Singapore: Asia’s gilded cage

(Voice of the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Network)

Few States fly as far under the international community’s human rights radar as Singapore. A prosperous, in many ways Western-style nation, Singapore is barely mentioned at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Occasional references to conscientious objection to military service and the death penalty aside, the Singaporean delegation sit smugly while their Asian neighbours face a barrage of NGO, and often State, criticism.

Singapore is no better than its neighbours – in many ways, it’s worse. It is the Cuba of Asia (but without the crushing poverty or damaging economic sanctions). Indeed, Singapore enjoys Western-style economic prosperity. There can be no argument – flawed, as it is – that civil and political rights cannot be afforded in Singapore. Denials of civil and political rights in Singapore are simply of governmental policy.

It was Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew who first popularised the idea of “Asian values” as a counter to the universality of human rights. He claimed – and his fellow Asian autocrats supported – a connection between the speed of Asia’s economic growth and its authoritarian political systems. Happily, in recent years the idea of Asian values has lost credibility and currency. However, denials of civil and political rights continue in Singapore with no recourse to Asian diplo-speak.

Human rights violations in Singapore are rife: the country detains conscientious objectors to military service, has mandatory corporal and capital punishment for many offences, has some of the most draconian security legislation in the world (and uses it) and institutional discrimination against ethnic Malays results in their poverty and often imprisonment. However, looking at the Cuba-aspects of Singapore, this article focuses on denials of freedom of speech and freedom of the press as negating factors on meaningful democracy in Singapore.

Singapore is a parliamentary democracy, which since 1959 has been governed by the Peoples’ Action Party (PAP). While political opponents are allowed, the various means employed by the government to suppress dissenting voices mean that opposition parties and politicians are discouraged, if they are not bankrupted or imprisoned under security legislation. In the election of November 2001, only 29 of the 84 parliamentary seats were even contested by opposition candidates. The PAP secured over 75 per cent of the popular vote.

The Constitution of Singapore provides for freedom of expression, subject to limitations imposed by the government. Traditionally, this has meant no free speech whatsoever. Hailed as a breakthrough for free speech in Singapore, a Speakers’ Corner was established in September 2001. It allows Singaporeans to make speeches in public, a luxury not allowed elsewhere in the country without a permit obtained under the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act. Permits are all but impossible to come by.

The innovation of Speakers’ Corner is undermined by restrictions on its operation. Speakers must register with the police prior to speaking, and their speeches are recorded by the government and kept for six years. Speeches may be used in defamation and criminal proceedings in courts of law. Significantly, certain topics, such as matters of race and religion are banned from Speakers’ Corner.

Currently, opposition politician Chee Soon Juan faces a fine of up to US$5,464 for flouting a rule banning the discussion of racial issues at Speakers’ Corner. In early February 2001, Mr Chee criticised the authorities for suspending from school three Muslim girls who wore Islamic headscarves in class.

Fines are a common way of suppressing speech and opposition in Singapore. Indeed one of the most popular methods of silencing opposition in Singapore is politically motivated defamation action. The ruling PAP argue that their standing in the electorate and their ability to govern is based on their ability to defend their reputations when allegedly defamed.

The damages and court costs incurred by political opponents who lose defamation suits are crippling. In January 2001, J B Jeyaretnam, leader of the Workers’ Party declared bankruptcy as a result of the damages levied against him in defamation proceedings brought by the President. At the time, Mr Jeyaretnam was one of only three opposition members in the parliament. He was elected in 1981 – the first non-PAP politician elected to parliament. The declaration of bankruptcy prevents Mr Jeyaretnam from running for political office or taking any active part in the campaign, and from practising his profession of law. His long-standing voice of dissent has been silenced.

Chee Soon Juan is also currently being sued by Prime Minister Gok Chok Tong and former Prime Minister lee Kuan Yew after Mr Chee asked questions during last year’s election campaign about secret government loans to the former Suharto regime in Indonesia. Reflecting what can only be described as a climate of fear, no sufficiently experienced local lawyers were able or willing to represent Mr Chee. When Mr Chee applied to the court to allow an Australian barrister, Stuart Littlemore QC to represent him, Judge Lai Kew Chai denied the application. Earlier, in a report for the International Commission of Jurists, Littlemore had criticised the conduct of the judiciary in Singapore. Mr Chee faces potential damages and costs of more than US$500,000.

While laws against defamation have their place in protecting the right to protect a reputation, the campaign of defamation suits in Singapore is out-of-control. While in other jurisdictions efforts are made to balance freedom of speech and the right to privacy or a reputation, in Singapore the scales of justice give freedom of speech little weight if any. As is intended, the use of defamation proceedings discourages political dissent and criticism of government policy. Self-censorship becomes a political and financial imperative, thereby excluding Singaporeans from any meaningful political participation in their governance.

The media in Singapore similarly operates under the threat of libel suits. The Singapore Press Holding (SPH) and Mediacorp control all of the media. Both enjoy close relations with the ruling PAP. The President of the SPH is Tjong Yik Min, a former director of the state security agency, while its Chairman, Lim Kim San is a former cabinet minister.

The government must approve, and can dismiss the holders of SPH management shares, who control staff and content. The coverage of domestic politics and sensitive international matters closely reflects that of the government. Censorship is common. In December 2000, Mediacorp instructed New Radio 93.8FM to edit a report on the anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights which contained interviews with Kofi Annan and a member of the Singaporean opposition. A few days later, the programme of announcer Fauziah Ibrahim, who denounced censorship and self-censorship at the station, was cut.

The foreign media have all either been sued or have had their circulation restricted, or both.

On 19 April 2001, a bill was passed to amend section 42 of the 1994 Broadcasting Authority Act, permitting the authorities to declare that any foreign broadcasting service is “engaging in the domestic politics of Singapore” and therefore requires prior approval of the Minister for domestic transmission. The amendment allows for the arbitrary suspension and banning of local retransmission of foreign broadcasts. It provides for fines of up to US$ 55,000 for those found guilty. Even without this development, foreign journalists have been harassed into less-than-critical coverage of Singaporean politics. In the late-1990s, Derek Davies, a former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review rejected the notion that the government could curtail unflattering reports by suing the foreign media. Admitting defeat, Mr Davies later conceded: “I was wholly wrong and Lee [Kuan Yew] largely right.”

With a high number of Internet users in Singapore, restrictions on the press extend to the content of newsgroups and email. According to the Think Centre, even SMS communications are regulated. The Singapore Broadcasting Authority’s Internet Code of Practice prohibits material, which is “objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public morality, public order, public security, national harmony, or is otherwise prohibited by applicable Singapore laws”. As if this was not enough, on 17 October 2001, the Parliamentary Elections [Election Advertising] Regulations came into effect. The Regulations restrict the contents on websites during elections, providing substantial fines or imprisonment or both.

On 16 November 2001, Robert Ho Chong, a retired journalist for the SPH was arrested for allegedly “posting inflammatory” articles on a website for Singaporeans for Democracy. In the article, Chong alleged that Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had broken the law during the 1997 elections by visiting polling places without authorities. He urged voters to similarly break the polling rules. Chong was acquitted of the charges after he was judged mentally ill.

The Singaporean authorities are sophisticated in their repression of speech and their control the media. Defamation suits compliment legislation to effectively silence dissent. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights’ Special Rapporteur on the freedom of opinion and expression, in his report to the Commission in 2000, discussed libel and defamation suits as impediments to freedom of expression (E/CN.4/2000/63). He has noted “prohibitive fines for libel which in a number of instances would strangle economically the independent press, a political party, an association or any individual. In this regard the Special Rapporteur considers that disproportionate remedies or sanctions can significantly limit the free flow of information and ideas.”

The outcomes of defamation proceedings – which almost exclusively rule in favour of politicians – also raise questions about the impartiality of the judiciary. As the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers has previously observed “allegations concerning the independence and impartiality of the judiciary could have stemmed from the very high number of cases won by the government or members of the ruling party in either contempt of court proceedings or defamation suits brought against critics of the Government, be they individuals or the media” .

Hopeful Signs

There have been a few promising signs. In October 2001, the Think Centre, an independent NGO, was approved for registration under Singaporean law. The extent, to which it -and Singapore’s embryonic civil society – can effectively function, however will depend on the cooperation of the Singaporean authorities.

In December 2000, the Think Centre was involved in the organisation of a marathon run to celebrate International Human Rights Day. The marathon was cancelled after the government required the organisers to apply for a permit to allow more than five people to assemble. The permit was denied.

Singapore has constructed a veneer of democracy, development and freedom that largely insulate it from international criticism. While Singapore is a parliamentary democracy in name, the effectiveness of its democracy is undermined by the PAP’s rigorous controls over speech and the press.

It is perhaps because of their economic prosperity that the people of Singapore do not protest more at their exclusion from the political process.

From a human rights stand point, however, the Western-style prosperity of the place makes denials of civil and political rights all the more offensive.

– Human Rights Features