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Singapore: Free Expression Restrictions Tighten

New ‘Online Falsehoods’ Law Further Curbs Rights

Participants of Pink Dot, an annual event organized in support of the LGBT community, call for the repeal of Section 377A of Singapore’s Penal Code, June 29, 2019. © 2019 Feline Lim/Reuters

(Bangkok) – Singapore’s government placed greater restrictions on the country’s already sharply curtailed free expression rights in 2019, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2020

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), which took effect in October, permits a single government minister to declare that information posted online is “false,” and to order the content’s “correction” or removal if deemed to be in the public interest.

“Singapore’s long intolerance of free expression virtually ensures the online falsehoods law will be used to silence dissenters,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The law’s mere existence has already led critics of the government to self-censor online. Singapore’s trading partners should tell the government that every new restraint on free expression makes the country a less hospitable place to invest and do business.”

In the 652-page World Report 2020, its 30th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the Chinese government, which depends on repression to stay in power, is carrying out the most intense attack on the global human rights system in decades. He finds that Beijing’s actions both encourage and gain support from autocratic populists around the globe, while Chinese authorities use their economic clout to deter criticism from other governments. It is urgent to resist this assault, which threatens decades of progress on human rights and our future.

The online falsehoods law applies to digital content that is accessible in Singapore regardless of where the content was posted and to platforms such as WhatsApp and Signal. It provides criminal penalties for failure to comply with such orders. The law was first invoked in November for comments posted on social media that questioned the independence of state investment firms.

Singapore authorities also use existing laws to penalize peaceful expression and protest, with activists, lawyers, and online media facing prosecution, civil defamation suits, and threats of contempt of court charges. In April, Jolovan Wham, an activist, and John Tan, an opposition politician, were fined S$5,000 (US$3,620) each for “scandalizing the judiciary” on social media in violation of Singapore’s broad contempt laws.

Terry Xu, editor of The Online Citizen, one of Singapore’s few alternative news sites, is facing both criminal and civil defamation charges for material published on the platform. In September, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sued Xu for civil defamation after The Online Citizen published claims made against Lee by his siblings about the disposition of the home of his father, Lee Kuan Yew.

Singapore’s law defines an assembly extremely broadly, and those who fail to obtain the required permits face criminal charges. Wham was convicted in January of violating the Public Order Act by permitting Joshua Wong, a Hong Kong citizen, to participate in an indoor conference via Skype without first obtaining a police permit. He was sentenced to 16 days in jail or a fine of S$3,200 (US$2,357). In October, the High Court dismissed Wham’s appeal.

Singapore retains the death penalty, which is mandated for many drug offenses and certain other crimes. There is little transparency on the timing of executions, which often take place with short notice. While the number of those executed in 2019 is uncertain, a Malaysian man was executed in March despite pending petitions for clemency, and another Malaysian man was executed in November. The Law and Home Affairs Ministries strongly defended the country’s use of the death penalty in response to calls for clemency by Malaysian officials. Ten people were notified in July that their clemency petitions had been rejected. 

Singapore criminalizes consensual sexual relations between men under criminal code section 377A, and systematically censors or severely restricts any positive media or public depiction of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. In November, the government defended the constitutionality of section 377A to the court hearing three constitutional challenges to the law.

Foreign migrant workers also face labor rights abuses and exploitation through debts owed to recruitment agents, non-payment of wages, restrictions on movement, confiscation of passports, and sometimes physical and sexual abuse. In June, Singapore was one of only six countries to abstain from a new International Labour Organization convention against violence and discrimination in the workplace.

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