Authoritarian laws designed to safeguard social cohesion seriously undermine freedom in Singapore – and may damage its international image.
Separate research by Human Rights Watch and Freedom House found that harassment and arrests of government critics and bloggers saw no sign of abating in 2016, with criminal and civil defamation suits used to silence dissent.
These include the cases of Roy Ngerng Yi Ling, who was forced to pay Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong over US $120,000 in damages and legal costs for criticising his management of government funds in a blog post, and 18-year-old Amos Yee, a prominent vlogger who is now seeking asylum in the US after falling foul of the authorities for comments he made on social media.
Yee, who was previously detained for 53 days for describing former Singaporean leader as a “totalitarian”, was charged with “wounding religious feeling” after he criticised attitudes towards women expressed in some passages of Christian and Muslim scripture.
Under its Internal Security and Temporary Criminal Law Acts, Singapore can detain citizens for virtually unlimited periods without charge or judicial review. According to Human Rights Watch, 17 citizens are currently detained under the law without explanation, and a further 25 have been issued with restraining orders under the law.
Meanwhile, Singaporean citizens face tight restrictions over their ability to express support for causes or groups that run counter to official government policy.
Protests, rallies and public speeches require special permission and are typically limited to taking place in Speaker’s Corner, a designated “free speech” area of Hong Lim Park.
In June, the Singaporean government attacked international companies including Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Barclays, J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Bloomberg for sponsoring a Pride event in the park, saying that foreign entities “should not fund, support or influence events held at Speakers’ Corner” and that foreigners “are not allowed to organise or speak at the events, or participate in demonstrations”.
But critics suggest that targeting international companies could put off investors and damage the country’s reputation as a hub for business in the region.
“Singapore’s citizens face an ongoing regimen of explicit and implicit repression, justified in the name of economic growth and social harmony, and are forced to self-censor or face arrest,” wrote Phil Robertson, deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.
“This narrowing space for free expression undermines Singapore’s claim to be a global centre for commerce and communication.”