The Singapore government uses draconian criminal laws and civil defamation suits to harass and prosecute critical voices, including activists, bloggers, and journalists. There is little freedom of assembly. In 2022, after a two-year halt, Singapore resumed executions of death row prisoners, despite widespread international condemnation. On November 29, Singapore’s parliament voted to repeal the colonial-era law criminalizing sexual relations between men. However, there are still no legal protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Freedom of Assembly and Expression
The Hostile Information Campaigns provisions of the overbroad and ambiguous Foreign Interference (Counter-Measures) Act (FICA) went into effect on July 7. The law gives sweeping powers to the home minister to require removal or disabling of online content, publication of mandatory messages drafted by the government, banning of apps from being downloaded in Singapore, and disclosure of information by internet and social media companies. The minister’s authority under the law is reinforced by severe criminal penalties and judicial review is limited to only procedural matters.
The government can also designate individuals as “politically significant persons” who can be required to follow strict limits on receiving funding and disclose all links with foreigners. The law’s broad language encompasses a wide range of ordinary activities by civil society activists, academics, and journalists who engage with non-Singaporeans.
The government maintains strict restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly through the Public Order Act (POA), requiring a police permit for any “cause-related” assembly if it is held in a public place, or in a private venue if members of the public are invited. The definition of an “assembly” is extremely broad, and those who fail to obtain the required permits face criminal charges.
The Public Order Act provides the police commissioner with authority to reject any permit application for an assembly or procession “directed towards a political end” if any foreigner is involved.
Attacks on Human Rights Defenders
Singapore’s restrictive laws are frequently used against activists and media critical of the government. On February 25, activist Jolovan Wham was sentenced to a fine of S$3,000 (US$2,100), or 15 days in prison in lieu of the fine, under the Public Order Act. The “assembly” for which he was convicted consisted of posing for a photo outside the courthouse while holding a sign calling for charges against journalist Terry Xu to be dropped. On September 9, a High Court judge dismissed his appeal. However, on March 3, the Attorney General’s Office withdrew charges of unlawful assembly against Wham for an earlier instance in which he stood in public holding a sign with a “smiley face.”
In April, Terry Xu, editor of The Online Citizen, a news website shut down by the government in 2021, received a jail sentence for criminal defamation related to a letter to the editor published by the outlet. The author was sentenced to three months and three weeks in jail.
In June, police called in for questioning activists Kirsten Han and Rocky Howe about a four-person vigil in March outside Changi Prison, and a photograph taken outside the prison in April. The vigil was held the night of Abdul Kahar Othman’s execution, and the photograph was taken two nights before Nagaenthran Dharmalingam’s hanging. They are being investigated for violating the Public Order Act. Han potentially faces a fine of up to S$5,000 (US$3,500) and imprisonment for up to six months under Criminal Procedure Code section 39 for refusing to surrender passwords to her social media accounts.
Criminal Justice System
The death penalty is mandated for many drug offenses and certain other crimes. However, under provisions introduced in 2012, judges have some discretion to bypass the mandatory penalty and sentence low-level offenders to life in prison and caning. There is little transparency on the timing of executions, which often take place with short notice.
After a two-year hiatus in executions, authorities have issued 14 execution notices since November 2021. In 2022, Singapore executed 11 people, including Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, a Malaysian man with an intellectual disability. In April, the authorities issued an execution notice to Malaysian Dachinmurty Kataiah, even though he had a pending civil claim against the attorney-general over the unauthorized disclosure of his personal letters. The Court of Appeal granted a stay of execution, noting that it appeared Datchinmurthy had been “singled out” for execution.
Lawyers defending inmates on death row have faced harassment and punitive cost orders, obstructing inmates’ access to legal counsel and right to a fair trial.
Use of corporal punishment is common in Singapore. For medically fit males ages 16 to 50, caning is mandatory for a wide range of crimes. Such caning constitutes torture under international law.
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
On November 29, Singapore’s parliament voted to repeal section 377A of the criminal code, outlawing sexual relations between two male persons. On the same day, the parliament passed constitutional amendments to prevent future legal challenges to the current definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman, effectively blocking any challenges relating to the definition of marriage from being brought to court. There are no legal protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Singapore precludes LGBT groups from registering and operating legally.
In May, Parliament passed the Adoption of Children Act, which limits eligibility to adopt children to couples whose marriage would be recognized in Singapore, precluding adoption by same-sex couples. The minister for Social and Family Development reiterated in parliament that the government, as a matter of public policy, “does not support the formation of same-sex family units.”
Migrant Workers and Labor Exploitation
Foreign migrant workers face labor rights abuses and exploitation through exorbitant debts owed to recruitment agents, non-payment of wages, restrictions on movement, confiscation of passports, and sometimes physical and sexual violence. Foreign women employed as domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to violence.
Migrants’ work permits are tied to a particular employer, making workers extremely vulnerable to intimidation and exploitation. Foreign domestic workers, who are covered by the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act rather than the Employment Act, are excluded from many key labor protections, such as limits on daily work hours and sick leave and annual leave protections.
Many migrant workers in Singapore are housed in crowded dormitories. Under regulations put in place in June 2020 and in effect until June 2022, migrant workers needed an “exit pass” from their employer to leave their dormitory. Now they are still required to get a “visit pass” to go to four popular locations in Singapore on Sundays or public holidays.
In June, the Ministry of Manpower declined to renew the work permit of Zakir Hossain Khokan, who had been working in Singapore for 19 years, claiming that his Facebook post from October 2021 about the treatment of migrant workers was “false” and that he had “overstayed his welcome.”
Key International Actors
Singapore is a regional hub for international business and maintains good political and economic relations with both China and the United States, which considers the city-state a key security ally.