Human Rights in Asia-Pacific; Review of 2019 - Singapore


Parliament passed a new law to regulate “fake news,” worsening an already stifling environment for freedom of expression. Activists and human rights defenders were prosecuted for organizing peaceful meetings and criticizing the government. Death sentences continued to be imposed and executions carried out, including for drug trafficking.

Freedom of expression

Human rights groups strongly criticized the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), meant to regulate “fake news,” which came into effect in October. Introduced by the government to “protect society” from online falsehoods created by “malicious actors,” the law gave the authorities excessive and overly broad powers to clamp down on dissenting views. Of particular concern was the law’s lack of clear definition of what constitutes a falsehood. The law provided for severe criminal penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment, and required social media companies, such as Facebook, to remove content or display prominent corrections on their platforms at the government’s direction, or face fines of up to SGD 1 million (US$730,000).[1]

Fears the law would be used to target government critics were confirmed when government ministers issued five correction directions under POFMA against posts on social media within the first three months of the law’s enactment. These correction directions were issued against Facebook posts made by critics of the ruling People’s Action Party.

Human rights defenders

In September, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sued Terry Xu (m), Editor-in-Chief of alternative news website The Online Citizen (TOC), for defamation based on an article about a dispute over the home of his father, late Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew. Terry Xu, together with Daniel de Costa, also continued to face previous charges for criminal defamation based on an article that TOC published in 2018 alleging government corruption.

In the same month, the courts dismissed an appeal by political activist and blogger Leong Sze Hian related to criminal defamation charges against him. The activist has been sued by the prime minister for sharing an allegedly libelous Facebook post accusing the government of corruption. His lawyer argued that the prime minister was abusing the court process to silence a prominent government critic.

The Home Affairs and Law Minister suggested that the government would introduce legislation “to counter attempts by foreign elements to influence domestic politics and opinion,” after implying that human rights groups and alternative media site TOC were subject to foreign interference.

Freedom of peaceful assembly

In January, human rights defender Jolovan Wham was found guilty of “organising a public assembly without a permit” under the Public Order Act and sentenced to a fine of S$3,200 (US$2,367), or by default, 16 days in jail. He was appealing the decision.[2] The conviction and sentence concerned an event on “Civil Disobedience and Social Movements” that Wham had organized in 2016 at an indoor event space and bookstore. The event featured speakers such as Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, who joined the discussion via Skype. Human rights groups condemned the decision as another attempt to deter Singaporeans from sharing differing views or criticising the government. In March, Wham was investigated by police for “illegal assembly” for posing for a photo in front of a court building and urging the government to drop defamation charges against editor Terry Xu and Daniel de Costa. His conviction in 2018, together with an opposition politician for “scandalizing the judiciary,” continued to await appeal.

Death penalty

Death sentences continued to be imposed, and executions carried out, including for cases of drug trafficking. The authorities continued to quash debate on the use of the punishment. Police investigated a couple for wearing anti-death penalty T-shirts at a running event showing solidarity with ex-offenders, deeming it to be a protest without permission. The attorney general accused Malaysian human rights lawyer N. Surendran of making “scandalous” allegations against the Singapore legal system. The lawyer had made statements to Malaysian media criticizing the death sentence imposed on Malaysians on death row in Singapore.

Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI)

In November, hearings commenced in the first of three cases challenging the law criminalising same-sex relations between men. The country’s Court of Appeal had ruled in 2014 that the law, Section 377a of the Penal Code, was constitutional. The latest challenge followed renewed calls to end the criminalisation of LGBTI people.

Migrants’ rights

Migrants’ rights groups expressed concerns about the treatment and working conditions of migrant workers, including foreign domestic workers. They urged the government to extend provisions of the Employment Act that would regulate their working hours and ensure their access to benefits.

Women’s rights

In November, the government increased penalties for the trafficking of women or girls. Those found guilty could face a jail term of up to seven years and a maximum fine of S$100,000 ($70,000 USD) – a ten-fold increase compared to previous penalties. However, women continued to face arrest and deportation for engaging in sex work.

Children’s rights

Singapore’s record on children’s rights was reviewed by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. The committee commended the strong legislative, institutional and policy measures in place to protect children. Among other recommendations, it called for Singapore to strengthen efforts to prevent discrimination against those in marginalized or vulnerable situations, and to end the use of corporal punishment against children.

[1] Singapore: Chilling fake news law will “rule the news feed” (news story, 8 May).

[2] Singapore: Joint statement on the sentencing of human rights defender Jolovan Wham (statement, 22 February).