Two new regulations passed this year by the Singapore government have further restricted freedom of expression in this one-party city state where, according to Minister for Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng, democracy, human rights and press freedom are “worthy ideals”. However, according to the government, Singaporeans need to realise them in ways that are meaningful and relevant to themselves as a people.
Reacting to protests generated by the new wave of censorship in the run-up to the next election, Wong said, “Democracy, human rights and press freedom do not exist in a vacuum. So do not believe those few Singaporeans who tell you that with democracy, human rights, and press freedom a hundred flowers will bloom and Singapore will prosper.” These concepts, he noted, must be translated into practical terms according to each country’s political, economic, social, cultural and historical development, as reported by Singapore pro-government Straits Times daily.
The first legislation, passed by Singapore’s Parliament on 19 April, was an amendment to the 1994 Broadcasting Authority Act and allowed the arbitrary suspension and banning of local retransmission of foreign broadcasts. The Singapore Broadcasting Authority (Amendment) Bill gives the Information and Arts Minister the power to gazette any foreign player broadcasting in Singapore as “engaging in the politics of Singapore”.
According to local and international news reports, Information and Arts Minister Lee Yock Suan said: “This bill makes it clear to foreign broadcasters that while they can sell their services to Singaporeans, they should not interfere with our domestic politics.” Outside observers should report on Singapore factually and accurately, said the minister, without bias or distortion. However, they should not be involved in local political issues, or try to influence Singaporeans on such issues, he added. “In our general elections, for example, they should not take sides either for or against any political party or politician in their reporting.” Besides limiting the number of people who can receive the programmes of such broadcasters, the minister will also have the power to suspend the broadcast of programmes.
The new amendment extends to the broadcasting sector the same rules that disallow all foreign print media from engaging in Singapore politics, as stated in the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act. Enacted in 1986, this law enables the minister to restrict sales or circulation of any foreign publication in Singapore and has already been used against The Economist, Time, The Far Eastern Economic Review and other publications.
The second piece of legislation, a bill to amend the Parliamentary Elections Act, was passed in August this year and further restricts the already highly controlled dissemination of information through the Internet. As reported by the Reuters news agency, the new law allows Websites belonging to political parties to publish posters, manifestos, candidate profiles, party profiles, events and positions on issues. But non-party political sites may be restricted from carrying party banners and candidate profiles. Election surveys and exit polls will also be barred.
The consequences of the new law were seen later in the year. The Sintercom company, which runs uncensored Internet fora (chat rooms) and a section called “Not ST”, meant to be an alternative to the pro-government Straits Times newspaper, was ordered by the government to register as a political Website.
The government told the organisers that registration of their website was necessary “to emphasise the need for content providers to be responsible and transparent when engaging in the propagation, promotion or discussion of political issues”. Sintercom complied with the government’s request but eventually had to shut down its web site, well-known for its alternative take on politics, at the end of August.