Heavy hand is only a “light touch” says Singapore

March 19, 2003
Singapore Democrats

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Below is an article by Human Rights Features produced by the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre (SAHRDC) http://www.hrdc.net/sahrdc/

It is certainly unprecedented in Singapore: a national debate on how tightly restricted Singaporean society should be.

It is a different matter that the government has already applied its mind and given its judgement. The South China Morning Post (SCMP) recently quoted Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs and Law Mr Ho Peng Kee as saying that the country’s free-speech rules were applied with a “light touch” and were essential in a multiracial society.

He was referring to Singapore’s famed Speakers’ Corner V famous because it is the only place in the country where citizens can speak their mind. Or almost. 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.

“Public talks, especially if they touch on politics, religion and race, can give rise to law and order problems,” Mr. Ho said in response to a question from Steve Chia, an opposition politician, as reported by SCMP. “Speeches can become inflammatory, eliciting disaffection. People of different political persuasions, religious inclinations or racial groups in the crowd may hurl abuse, first verbal and then physical, at each other,” he added.

“In other words, a public talk on even an innocuous topic may become unruly or degenerate into mob violence, if troublemakers are at work,” the newspaper quoted Mr. Ho as saying.

Public speeches are not the only “trouble” the government is paranoid about. Two such “troublemakers” were opposition Singapore Democratic Party leaders Chee Soon Juan and Gandhi Ambalam, who were jailed for refusing to pay a fine for attempting to hold a workers’ rights rally without a police permit. Under the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act (PEMA), the police must sanction all public gatherings in Singapore. Mr. Chee said in a letter to the Singaporean President that the PEMA violated his constitutional rights, and cited Article 14 which states that every citizen “has the right to freedom of speech and expression” to assemble “peaceably and without arms” and “form associations.”

Mr Chee was reported as having been mistreated during his five-week jail term. Mr Ambalam was released after he paid the fines imposed on him. The government’s “light touch” works in myriad ways, from using six-foot, one-inch thick canes on prisoners’ backsides to Internet policing to launching defamation suits against opponents.

Opposition politicians in Singapore can expect to encounter obstacles at every turn, whether in their personal lives or in their professions. Recently, the chairperson of a union affiliated to Singapore’s National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) was forced to resign after he took a post in the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA), an umbrella opposition body. Mr Muhammad Ali Aman was appointed Secretary-General of the SDA in August. In October, he was given a similar post at the Singapore Malay National Organisation (PKMS) which is part of the SDA.

As a result, he was asked to step down as chairperson of a branch of the United Workers of Electronic and Electrical Industries (UWEEI) union which is affiliated to NTUC. A UWEEI official said the organisation supported and subscribed to the symbiotic “relationship” between the NTUC and the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). “Our commitment is open and made known to all our officials,” he said.

As an Australia-based activist points out, Mr. Aman’s is not an isolated case. Mr. Mansor Rahman of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was similarly removed from the same union in 1983. Last year, a member of the NGO, Think Centre, who was an officer at Club Rainbow was told, after declaring that he was running for elections under the opposition ticket, to choose to either stay with the company or with the Think Centre.

According to the activist, even if Mr. Aman’s sacking is claimed to have been based on merit (being an opposition member, he may be considered incapable of representing his union effectively) the union needs to show instances where Mr. Aman was unable to achieve the desired results. So far, the activist adds, the union has not been able to prove either of the tests, nor have there been complaints regarding his professional conduct.

The two events show that not only is a body like the NTUC unconcerned with abiding by the principles of fairness and non-discrimination, it also functions under the watchful eye of the ruling party and has no qualms about admitting it.

The PAP has governed Singapore since 1959 when it was part of Malaysia and from 1965 onwards as an independent country. The PAP in turn has always been allergic to any form of opposition. 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 opposition won two seats.

The PAP is omnipresent. All of the media is controlled by the Singapore Press Holding (SPH) and Mediacorp. 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.

The Internet is also closely monitored and restricted. The book Internet Politics: Surveillance and Intimidation in Singapore excerpted on http://www.thinkcentre.org discusses the case of the Socratic Circle, set up in 1994, one of the first political groups to experiment with the Internet. After one of its members posted survey questions online to solicit opinions from Internet users, the Registrar of Societies asked the group to discontinue reaching out to non-members through the Internet. According to the book, “Socratic Society members were reminded that they were given permission to conduct political discussion only among their members and by soliciting information from surfers through the Internet they were contravening this rule. This shows the mindset of the Singapore authorities, how rigid they were about keeping a tight control over political communication by groups on the Internet and the how early into the game Singaporeans on the World Wide Web were already being monitored.”

Singapore’s leaders have always portrayed the tiny nation-state as being content in its cocoon of economic prosperity and as being at ease with the civil and political constraints that the government imposes. If few indications to the contrary are observed, it is because there have been few attempts to discern what Singaporeans really think about the supposedly “necessary” restrictions they live with. It’s time to start asking questions.

[*Tjong Yik Min has recently been replaced by Alan Chan Heng Loon, brother of Chan Heng Chee, Singapore’s ambassador to the US, as President of SPH].