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Singapore’s government considers cancelling “cancel culture”

This week: the government considers legislating against “cancel culture”, police get powers to collect DNA from more people, and Shanmugam continues to double down on Singapore’s drug policy.

Kirsten Han
Kirsten Han
5 min read

I’m in Vogue Singapore as part of an article on generations of Singaporean activism, alongside with Constance Singam and Tammy Gan!


Singapore’s biggest cancellers thinking about cancelling cancel culture

During an interview with Bloomberg Television, law and home affairs minister K Shanmugam indicated that the government might come up with a law against “cancel culture”, where free speech is curtailed via aggressive online attacks. He said that people with different viewpoints should be encouraged to express themselves as long as their speech “does not descend to hate speech”.

This was an issue that came up around the Section 377A issue. Shanmugam said that religious groups feel “put upon” for being “attacked as homophobes” when they express their views on the matter.

Seriously, where to even start…

“Cancel culture” is a highly politicised term that’s often deployed by people with positions/views that have traditionally enjoyed privilege and protection in society to claim victimhood when called out. It’s an exercise in power, not in the values of free speech. Just look at what’s happening in Singapore: religious groups complain about “cancel culture” because they’re upset about getting called homophobic and now the government is mulling over legislation against it, even as they resolutely maintain and defend their policy of restricting/censoring LGBTQ content in the media on the grounds of “traditional family values”.

Also, if we really want to talk about “cancelling”, there is no bigger perpetrator of it in Singapore than the ruling party! Critics and political opponents of the PAP have been harassed, investigated, arrested, detained without trial, sued for defamation, black-listed, grey-listed… It’s laughable for them to talk about wanting to protect people from being aggressively attacked for their views, when the PAP and its successive governments aggressively attack people for their views, and have the most power in the country to impose real costs and repercussions. Just ask Jolovan Wham, currently in prison for posing for a photo with a sign for 15 seconds outside the State Courts. Or Zakir Hossain Khokan, who was forced to leave Singapore after the government said he had “overstayed his welcome” after he wrote a poem criticising the treatment of migrant workers.

“There is a line between expression your view on religion and becoming homophobic, or engaging in hate speech against LGBT groups. We’ve got to agree on, you know, these sorts of lines,” Shanmugam told Bloomberg. But why should the government become the arbiter of where this line is?

The idea of an anti-“cancel culture” law still seems to be in the test balloon stage; my impression of Shanmugam’s comments is that it’s something the government is inclined towards, but they haven’t figured out how to do it yet, so it’s not a done deal. May this bad idea remain as a bad idea that never sees the light of day.


Police collection of DNA

The Registration of Criminals (Amendment) Bill has been passed in Parliament, allowing the police to collect DNA from a wider range of people.

Once the amendments are in force, the police will be able to collect DNA from people linked to “eligible” crimes like mischief, unlawful stalking, obscene acts, voluntarily causing hurt, or obstructing a public servant carrying out their public function. It’ll be an offence to refuse giving the police a blood sample “without good cause” (I’m not exactly sure how “good cause” is defined).

The collected DNA will go into a database run by the Health Sciences Authority, and the DNA of people convicted of registrable crimes can also be shared with foreign law enforcement agencies if the police deem it necessary. If one is found to not be involved in the commission of an eligible crime, their information will be automatically removed (although it’s not clear what independent oversight there is to make sure this happens). If charged and convicted, the data stays in the system until the person dies or hits 100, whichever comes first. If charged and acquitted, the person will have to apply to the police to have their data removed, and the police has the option of refusing if they decide that the information is relevant to other cases, or necessary for national security. If you were acquitted of an offence under the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, the minister can issue a certificate saying that they need to keep your data for national security reasons… wait, they can demand your DNA for a FICA offence???!!!

During the parliamentary debate, some MPs raised concerns about data security and consent. Sylvia Lim, for instance, asked how people in positions of less power can be protected from being pressured into volunteering their DNA. She referred to an old case in 2008 where blood samples were taken from 200 migrant workers as part of an investigation into an attack on a student — the government had said that the samples were given voluntarily, but Lim pointed out it was possible that the workers, whose presence in Singapore depends on work permits that could be cancelled at any time, could have worried that refusing to cooperation would threaten their employment. In response, Sun Xueling, the Minister of State for Home Affairs, said that even if that was the case, it “does not negate the consent”. That’s not a reassuring understanding of consent and coercion coming from a senior official.


Shanmugam defends Singapore’s drug policy

In his interview with Bloomberg, Shanmugam also addressed the death penalty for drugs. He was pretty salty: “If 400 people plus three newspaper articles could change government policy, or if Mr Richard Branson could change government policy, then Singapore would not be where it is today.”

Okay. I don’t think any of us suggested that newspaper articles and 400 people in the park would automatically change government policy. But we have seen more people considering and talking about the death penalty these days, and Singaporeans should have the space to have open, evidence-based discussions, not just “War on Drugs” propaganda.

This Twitter thread is a good place to start:

Also related to drugs: Joseph Schooling and Amanda Lim might not be getting the prize money they were supposed to get for winning medals at the SEA and Commonwealth Games because of the drama over their cannabis use.


What’s happening in the region?

🇲🇾 The mandatory death penalty is on its way out in Malaysia, and the government might also replace capital punishment for other offences. The first reading of the Bill to abolish the mandatory death penalty is expected on 4 October, with the second reading on 22 November. There’s also a moratorium on executions in place for the 1,337 prisoners on death row in the country.


The Straits Times made this video on being gay in Singapore and the issues that members of the LGBTQ community face:

That's it for this week! As always, please help me spread the word about this newsletter by sharing this issue.

Weekly Wraps

Kirsten Han Twitter

A Singaporean independent journalist, activist, and cat slave.


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