Singapore: Tightening the Screws on Speech

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Migrant workers at a building construction site in Singapore, May 29, 2021.
© 2021 Suhaimi Abdullah/NurPhoto via AP

(New York) – The Singapore government ramped up its all-encompassing control over speech and association in 2021 with a new law aimed at ostensible foreign interference, and unrelenting harassment and prosecutions of the few critical voices, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2022.

“Singapore’s new Foreign Interference Act makes a dire situation for free expression and association even worse,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The law will reach beyond the usual government targets to academics, researchers, artists, and others who previously had some leeway to express opinions, share information, and advocate on matters of public interest.”

In the 752-page World Report 2022, its 32nd edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. Executive Director Kenneth Roth challenges the conventional wisdom that autocracy is ascendent. In country after country, large numbers of people have recently taken to the streets, even at the risk of being arrested or shot, showing that the appeal of democracy remains strong. Meanwhile, autocrats are finding it more difficult to manipulate elections in their favor. Still, he says, democratic leaders must do a better job of meeting national and global challenges and of making sure that democracy delivers on its promised dividends.

The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, passed by Parliament on October 4, allows the home minister to order the removal or disabling of online content and mandatory publication of government-drafted notices, based on his “suspicion” that action is being taken on behalf of a foreign principal. An authority appointed by the minister would also be able to designate individuals or entities as “politically significant,” after which they will be forbidden to accept donations or voluntary labor from “impermissible donors” who are not Singapore citizens or entities.

Singapore’s restrictive laws were frequently used against activists and media outlets critical of the government. Activist Jolovan Wham faced multiple charges under the Public Order Act for peaceful activities, including standing by himself with a sign. The editor of The Online Citizen, one of the few independent alternative media voices in the country, faced civil and criminal defamation suits, and charges of contempt of court. On September 14 the Infocomm Media Development Authority suspended The Online Citizen’s license for alleged violation of media funding rules.

Singapore has no legal protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. In May, the government warned the US Embassy “not to interfere” in domestic political or social matters, including “how sexual orientation should be dealt with in public policy,” after the embassy co-hosted a webinar with a Singapore nongovernmental organization that supports LGBTIQ individuals.

Migrant workers in Singapore, many of whom are required to live in crowded dormitories, have not been permitted to leave those dorms except for work for more than 18 months under Covid-19 related restrictions. In September, the government announced a pilot program to allow some migrant workers to leave the dorms to visit designated areas, but the numbers permitted out were very small compared to those currently confined.

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