Singh was officially named Leader of the Opposition.
In another encouraging development, the PAP government has also agreed “in principle” to livestream parliamentary sessions, a proposal they had previously resisted.
Singapore’s civil society scene
All that’s been described above makes it difficult for civil society to thrive, mature, and grow in Singapore. But that has not stopped Singaporeans from trying. NGOs continue to serve marginalised communities, walking the tricky line between pushing the boundaries in their advocacy (which tends to displease the authorities), and working with the government to tweak and improve policies. Young Singaporeans have also proven themselves very savvy and adept at using technology and social media to highlight important causes, such as LGBT rights, anti-sexual harassment campaigns, political education, and the climate crisis.
With so many of us more or less house-bound during the “circuit breaker” partial lockdown, civil society organisations and informal groups of Singaporeans have also taken advantage of technology like Zoom to organise webinars and online discussions, reaching large numbers of people. While this would have been difficult to achieve given the restrictions on public assemblies in physical spaces, the Internet and video conferencing technology has offered opportunities to engage in discussions outside of the establishment hegemony.
This also played a role in the 2020 general election, particularly since so much of it was carried out online. Young Singaporeans (including social media influencers) mobilised to share resources and discuss politics on social media. When the police announced that they were opening an investigation into the Workers’ Party candidate Raeesah Khan for old comments she had made on Facebook, Singaporeans rallied behind her online. The strong response pushed the ruling party to acknowledge that young Singaporeans wanted more space to talk about issues like race and racism.
Singapore’s political climate is generally hostile to activism, yet this has not been able to completely suppress an appetite among a segment of the population for more critical discourse and political debate. While the country’s civil society would still be considered immature and still somewhat atomised in comparison with countries with more vibrant grassroots activism and collective organising, it should still be given credit for growing and learning within a difficult environment.
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