HUMAN RIGHTS IN SINGAPORE

HUMAN RIGHTS IN SINGAPORE

In Singapore freedom of speech and press is limited. Some human rights group rank Singapore with Haiti, Kuwait and Malaysia on political rights and civil liberties. Before 2004 public speakers needed police permits to express themselves inside buildings. In 2004 the practice was ended if speakers promised not to talk about religion or race.

Belmont Lay wrote in Yahoo News, “In parliament, we have the Nominated Member of Parliament scheme. One of the roles of the NMP is to serve as the token opposition. But of course, they aren't real opposition like the Chee Soon Juan type of opposition. It is kind of like an endorsed, "lite" version. Next, there is Hong Lim Park, specifically set aside so people can go and demonstrate with picket signs. Away from the streets and roads where other people cannot see them.[Source: Belmont Lay, The Flipside, Yahoo News, April 5, 2013]

The Ministry of Home Affairs’s Internal Security Department enforces the Internal Security Act as a counter to potential espionage, international terrorism, threats to racial and religious harmony, and subversion. According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2005 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the government maintains effective control over all security activities, but there were some reports of human rights abuses of detainees by security forces during the year. The government generally respects the human rights of its citizens, but, nevertheless, retains broad powers to limit citizen rights and to handicap the political opposition. Caning, in addition to imprisonment, has been a routine punishment for numerous offenses. Preventive detention has been used to deal with espionage, terrorism, organized crime, and narcotics. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Citizens’ privacy rights occasionally have been infringed, and the government has restricted freedom of speech and freedom of the press and limited other civil and political rights. Government pressure to conform has resulted in the practice of self-censorship by journalists. The government has instigated court proceedings and defamation suits against political opponents and critics. Such suits have consistently been decided in favor of the government, a phenomenon that inhibits political speech and action and leads observers to believe that the ruling party uses the judicial system for political purposes. During 2005 a moderate level of debate occurred in the media on various public issues. However, the government has continued to prohibit discussion of sensitive ethnic or religious issues and has restricted freedom of assembly and freedom of association, and some religious groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unification Church, have been banned. *

In a speech in the Philippines Lee Kuan Yew said, "When you are hungry, when you lack basic services, freedom, human rights and democracy do not add up to much.” Another time he told an interviewer, "I'm not sure human rights are a traditional value, even in Christian societies."

Amnesty International 2013 Report on Singapore

According to the Amnesty International 2013 Report on Singapore: Singapore took steps to roll back the mandatory death penalty, but the media remained tightly controlled and dissidents continued to face political repression. Laws on arbitrary detention and judicial caning remained. [Source: Amnesty International]

Death penalty: The government stated in July that it would review laws on the mandatory death penalty for murder and drug trafficking. In October, the government proposed amendments which would allow for discretionary sentencing in some drug trafficking cases, including where the suspect acted only as a courier or co-operated substantively with the Central Narcotics Bureau. Moreover, the Appellate Court would be required to review the legality of each death sentence before execution. The government stated that executions were deferred during this review. There were at least 32 people on death row by the end of the year.

Torture and other ill-treatment: Judicial caning – a practice amounting to torture or other ill-treatment – continued as a punishment for a wide range of criminal offences. Drug traffickers sentenced to life imprisonment instead of the mandatory death penalty would be liable to caning under proposed amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Freedoms of expression and assembly: Opposition activists, including former prisoners of conscience, continued to voice their opinions online, in books and in public meetings, but repression of political dissidents was widespread.

In May, 2013 Robert Amsterdam, a Canadian human rights lawyer representing the Singapore Democratic Party and its leader Dr Chee Soon Juan, was denied entry to Singapore, thereby infringing his client’s right of access to his lawyer. In July, the president of US Yale University’s new campus in Singapore told the Wall Street Journal, a US newspaper, that students would not be allowed to organize political protests. Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, this policy put the university’s governing body, the Yale Corporation, at odds with its responsibility to avoid causing adverse impacts on human rights, including freedom of expression and assembly.

Human Rights Watch on Singapore

According to Human Rights Watch: “The Singapore government in 2012 continued to sharply restrict basic rights to free expression, peaceful assembly, and association. However, there were small signs of progress in other areas, including changes in mandatory death penalty laws, and limited improvements in protecting the rights of migrant workers and combating human trafficking.[Source: Human Rights Watch]

Human rights defenders in Singapore risk being fined, imprisoned, bankrupted, and banned from traveling outside the country without government approval. Members of Singaporeans for Democracy (SFD), a human rights organization, voted in June to disband due to the onerous government regulations imposed on its political advocacy and activities. At its 2011 UPR, Singapore rejected the recommendation from other countries that it accept a visit by the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.

Censorship and Freedom of the Press

According to Human Rights Watch: “The Newspaper and Printing Presses Act requires that all newspapers renew their registration annually, and allows the government to limit the circulation of foreign newspapers it believes “engage in the domestic politics of Singapore.” The two corporations that dominate media regularly tow a pro-government line: MediaCorp, which is owned by a government investment company and dominates broadcasting, and Singapore Press Holdings Limited (SPH), a private company that dominates print media. The government must approve and can remove SPH shareholders, who in turn have the authority to hire and fire all directors and staff. [Source: Human Rights Watch]

Pornography is strictly banned in Singapore, and the government blocks many Web sites deemed obscene. Home satellite TV antennae are outlawed. Imported videos are carefully screened and edited by government censors. Bookstores are prohibited from selling books on communism, pornography and religious cults. Censors with the Ministry of Information Communications and Arts say they act on two main objectives: “to protect certain core values” and not inflame “peculiar sensitivities within our society, a reference to maintaining racial harmony. Just the threat of censorship is enough to instill fear and cause self-censorship.

Cosmopolitan and Playboy were banned as threats to common decency. In 2003, the ban on Cosmopolitan was lifted but the one on Playboy remained in place. In the 1990s, the government of Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong tried to get the restrictions on Playboy lifted but canned the decision after it was found that three quarters of Singaporeans opposed the move.

Under the Official Secrets Act, the government can classify any documents its wants on the grounds of national security. In the early 1990s five people were found guilty of breaking the term of the act by publishing "flash estimates" of economic growth. Under an amendment to the Films Act in 1998 the use of political films or videos is banned. Anyone who makes, imports, reproduces or distributes a film, “made by any person and directed toward any political end in Singapore” can be fined or jailed up to two years.

See Media

Freedom of Speech, Expression and Assembly

According to Human Rights Watch: “Singapore's constitution guarantees the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association, with exceptions for broadly worded restrictions in the name of security, public order, morality, and racial and religious harmony. A network of restrictive government regulations still applies to broadcast and electronic media, films, video, music, and sound recordings. In October, Singapore banned a satirical film "Sex, Violence, Family Values,” on the grounds it offended the country’s Indian population. [Source: Human Rights Watch]

Outdoor gatherings of five or more persons still require police permits. The city-state’s Speakers Corner—where people may demonstrate, perform, and hold exhibitions—remains the only outdoor space where uncensored speech is allowed in the country. The Registrar of Societies must approve associations of 10 or more members, and can deny approval if it deems a body “prejudicial to public peace, welfare or good order.”

The Singaporean government and senior government officials have frequently brought charges of "scandalizing the court," criminal and civil defamation, and sedition to silence and even bankrupt its critics. In July 2012, the attorney general's chambers wrote to Alex Au, a prominent blogger and gay rights activist, demanding that he take down and apologize for a June post in his Yawning Bread blog that criticized the judiciary for showing deference to the executive. Au removed the post. In February, after being threatened, prominent domestic blog site TR Emeritus, apologized to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for suggesting nepotism was a factor in Lee's wife obtaining a position to head a state-linked firm.

Politicians, opponents of the government and anybody for that matters needs permission by the police to give political speeches. Those that have done so without permission have been fined and prevented from running for office Under the Public Entertainment Act, people need a permit to give a speech on a street corner or in a park. Offender can be fined US$3,000 and people that adjust the microphone for the speaker can be arrested as accomplices. All societies with at least 10 persons must be registered and a license is necessary to form the society. An application may be rejected if the society is deemed a threat to public peace, welfare or order. One of the government’s primary justifications for restricting freedom of speech is a desire to prevent inflammatory remarks and rumors that might sir up ethnic and religious tensions.

See Internet

Speakers Corner in Singapore

A Speakers Corner like the one in London was allowed to open in Singapore’s Hong Lim Park in 2000, however, people who wish to speak are required to register with police and avoid topic that could inflame religious and racial hostility. The speakers stand on stools, plastic milk crates and benches and speak about a variety of issues. They are not allowed to use megaphones. Sometimes they are heckled. Poetry events in which people rant about their military service, exams and other issues and topics are conducted at some clubs.

In 2000, Associated Press reported: “Authorities will record the names of those who vent their opinions at Singapore's Speakers' Corner, and investigate those who go too far, the government said. ``If a person says something that is against the law, if he libels, if he says something that intimidates people, then of course there must be an investigation,'' Ho Peng Kee, the minister of state for home affairs. said in parliament. [Source: Associated Press, May 9, 2000 ++]

The government of tightly controlled Singapore recently promised to set up an area where Singaporeans can for the first time speak publicly without having to get a license first. The concept is loosely based on the historic, no-holds-barred Speakers' Corner in London's Hyde Park. But in Singapore, orators must show identification and register their names with police before speaking. The names will be kept on record for five years, Ho said. The registration requirement is mainly to make sure that speakers are Singapore citizens, as foreigners are barred from speaking, Ho said. Members of Singapore's tiny political opposition have ridiculed the Speakers' Corner idea, because many of Singapore's existing restrictions on free speech will still apply at the venue.++

Singapore Toughens Protest Laws Ahead of APEC Meet

In 2009, Reuters reported: “Singapore will toughen its protest laws ahead of this year's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit to reduce the number of civil disobedience acts, state media reported. Wong Kan Seng, Singapore's interior minister, told the pro-government Straits Times newspaper the city-state will look to enact regulations in the coming months giving police greater power to prevent protesters from gathering. [Source: Reuters, January 17, 2009 |+|]

“Singapore will host an APEC ministerial meeting in July and the annual summit in mid-November. It hopes to avoid a controversy like the one in 2006 when an opposition politician was prevented from holding a march during the World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings, resulting in a long standoff with police and criticism from the meeting organisers. APEC's 21 members include the United States, China and Japan. |+|

"For cause-related or ideologically-related activities, including those pertaining to race and religion, we should address them squarely as higher risk," Wong told the newspaper. "We must empower the police to deal with public-order problems more effectively, especially when mega-events are held," he said. |+|

“Protests in tightly-controlled Singapore were only made legal in 2008 year in a designated zone, "Speakers' Corner", modelled after the one in London's Hyde park. Any public gathering of five or more people is illegal in Singapore without a police permit. Singapore defends the need for tough protest laws, citing concerns over public safety and order. But several international human right groups such as Amnesty International have said Singapore uses these laws to stifle dissent. |+|

Singaporeans afraid to criticise government

In a survey in 2000, nine out of ten Singaporeans said if they disagreed with government policies they would not say so in public. A third said they wouldn’t event tell a family member or close friend. AFP reported: “Only a handful of people in tightly regulated Singapore are prepared to stand up to the government and complain about policies they disagree with, according to a survey published today. An overwhelming 93 percent said they would rather remain silent than publicly criticise the government. The survey, by publisher Singapore Press Holdings, was taken as the government attempts to involve more Singaporeans in public discussion. [Source: Agence France Presse, August 15, 2000 <>]

“An S21 Facilitation Committee has been set up under the Minister of State for Defence and Information David Lim to produce a collective idea of what Singapore should be like. But only seven percent of the 636 people interviewed in the survey said they were prepared to voice their opinions at public forums or through the mass media. Another 62 percent said they were prepared to let their dissatisfaction be known, but only in private with friends and family. <>

“Professor Eddie Kuo from the School of Communication Studies at Nanyang Technological University said the survey showed the depth of people afraid to disagree with the government in public. "This is partly due to the different signals the government has sent on how far they would tolerate them in the past," he told the Straits Times newspaper which published the survey results today. "This is not a desirable situation and the government also knows that," he said. But sociologist Tan Ern Ser shrugged off the seven-percent figure, telling the newspaper there were enough voices in the community already.” <>

Human Trafficking in Singapore

In June 2010, the U.S. State Department last month put Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam on a watchlist of middle-tier countries for trafficking, one level above the worst offenders such as North Korea, Myanmar and Saudi Arabia. Singapore showed an “inadequate response” to sex trafficking with only two convictions last year, and didn’t prosecute anybody under its forced labor laws, the report said. Singapore responded by saying that it doesn’t have a serious human trafficking problem. [Source: Simeon Bennett, AFP, July 3, 2010 *-*]

“The report’s reliance on reported and prosecution figures was “superficial and perfunctory at best,” the government said in a six-page response received today by e-mail. The low numbers show that Singapore’s approach to combating trafficking in persons, or TIP, has been effective, it said. “Different countries adopt different approaches and it is a matter of what works for each country,” the government said. “Singapore will continue with its calibrated and pragmatic approach to TIP issues, and review this if necessary, rather than blindly follow a one-for-all operating model just to achieve a better technical ranking on the US TIP Report.”

Singapore’s police conducted 2600 anti-vice operations and arrested 7614 women for suspected vice activities last year, compared with 1400 operations and 5047 arrests in 2008, according to the statement. A total of 476 employers were prosecuted for breaching their employment obligations, last year. Authorities investigated 32 cases of alleged trafficking, and prosecuted two, the government said. “A low absolute number of reported and convicted cases is therefore no basis for concluding that Singapore has a serious TIP problem,” the government said. “Singapore takes a stern view of practices leading to the exploitation or abuse of vulnerable persons and we investigate and prosecute such offences vigorously.”

See Prostitution Under Sex,

Chinese Man in China Gets Death Penalty for Trafficking Children to Singapore

In 2005, AFP reported: “A Chinese court has sentenced a man to death for running a child trafficking ring that sold 44 children to Singapore over a five-year period, a state newspaper reported Monday, Aug 8. Ke Pangjie was sentenced in China's southeastern city of Quanzhou, with partners Wu Wenbin and Sheng Zhenzhong getting life imprisonment and 15 years in jail respectively, the Beijing News reported. The court said the severity of the verdict reflected the large number of children sold beginning in 1998, with no hope of winning their return. [Source: Agence France Presse, August 8, 2005 /^\]

“In 1998 Ke met He Yidi, a person running an adoption agency in Singapore, the newspaper said. While He and an accomplice set about identifying families in Singapore that wanted to adopt a child, Ke searched for children in Fujian's Quanzhou, Yongchun and Anxi cities. The children were bought from willing parents for between 5000 to 10,000 yuan (US$600 to US$1200) and were then shipped to the Southeast Asian city state, it said. Once in Singapore, they were sold for at least S$8000 (US$4800). /^\

“The report did not say what happened to the traffickers in Singapore. A total of 10 people were involved in the ring. China's "one child" birth control policy, coupled with the country's long tradition of favoring boys, are seen as catalysts for the trafficking of children. Few instances of international child trafficking from China come to light. /^\

Crack Down on Opposition Politicians

The government has tried to impoverish opposition leaders such Joshua Jeyaratnam and Singapore Democratic Party leader Chee Soon Juan. Chee was jailed briefly in 1999 for making speeches without a permit and setting up a stall on Orchard Road to sell his book To Be Free. In 1992, Chee lost his job at Singapore National University for his politics (the excuse given for his dismissal was use of university funds to mail an academic paper to the United States).

Lee Kuan Yew subjected his political opponents to costly lawsuits. One critic of the government was ordered to pay senior officials $5.7 million for defaming them. The critic, Tang Liang Hong, had called Singapore's leaders “liars” after he was accused of being an ethnic Chinese chauvinists. Tang was forced to flee Singapore. Officials pledged to force him into bankruptcy.

In September 2013, former Prime Ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong accepted a settlement of US$30,000 from Singapore Democratic Party leader Dr Chee Soon Juan, allowing him to avoid bankruptcy and later, travel abroad and contest the election in 2016. In August, for the first time in many years, his books were made available in local bookstores. However, in October, the High Court dismissed an application by Chee and three other defendants seeking a hearing to appeal their conviction for illegal assembly in 2008.[Source: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Singapore Tourism Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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