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Migrant workers outside their dormitory rooms at Cochrane Lodge II, which was declared an isolation area due to the outbreak of Covid-19, in Singapore, April 16, 2020. © 2020 REUTERS/Edgar Su

(Bangkok) – Singapore’s government further restricted free expression and peaceful assembly in the city-state in 2020, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021. The authorities used harsh and overly broad laws to prosecute speech criticizing the government or arbitrarily label it “false” or “misleading,” and ordered social media platforms to block content or face dire penalties.

“The Singapore government’s knee-jerk reaction is to harass or prosecute anyone for expressing disagreeable opinions rather than engaging with its critics,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Behind Singapore’s gleaming façade of modernity is a government wholly intolerant of peaceful protest.”
In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort. 

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), which took effect in October 2019, 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. As of mid-2020, the government had invoked POFMA more than 50 times, primarily against people or publications that criticized the government or its policies.

Ministers issued several correction notices to opposition politicians or political parties during the nine-day election campaign in July.

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 March, the Court of Appeal upheld the conviction of activist Jolovan Wham for contempt of court for stating on Facebook that “Malaysia’s judges are more independent than Singapore’s for cases with political implications.”

On July 28, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s nephew, Li Shengwu, was found guilty of contempt and fined S$15,000 (US$11,000) for a 2017 private Facebook post in which he said the Singapore government is “very litigious and has a pliant court system.”

Singaporean law defines an assembly extremely broadly, and those who fail to obtain the required permits face criminal charges. Even solo protests are treated as assemblies under the Public Order Act. In November, Jolovan Wham was charged with holding an unlawful assembly for holding up a cardboard sign with solely a smiley face on it near a police station. In April, the police investigated two students who held solo “climate protests” without seeking police permission. In each case, the student simply posed for a photograph holding a sign, as part of the global “Fridays for Future” movement, and posted the images on social media.

Foreign migrant workers, who are generally housed in crowded and unsanitary dormitories and commute to work on crowded buses, were disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. While Singapore initially had success in controlling Covid-19 transmission in the country, it essentially left migrant workers’ out of the national strategy. A surge of cases among migrant workers in early April led the government to put all dormitories on lockdown. While some essential workers were moved, almost 300,000 migrants were confined to hot, overcrowded rooms with little ventilation, leaving them at risk of infection. As of August 13, 52,516 dormitory residents had tested positive for the coronavirus, more than 90 percent of all reported cases in Singapore.

“Singapore’s shoddy treatment of migrant workers in overcrowded, unsanitary dormitories shows that migrant workers’ rights are callously violated in the country,” Robertson said. “It’s sadly typical that Singapore gave so little thought to the welfare of migrant workers even as they were struck by the Covid-19 outbreak.”

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