On Freedom of Expression and Civil Liberties in Singapore


Jolovan Wham is getting very familiar with the inside of police stations and courtrooms. The Singaporean activist currently has multiple cases pending against him, ranging from investigations up to convictions and sentencing. His offences, alleged or otherwise, include organising illegal assemblies, vandalism, refusing to sign statements to the police, and scandalising the judiciary. He is, according the Singapore Police Force, to be described as “recalcitrant”.

Wham’s current experiences are visible manifestations of an observed tightening of control by the People’s Action Party government, particularly at a time of political transition, where wild cards like a family feud on social media have hinted at splits within Singapore’s elite establishment circle.

Singapore’s political context

While Singapore has impressed the world with its economic achievements over the decades, there’s much to be desired when it comes to questions of political rights and civil liberties. It’s essentially a one-party state; the People’s Action Party, or PAP, were voted into power on 1959, and have won every election since. Today, there are only nine opposition Members of Parliament in a 100-seat House.

This background is important to keep in mind, not because I’m trying to argue a case for or against the PAP’s hold on power, but because this is the political context against which generations of Singaporean lives have unfolded. Singaporeans below the age of 60 will 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—have not been dominant on the island. For these generations of Singaporeans, the PAP is the government, and the government is PAP. We have known no other political reality in our country.

This dominance has allowed the PAP 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 and guide the direction in which the country develops.

For example, the PAP often portrays issues as a “trade-off” between economic growth and security, and human and political rights. Singapore’s curbs on civil liberties are portrayed as being 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 in Singapore

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.

Such high-profile examples of clampdowns on free speech and press freedom become part of the Singaporean consciousness. Journalists in mainstream media newsrooms get used to dealing with calls from government ministries, and some even embrace that 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, mentioned not only in (usually foreign) media reporting, but also 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 the 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 had previously said that they would regulate the Internet with a “light touch”, but bloggers and online journalists have taken issue with moves such as a licensing regime introduced in 2013 that required particular websites 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 (32,716€) and commit to removing objectionable content within 24 hours.

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 has proven to be easier than sustainability; multiple outlets—such as Inconvenient Questions, 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 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 in Singapore 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.

More recent developments

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 per cent of the vote.

The Parliament House, Singapore

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 Singaporean activists have been called in for investigations into “illegal assemblies”, although none of these gatherings caused any public disturbance. Some of these investigations have led to confiscations of mobile phones and laptops. Most investigations were eventually concluded with written warnings from the police, but cases like artist Seelan Palay and solo protester Yan Jun shows the authorities’ willingness to use public order laws even against individuals acting alone.

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—only Jolovan Wham was charged. He was also charged for refusing to sign his statement to the police in all three of these investigations; he has said that, as a principle, he would prefer not to sign documents that he cannot 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.)

Wham is also the first to be charged and convicted of scandalising the judiciary under Singapore’s Administration of Justice (Protection) Act, alongside Singapore Democratic Party political 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. The two are currently awaiting sentencing from the High Court.

The Online Citizen, who has been singled out numerous times over the years by various PAP members, is once again in the line of fire, as chief editor Terry Xu has been charged with 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.

Also pending are contempt of court proceedings against Li Shengwu, nephew of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Li’s father, Lee Hsien Yang, and his aunt, Lee Wei Ling, are currently locked in a bitter feud with their elder brother, who they have accused of misusing his power. Li had published a “friends only” post on Facebook in which he mentioned that “the Singapore Government is very litigious and has a pliant court system”.

Further threats to freedom of expression: 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 Bill (POFMA), tabled on 1 April 2019. It is expected to have its second and third reading in Parliament in May.

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 to ambiguous wording in the bill, and the fact that it would grant the government sweeping powers to determine what is “fake” and dictate the “truth”.

Under POFMA, any government minister would be able 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 long jail sentences. Although the bill does allow 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 would 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 a struggling website like The Online Citizen.

Fake news bills, a rising trend in many Southeast Asian countries

Why is the PAP government cracking down on freedom of expression?

While there has been no official reason for the crackdown—and it’s unlikely there’ll be one any time soon, as the PAP government would probably not even acknowledge that there is a crackdown—there have been theories that this tightening of control is connected to the ongoing leadership transition within the party. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said that he intends to step down from the premiership shortly after the next general election, due to be called by 2021 (but widely expected to be called earlier). Current Minister of Finance Heng Swee Keat is seen as the anointed successor following his appointment as first assistant secretary-general of the PAP in the last party election.

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 has openly backed former PAP Member of Parliament, Tan Cheng Bock, who has since set up his own political party with an eye on contesting the upcoming election. When Lee Hsien Loong sued financial advisor Leong Sze Hian for defamation, his younger brother donated a “meaningful sum” to Leong’s legal fund.

The broader Southeast Asian context

Singapore’s “fake news” bill and crackdown on freedom of expression comes at a time when press freedom and civil liberties are under assault in the region. From the sustained harassment of journalist Maria Ressa and Rappler in the Philippines to blasphemy convictions in Indonesia, press freedom and freedom of expression are consistently under attack in Southeast Asia.

Apart from Singapore, other Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam have also introduced cyberlaws that seek to extend government control into relatively free-wheeling social media spaces. There are concerns that Singapore’s POFMA, once passed and implemented, could end up being inspiration for other authoritarian governments seeking to pass legislation that would give them power over public discourse.

It’s a difficult time for civil liberties and human rights activists right now, not only in Singapore, but in many other parts of this region. Unfortunately, the concerns of the broader public are often fixated on “bread and butter” issues such as the cost of living, income, and housing. While understandable, this focus obscures the importance of such fundamental rights to a functioning democracy in which people are able to live and air their views with dignity and without fear.

What we have to brace ourselves for, then, is a long journey ahead. During this time, activist efforts might bear little visible signs of success, but cannot be underestimated or done away with, for the political education and the learning in the doing is in itself crucial to progress.