SDP comments on US human rights report

March 9, 2004
Singapore Democrats

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It is unfortunate that the State Department, in the AP report below, failed to mention that the Singapore Government banned a conference entitled Freeing Burma: How Can Asians Help? that was scheduled for December 7-8, 2003.

In addition, during the conference that was allowed (the Singapore Democrats presume hat this is in reference to a youth conference held in July 2003), the Singapore Government banned a rally that was planned outside the Burmese embassy to protest against the continued detention of Aung San Suu Kyi and other democracy leaders in Burma. Singapores Foreign Affairs Ministry had contacted the various embassies and missions of the foreign participants to warn them against taking part in the rally.

The SDP also notes that freedom of speech is not an activity for the Government to grant but a right for all Singapore citizens to exercise. There have been several recent cases of continued repression (which make the granting of the SDPs youth conference meaningless by comparison) such as, among others,

– the police investigation of Messrs Robert Ho and Zulfikar Mohd for criminal defamation when the posted articles criticizing the appointment of Lee Kuan Yews daughter-in-law to a top government-business position (interestingly nothing more has been heard from the police about the cases after the dissidents fled the country)

– the amendment of the Computer Misuse Act that will curtail free discussion and organisation on the Internet

– the proposal to amend the Trade Unions Act following the labour dispute between Singapore Airlines (SIA) pilots and the management (which is controlled by the Government)

– and most recently the revocation of Captain Ryan Gohs permanent residency because he had spoken out for his fellow pilots during the SIA dispute.

These are just a few examples which have added to the fear in Singaporeans, already prevalent and deep-seated, and gives lie to the fact that the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) is slowly “loosening” its control. The PAP plays an extremely sophisticated hand in managing its international image. Which other dictatorial state, for example, boasts of a Speakers’ Corner?

Singapore opposition welcomes US report on free speech
Associated Press
2 March 2004

Opposition groups Tuesday welcomed a U.S. State Department report accusing Singapore of significantly restricting freedom of speech and using the courts to stifle government critics.

But they urged Washington to follow up on the report by actively encouraging democratic reforms in the Southeast Asian city-state.
In its annual report on human rights practices worldwide, the State Department said Singaporeans widely believed that authorities monitored telephone calls and e-mail and could sabotage their employment prospects if they supported government critics or opposition politicians.

The government “sometimes infringed on citizens’ privacy rights” and “continued to restrict significantly freedom of speech and freedom of the press, as well as limit other civil and political rights,” the report said.

However, the report said there were signs of improvements in the country of 4 million people.

Home Affairs Ministry officials did not respond to repeated attempts to contact them for comment. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s spokesman, Burhan Gafoor, said it could “take some time” for the government to respond.

Singapore says it must maintain tight controls on freedom of expression to preserve the social order that makes the country attractive to foreign businesses.

On Jan. 1, Singapore became the first Asian country to enact a free trade agreement with the United States.

But Washington must do more than file reports and sign trade deals, said Singapore Democratic Party leader Chee Soon Juan.

Chee is likely to be banned from politics after losing a lawsuit claiming he defamed the country’s leaders by asking about government loans to Indonesia during the 2001 elections.

“It is no good if these reports are not translated into action,” said Chee, who was named often in the report.

The report illustrates how the government has used fear to cement its control, said Joshua Jeyaretnam, Singapore’s first opposition member of Parliament, who was forced from politics after losing a defamation suit.

“This fear is real – it’s not something imagined,” he said. “The ultimate end is that it terrorizes all action. It freezes everything and people are not prepared to do anything. Is that good for the society?”

The State Department cited several developments it called positive, including a decision to grant Chee’s party permission to host a three-day democracy conference last year and journalists’ perception that the government has relaxed its unwritten list of topics considered “out of bounds.”

Although Singapore’s constitution allows freedom of expression, the government uses official restrictions to limit citizens’ rights, the report said.

A permit is required for any public gathering of five or more people and for virtually any form of public speech or entertainment, the report said. Permits are frequently denied, opposition groups said.

A four-year-old Speakers’ Corner in a park is the only place where citizens can give a speech without a permit, but speakers must register with police and cannot mention race or religion.

It is widely believed that authorities closely monitor opposition politicians and other government critics, said the report, which also drew attention to the repeated use of lawsuits against opposition politicians.

The damages from such suits have bankrupted opponents, leaving them ineligible to contest elections. Government officials defend them as necessary to protect their reputations.

The government has strong influence over national media, the report said. Two companies control all of Singapore’s newspapers and television stations – state-owned MediaCorp and Singapore Press Holdings (P.SPH), a privately held company with close government ties.

U.S. State Department report: http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2003/27788.htm