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Events of 2023

A vigil in Singapore for Tangaraju Suppiah, who was hanged for conspiring to traffic cannabis.

© How Hwee Young/EPA 2023, via Shutterstock

Singapore’s criminal justice system fell under the international spotlight as the authorities carried out the highest number of executions for drug-related offenses in over a decade, including the first woman put to death in almost 20 years. The government harassed, intimidated, and persecuted civil society activists and independent media practitioners in the lead-up to presidential elections in September, which saw the election of Tharman Shanmugaratnam, a former deputy prime minister and finance minister, to the largely ceremonial post.

Singapore abolished article 377A of the penal code, the colonial-era provision criminalizing same-sex relations between men. The 15th annual Pink Dot pride event on June 24 drew thousands of participants to rally around the theme of “celebrating all families,” but marriage equality remains an uphill battle after the government approved a constitutional amendment to bar legal challenges to the current definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman.

Criminal Justice System

Singapore provides for the use of the death penalty for drug-related offenses and other crimes. Despite widespread international condemnation, the Singaporean government continued to defend its renewed use of the death penalty for drug-related offenses following a two-year Covid-related hiatus in executions that ended in March 2022.

As of November 2023, Singapore has executed 16 people for drug-related offenses since executions resumed. On April 26, Tagaraju Suppia was executed for his involvement in the trafficking of one kilogram of cannabis in 2013. The United Nations human rights office, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), issued an urgent call to not proceed with the execution on grounds that the penalty was not appropriate for a drug trafficking offense and was out of line with “international norms and standards.”

During one week between July and August 2023, Singapore conducted three back-to-back executions, including of Saridewi Djamani, the first woman to be executed in the country in almost two decades.

Women’s and Girls’ Rights

Women and girls in Singapore experience sexual and gender-based violence as well as various forms of workplace discrimination, including a lack of legal protections for pregnant employees. Sexual harassment at work remains prevalent, pushing women to leave their jobs and impacting their financial stability. The Singaporean government has taken a positive step for labor rights by enshrining in law the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices (TGFEP), which seeks to prevent discrimination in the world of work. The government has not ratified the International Labour Organization Violence and Harassment Convention (C190), which requires comprehensive protections to end violence and harassment, including gender-based violence, at work.

Freedom of Expression

Singapore frequently uses overly broad and restrictive laws to silence criticism of the government and restrict the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), enacted in 2019, gives the government broad discretionary powers to censor online content. The government used the law repeatedly this year to silence, investigate, and persecute independent media, opposition politicians, and critical civil society actors, forcing them to post subjective government-determined “corrections” and intimidating others to exercise self-censorship.

In May, the government targeted The Online Citizen (TOC) chief editor Terry Xu for publishing an article on TOC’s website that made allegations against the police and issued a demand for a correction. The authorities had previously targeted Xu and the TOC numerous times for reporting critical of the government. As a result of the government’s legal harassment, the TOC moved its operations out of Singapore.

In June, the authorities used the POFMA against the independent media outlet Asia Sentinel for a May 24 article about retaliation against a Singaporean whistleblower. When Asia Sentinel refused to publish the POFMA notice, authorities blocked the website in Singapore. In a statement, the media outlet referred to the POFMA as a “draconian provision” deliberately used by the government to silence critics.

In July, the government enacted the Online Criminal Harms Act, which grants additional sweeping powers to restrict and remove online content on overly broad grounds that could undermine freedom of expression.

The Hostile Information Campaigns provisions of the Foreign Interference (Counter-Measures) Act (FICA) provide broad powers to the home minister to require the 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 to 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.

Freedom of Assembly

The government maintains tight 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 POA provides the police commissioner with the 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

The Singaporean government also cracked down on critical views by silencing human rights defenders under the guise of protecting its judicial system.

In a letter to the Singaporean government made public in January 2023, Mary Lawlor, the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, expressed deep concern about government suppression and intimidation against human rights defenders Kirsten Han and Rocky Howe for their advocacy opposing the death penalty in Singapore.

In March, the Singaporean High Court suspended the law license of human rights defender and lawyer Ravi Madasamy for five years. Madasamy has played a critical role in defending death row detainees and earned the ire of the government, courts, and legal establishment for his sharp criticisms, which the government has repeatedly claimed undermine the judiciary.