Privacy International report on Singapore

The Singapore Constitution is based on the British system and does not contain any explicit right to privacy.[2237] The High Court has ruled that personal information may be protected from disclosure under a duty of confidences.[2238]

There is no general data protection or privacy law in Singapore.[2239] The government has been aggressive in using surveillance to promote social control and limit domestic opposition.[2240] In 1986, then-Prime Minister and founder of modern Singapore Lee Kwan Yew proudly described his stance on privacy:

I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yet, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters – who your neighbor is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right, never mind what the people think. That’s another problem.[2241]

Singapore has no governmental authority affiliated with privacy or data protection, except for a small privacy division within the Ministry of Finance.[2242] The idea of data protection legislation had been officially “under review” by the government for twelve years. A Straits Times survey revealed that 80 percent of readers feel that personal information contained in databases is too freely accessible.[2243] For purposes of e-commerce, the National Internet Advisory Committee proposed the Model Data Protection Code for the Private Sector in February 2002[2244] and the National Trust Council will decide whether to implement it later in the year, though businesses will not be required to adopt its provisions.[2245]

In September 1998, the National Internet Advisory Board released an industry-based self-regulatory “E-Commerce Code for the Protection of Personal Information and Communications of Consumers of Internet Commerce.”[2246] The Code encourages providers to ensure the confidentiality of business records and personal information of users, including details of usage or transactions. It prohibits the disclosure of personal information, and requires providers not to intercept communications unless required by law. The Code also limits information collection and prohibits the disclosure of personal information without informing the consumer and giving them an option to stop the transfer, ensures accuracy of records, and provides a right to correct or delete data.[2247] In 1999 the Code was adopted by CaseTrust and incorporated into its Code of Practice as part of an accreditation scheme promoting good business practices among store-based and web-based retailers.[2248] CaseTrust is a joint project operated by the Consumers Association of Singapore, CommerceNet Singapore Limited and the Retail Promotion Centre in Singapore. The Info-Communications Development Authority (IDA), the lead agency in charge of e-commerce regulation, announced in March 2000 that it would endorse the TRUSTe system as “an industry ‘trustmark’ seal.”[2249]

In 2002, the Singapore government created the Media Development Authority (MDA) to regulate media.[2250] The MDA formed through a merger of the existing Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA), the Films and Publications Department (FPD), and the Singapore Film Commission (SFC) with the goal of uniting of various forms of media under a single authority.[2251]

Like its predecessor the SBA, the MDA has assumed the strict approach towards regulating the Internet. All Internet Service Providers and Internet Content Providers are required to comply with the Internet Code of Practice[2252] and the Class License Provisions.[2253] ISPs are required to register with the MDA, along with ICPs who promote the discussion of political or religious topics relating to Singapore.[2254] ISPs are required to deny access to sites identified by the MDA as containing prohibited material.[2255] Likewise, ICPs may not broadcast prohibited material or entertain discussion on prohibited themes.[2256] Prohibited material includes pornography, material that “advocates homosexuality or lesbianism,” and material that “glorifies, incites or endorses ethnic, racial or religious hatred, strife or intolerance,” among other prohibitions.[2257] Political content, especially during elections, is regulated.[2258]

The Minister of Information, Communication, and the Arts appointed a Censorship Review Committee in 2002 to examine censorship policies related to broadcast media and to make recommendations.[2259]

In July 1998, the Singapore government enacted three major bills concerning computer networks. They are the Computer Misuse (Amendment) Act (CMA), the Electronic Transactions Act and the National Computer Board (Amendment) Act. The CMA prohibits the unauthorized interception of computer communications.[2260] The CMA also provides the police with additional powers of investigation, and makes in an offense to refuse to assist the police in an investigation. The CMA also grants law enforcement broad power to access data and encrypted material when conducting an investigation. This power of access requires the consent of the Public Prosecutor. The Electronic Transactions Act imposes a duty of confidentiality on records obtained under the act and imposes a maximum SG$10,000 fine and twelve-month jail sentence for disclosing those records without authorization. Police have broad powers to search any computer and to require disclosure of documents for an offence related to the act without a warrant.[2261] More broadly, the government has wide discretionary powers under the Internal Security Act, the Criminal Law Act, the Misuse of Drugs Act, and the Undesirable Publications Act to conduct searches without warrant, as is normally required, if it determines that national security, public safety or order, or the public interest are at issue.[2262] Defendants have the right to request judicial review of such searches.

The Telecommunications Authority of Singapore (TAS) governs electronic surveillance of communications. The government has extensive powers under the Internal Security Act and other acts to monitor anything that is considered a threat to “national security.” The United States State Department in 2002 stated, “Law enforcement agencies, including the Internal Security Department and the Corrupt Practices Investigation Board, had extensive networks for gathering information and conducting surveillance, and highly sophisticated capabilities to monitor telephone and other private conversations. No court warrants were required for such operations. It was believed that the authorities routinely monitored telephone conversations and the use of the Internet; however, there were no confirmed reports of such practices during the year.”[2263] All of the ISPs are operated by government-owned or government-controlled companies.[2264] Each person in Singapore wishing to obtain an Internet account must show their national ID card to the provider to obtain an account.[2265] ISPs reportedly provide information on users to government officials without complying with legal requirements on a regular basis. In 1994, Technet – then the only Internet provider in the country serving the academic and technical community – scanned through the e-mail of its members looking for pornographic files. According to Technet, they scanned the files without opening the mails, looking for clues like large file sizes. In September 1996, a man was fined USD43,000 for downloading sex films from the Internet. It was the first enforcement of Singapore’s Internet regulation. The raid followed a tip-off from Interpol, which was investigating people exchanging pornography online. Afterwards, the SBA assured citizens that it does not monitor e-mail messages, chat groups, what sites people access, or what they download.[2266]

In 1999, the Home Affairs Ministry scanned 200,000 users of SingNet ISP at the request of the company looking for the “Back Orifice” program without telling the subscribers. The Telecommunications Authority of Singapore determined that the ISP had violated no law, but nevertheless SingNet apologized for the scans and the National Information Technology Committee announced that it would create new guidelines.[2267] The Infocomm Development Authority released guidelines in January 2000.[2268] Under the guidelines, a subscriber’s explicit consent must be obtained before scanning can occur. The scanning must be minimally intrusive and must not intercept web browsing or electronic communications. A November 1999 study by the Singapore Polytechnic’s business administration revealed 60 percent of consumers who stated they were unready for virtual shopping cited privacy concerns.[2269]

Employer monitoring of employee phone calls, e-mails, and Internet usage is also permissible under Singapore law. Under Singapore property law, workplace e-mail, telephone and computer contents are the property of the employer. Thus, if an employee loses his job because of the contents of his communications technology, he has no grounds for defense based on an invasion of privacy.[2270]

In March 2000, the Minister for Home Affairs created a “Speakers Corner” based on a similar concept in London. The “Speaker’s Corner” is a designated area where individuals can publicly speak without an official permit. [2271] However, pursuant to Singapore’s Public Entertainments and Meeting Act, speakers are required to register with the local police station and show their national ID cards or passports.[2272] As a result, speech in the “Speaker’s Corner” is subject to censorship. Speakers are not allowed to discuss banned topics such as race or religion. In July 2002, Chee Soon Juan, a candidate running for office, was effectively barred from running for office for discussing religion.[2273] During his speech at the Speaker’s Corner, he criticized the government for banning Muslim girls from wearing headscarves in schools.[2274] Furthermore, law enforcement officials hold a speaker’s personal information for five years.[2275] Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng said that the records are kept for investigative purposes to ensure that the speaker has registered.[2276] It has been reported that the police investigated several human rights activists, who staged a peaceful rally in Speakers Corner in December 2000, for the offense of “assembly without a permit.”[2277]

In March 2003, the Ministry of Finance and the Central Provident Fund Board created ‘SingPass’, the “online equivalent of the Identity Card.”[2278] SingPass is single, user-created password Singaporeans must use to access electronic government services.[2279] Individuals over the age of 15 may apply for SingPass, and it will be automatically issued to individuals who register for a national identity card.[2280] Singaporeans can access electronic government services through the “eCitizen portal.”[2281]

The Government is active in some areas normally considered private, in pursuit of what it considers the public interest. For example the Government continues to enforce ethnic ratios for publicly subsidized housing, where the majority of citizens live and own their own units, designed to achieve an ethnic mix more or less in proportion to that in the society at large.[2282]

In early 2001 the Ministry of Health launched, an Internet-accessible medical database.[2283] holds all patients’ records from all hospitals and clinics in Singapore and is available to government and private doctors in Singapore and abroad. Because records are accessible only with a patient’s username and password, physicians must obtain a patient’s permission before obtaining medical information.

An extensive Electronic Road Pricing system for monitoring road usage went into effect in 1998. The system collects information on an automobile’s travel from smart cards plugged into transmitters in every car and in video surveillance cameras.[2284] The service claims that the data will only be kept for 24 hours and does not maintain a central accounting system. Video surveillance cameras are also commonly used for monitoring roads and preventing littering in many areas.[2285] In 1995, the government proposed that cameras be placed in all public spaces in Tampines, a neighborhood in Singapore, including corridors, lifts, and open areas such as public parks, car parks and neighborhood centers and broadcast on the public cable television channel.[2286] A man was prosecuted under the Films Act in May 1999 for filming women in bathrooms.[2287]

The Banking Act prohibits disclosure of financial information without the permission of the customer.[2288] Numbered accounts can also be opened with the permission of the authority. The High Court can require the disclosure of records to investigate drug trafficking and other serious crimes. The Monetary Authority of Singapore issued new “Know Your Customer” guidelines to banks in May 1998 on money laundering. Banks are required to clarify the economic background and purpose of any transactions of which the form or amount appear unusual in relation to the customer, finance company or branch office concerned, or whenever the economic purpose and the legality of the transaction are not immediately evident.[2289] Banks must report suspicious transactions to the MAS. In 2002, the soon-to-be-instituted Credit Bureau asked CaseTrust to accredit its procedures and systems to allay consumer financial privacy concerns.[2290]

Despite the extensive and arguably invasive monitoring, most Singaporeans support placing surveillance cameras in public places according to a 2000 survey conducted by The Straits Times. According to one respondent, “Its like your big brother is watching you all the time. But if having a big brother means that I am safe from robbers and thieves, then I don’t mind.” The privacy concerns were generally dismissed because, as one member of Parliament explained, “you shouldn’t be doing anything embarrassing in public.”[2291]

In response to the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, Singapore strengthened its anti-terrorist efforts by passing laws that codified United Nations resolutions to punish criminally the funding of terrorist activities and the making of false terrorist threats.[2292]In this respect, the Parliament passed the Terrorism (Suppression of Financing) Act in July 2002 punishing those found sheltering or dealing with the property of terrorists, and withholding financial information of terrorist acts.[2293]In June 2002, Singapore proposed that Asian and European law enforcement agencies organize a system to share intelligence information to combat terrorism and organized crime.[2294]

In April 2003,[2295] Singapore added SARS to the Quarantine Act, a law that had previously been dormant for 27 years. Measures taken to combat SARS included contact tracing and the thermal-imaging detection of body temperatures in public places.[2296] Furthermore, the government has ordered a ten-day quarantine on individuals suspected of having SARS.[2297] Security officials have installed security cameras into individuals’ home and required them to appear before the camera at specific intervals.[2298] In addition, officials would call the suspected individual’s home as an additional check to enforce the quarantine, and his telephone company would be ordered to block any attempt to forward home phone calls to mobile phones to make sure that the individual does not leave the home.[2299] The government may also use electronic wristbands if suspected individuals do not answer phone calls.[2300] One man in Singapore was sentenced to six months in prison for “repeatedly flouting home quarantine orders.”[2301]


[2237] Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, September 1963, available at

[2238] X v CDE1992 2 SLR 996.

[2239] See

[2240] See Christophen Tremewan, The Political Economy of Social Control in Singapore (St. Martin’s Press, 1994).

[2241] “Lee Kwan Yew’s Speech at National Day Rally,” The Straits Times, April 20, 1987, cited in Christophen Tremewan, id.

[2242] Report of the National Internet Advisory Board 1997/1998, September 1998. See also Susan Long, “Guess Who’s Reading Your Personal Data Today?” Singapore Press Holdings, May 18, 2002.

[2243] Long, id.

[2244] “Consultation on Protection Regime,” BNA World Data Protection Report, Volume 2, Issue 4, April 2002.

[2245] “Voluntary Singapore Web Codes to Protect Privacy,” Reuters, February 5, 2002.

[2246] “E-com Legal Guide, Singapore,” Kien Keong Wong and Ken Chia, Baker & McKenzie, Singapore, January 2001, available at

[2247] Id.

[2248] Id.

[2249] “Infocomm Development Authority Helping Singaporeans Go Online,” March 2000, available at

[2250] Media Development Authority of Singapore Act (Act 34 of 2002), available at This statutory board operates under the authority of the Ministry of Information and the Arts.


[2252] Internet Code of Practice,available at

[2253] Class License Provisions, available at

[2254] Id. at 2-3.

[2255] Internet Code of Practice, supra at 3.

[2256] Id. at 3(3).

[2257] Id. at 4.

[2258] John O’Callaghan, “Singapore Calls November 3 Election,” Reuters, October 24, 2001, available at

[2259] See the Censorship Review Committee’s webpage, at

[2260] Computer Misuse Act (Chapter 50A), available at

[2261] Electronic Transactions Act (Act 25 of 1998), available at

[2262] United States Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2000, February 2001, available at

[2263] United States Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2002, March 2003, available at

[2264] Garry Roday, “The Internet and Social Control in Singapore,” Pol. Sci. Q. Volume 113, No. 1, Spring 1998.

[2265] Id.

[2266] The Straits Times, September 27, 1996.

[2267] “ISPs To Get Guidelines On Scanning,” The Straits Times, May 12, 1999.

[2268] “Guidelines for IASPs on Scanning of Subscribers’ Computers,” Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore, for IASPs on Scanning of Subscribers’ January 6, 2000, available at

[2269] “Not Many Ready To Cyber-Shop, Says Poll,” The Straits Times, November 18, 1999.

[2270] “Boss is Spying On You – And He Has the Right,” The Straits Times, October 10, 2000.

[2271] Jake Lloyd-Smith, “Singapore’s Curbs on Free Speech Look Set to Stay,” November 27, 2002.

[2272] Id.

[2273] Agence France-Presse “Singapore Opposition Leader Barred From Polls Over Religious Speech,” July 30, 2002.

[2274] Id.

[2275] “Singapore To Get `Speakers’ Corner,” Asian Wall Street Journal, April 25, 2000.

[2276] “Keeping Records of Speakers,” The Straits Times, May 9, 2000.

[2277] Associated Press, February 9, 2000.

[2278] “Singpass: One Password for E-Services,” February 24, 2003, available at

[2279] “SingPass Opens the Door to E-Services,” Business Times (Singapore), February 25, 2003.

[2280] Id.


[2282] United States Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2000, February 2001.

[2283] Edmund Tee, “Get All Your Medical Data Online,” The Straits Times, February 17, 2001.

[2284] “You’re on Candid Camera,” The Straits Times, September 2, 1998.

[2285] “Video Cameras To Monitor Traffic at 15 Junctions,” The Straits Times, March 12, 1995; “Surveillance System Set Up in Jurong East,” The Straits Times, July 16, 1996.

[2286] “Do We Really Want an All-Seeing Camera?” The Straits Times, July 13, 1995.

[2287] “Peeping Tom Used Hidden Camera To Spy,” The Straits Times, May 29, 1999.

[2288] Banking Act, Chapter 19, available at

[2289] “Guidelines On Prevention Of Money Laundering,” Monetary Authority of Singapore, May 26, 1999, available at

[2290] Leong Chan Teik, “New Bank Credit Bureau Will Get Accredited,” The Straits Times, June 4, 2002.

[2291] “Eyes Wide Open,” The Strait Times, April 12, 2000.

[2292] “Singapore Tightens Anti-Terrorist Laws,” BBC News, November 13, 2001, available at

[2293] Terrorism (Suppression of Financing) Act (No. 16 of 2002), available at

[2294] “European Union/ASEM – Calls For Restraint in Middle East and Kashmir,” European Report, June 12, 2002.

[2295] Julie Robotham, “Tougher Laws to Keep SARS Under Control,” April 7, 2003, available at

[2296] Richard Paddock and Sonni Effron, “SARS Under Control in Singapore, WHO Says.” Los Angeles Times, June 1, 2003 at A4.

[2297] Chua Mui Hoong, “Govt’s Sars Action Swift, But Shows Up Lack of Checks,” Straits Times, May 10, 2003.

[2298] Id.

[2299] Id.

[2300] Id.

[2301] “Singapore Man Sentenced to Six Months in Jail for Violating Home Quarantine Orders,” Associated Press Newswires, May 9, 2003.