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Singapore's 'light touch' on the Internet gets heavier

Kirsten Han photo
Kirsten HanSingapore
Singapore's 'light touch' on the Internet gets heavier
Human Rights Watch's 2016 World Report highlights the continued suppression of freedom of expression and assembly in the Southeast Asian city-state of Singapore.

Singapore's government has turned its attention towards controlling the Internet even as it continues to restrict freedoms of expression and assembly, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its World Report 2016 on Wednesday.

“In 2015, bloggers and online news portals increasingly faced punitive action for any criticism of the government,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW. “The Singapore government demonstrated its contempt for the free flow of information and freedom of expression that should be expected from a country that identifies itself as a credible global business and finance center.”

News of bloggers in the courts in 2015 have drawn attention to the tiny-yet-wealthy city-state's track record on free speech.

In January 2015, the court convicted well-established blogger Alex Au of scandalising the judiciary – a piece of legislation abolished by Singapore's former colonial master United Kingdom in 2013 – for a blog post on the court's handling of two constitutional challenges to Section 377a, which criminalises sex between men. Au was fined S$8,000 (US$5,600).

Two months later, teenager Amos Yee was arrested by the police for wounding religious feelings and distributing obscene material after he published a YouTube rant about the recently-departed Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's much-revered first prime minister, and shared an image of Lee engaging in anal intercourse with Margaret Thatcher in the wheelbarrow position. Yee was held in remand for over 50 days, and was later sentenced to a backdated jail term of four weeks

Later in the year blogger Roy Ngerng was ordered to pay S$150,000 (US$104,994) to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong after he was found guilty of defaming the premier in a blog post that suggested Lee had been involved in misappropriating monies from the state pension fund.

“Singapore’s crackdown on bloggers and others asserting their free speech rights shows the government’s determination to place control over freedom,” Robertson added. “The city-state’s economic success can’t mask the insidious repression and censorship citizens face every day.”

HRW's report also highlighted restrictions on public assembly in Singapore. Under the law, only gatherings at Hong Lim Park – a small area of green space near the city centre – can be held without first obtaining a police permit. Demonstrations and public assemblies anywhere else on the island are prohibited unless one has a police permit, which can be difficult to obtain.

In 2015, the state continued its prosecution of Ngerng and fellow activist Han Hui Hui for holding a demonstration without permit at Hong Lim Park, on the grounds that they had registered their event as only having speeches, and therefore were not allowed to have had marching or other protest activities. Ngerng and Han had led event attendees on a march around the park, during which they were accused of heckling special needs children who were performing at a charity event at the same venue. Ngerng plead guilty and was fined, while Han's case is still ongoing. They, and four others, were also charged with public nuisance. Three have plead guilty to the charge.

HRW's report on Singapore also includes mentions of detention without trial under the Internal Security Act and the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, and the city-state's continued use of capital punishment, as well as ongoing censorship of LGBT content.

The Singapore chapter in HRW's report can be found here.

#human rights, #singapore, #free speech