(New York) – Singapore heightened restrictions on and harassment of activists and bloggers over the past year, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2017.

In the 687-page World Report, its 27th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that a new generation of authoritarian populists seeks to overturn the concept of human rights protections, treating rights as an impediment to the majority will. For those who feel left behind by the global economy and increasingly fear violent crime, civil society groups, the media, and the public have key roles to play in reaffirming the values on which rights-respecting democracy has been built. 

Participants form a giant pink dot at the Speakers' Corner in Hong Lim Park in Singapore on June 4, 2016. The annual Pink Dot festival promotes an acceptance of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community in Singapore. 

© 2016 Reuters

“Singapore’s authoritarian grip tightened on alternative social and political views in 2016,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “As the second anniversary of Lee Kuan Yew’s death approaches, his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, is imposing a mix of absolute political control and repression of dissenting voices that was his father’s hallmark.”

Singaporean authorities regularly used vague and overly broad legal provisions on public order, morality, security, and racial and religious harmony to sharply limit what its citizens can express, and actively harass and prosecute outspoken activists and bloggers.

Public demonstrations and other assemblies remained severely limited, with a permit required for any assembly outside the so-called “Speakers Corner” of Hong Lim Park. In late October, the Ministry of Home Affairs announced new regulations governing events in the park. One of the new regulations provides that any company that is not registered in Singapore and does not have a majority of Singapore citizens on its board is now required to have a permit to sponsor events in the park. The new rule appears to be aimed at discouraging foreign companies from supporting the annual LGBT pride event, the Pink Dot festival, which last year was sponsored by companies such as Google, Barclays, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Bloomberg, Twitter, Apple, and Facebook.

As the second anniversary of Lee Kuan Yew’s death approaches, his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, is imposing a mix of absolute political control and repression of dissenting voices that was his father’s hallmark.

Phil Robertson

Deputy Asia Director

In May 2016, police searched the homes of outspoken activists Roy Ngerng and Teo Soh Lung, seizing phones and computers, and subjecting both to hours of interrogation. The two were investigated for allegedly violating an election law restricting political campaigning during a “cooling off” period by making posts on their personal Facebook pages, despite the fact that the law specifically exempts from the ban the posting of personal political views.

In June, a court sentenced 17-year-old blogger Amos Yee to six weeks in prison after convicting him of “wounding religious feelings” in posts on social media. Earlier in the year, Yang Kaiheng and Ai Takagi, the two founders of online news portal The Real Singapore, were sentenced to prison after pleading guilty to sedition for publishing articles with allegedly “anti-foreign” content.

In August, the government passed the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act, which provides penalties of up to three years in prison for several forms of contempt of court. The law includes the archaic offense of “scandalizing the judiciary,” which Singapore’s government has repeatedly used to penalize anyone who dared criticize the judiciary or judicial decisions.

Singapore uses the Internal Security Act (ISA) and Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act to arrest and administratively detain persons for virtually unlimited periods without charge or judicial review. On October 6, the Ministry of Home Affairs stated that 17 individuals were currently detained under the ISA, and an additional 25 had been issued with restraining orders under the law. There is little publicly available information about those detained or the basis for their detentions.

Singapore retains the death penalty, which is mandated for many drug offenses and certain other crimes. Use of corporal punishment is also very common. For medically fit males ages 16 to 50, caning is mandatory as an additional punishment for a range of crimes, including drug trafficking, violent crimes, and some immigration offenses.

Foreign migrant workers in Singapore are subject to labor abuses and exploitation through debt bondage to recruitment agents, non-payment of wages, restrictions on movement, confiscation of passports, and sometimes physical and sexual abuse. In March, a Singapore couple was convicted of starving their domestic worker, who lost more than 20 kilograms during her 15 months of employment.

“Singapore’s citizens face an ongoing regimen of explicit and implicit repression, justified in the name of economic growth and social harmony, and are forced to self-censor or face arrest,” Robertson said. “This narrowing space for free expression undermines Singapore’s claim to be a global center for commerce and communication.”