By Chris Eudaily

The Flag of Singapore first adopted in 1959

Singapore has a conflicted record of free speech and free press issues in part because of the clash between western ideals, epitomized by years of British influence, and eastern practices, due to the country’s location in the heart of Southeast Asia. Reporters Without Borders has consistently ranked Singapore in the bottom 25% of the International Press Freedom Index, and in 2004 it bottomed-out in the lowest 12%. The reason that Singapore is ranked so low by organizations such as Reporters Without Borders, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, and more recently the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, is the free-range in censorship that the Constitution of Singapore allows the government to exercise.

The People’s Action Party (PAP), which has been in power since Singapore first considered independence following World War II, has used language in the country’s constitution to hold tight controls over expression – censoring and limiting alternate opinions expressed by the press and minority parties.

Historical Background

In 1819, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles established a port for the British East India Company on the small island in Southeast Asia that sits at the tip of Malaysia, and began nearly 150 years of British influence on political and economic issues. Singapore was vital to the British East India Company because of Dutch control in Southeast Asia as its strategic location opened up new trade lanes for the British. From the time that Raffles first established the settlement to the modern age of independence, Singapore struggled with its identity as it grew at an astounding pace. Immigrants from surrounding Asian countries looking for opportunity met with a growing colony of British, and together fueled the growth that would continue into the present day. Singapore is an interesting case because it has no natural resources, but its strategic location in Southeast Asia and its governance by one of the most influential shipping companies in history made for the perfect city of commerce.

On Aug. 9, 1965, Singapore adopted the constitution that they have today, which established the small island as an independent nation free of British rule and Malaysian influence. Part IV of the Constitution guarantees basic liberties for each citizen, but the framing of the article specific to free speech allows for government intervention. The language used in the first part of Article 14 in Part IV of the Constitution, which is the article that spells out free speech rights, is similar to what you would find in many constitutions in western society:

“14. (1) Subject to clauses (2) and (3) – (a) every citizen of Singapore has the right to freedom of speech and expression; (b) all citizens of Singapore have the right to assemble peaceably and without arms; and (c) all citizens of Singapore have the right to form associations.”

However, the following passages noted in clauses (2) and (3) show how the framers of this constitution allow the government to regulate free speech in the name of security, defamation and other reasons that inhibit the expression of ideas. Limits similar to Eastern forms of government like that in China, where the government maintains a strong presence in limiting individual expression and the autonomy of the press.

“(2) Parliament may by law impose — (a) on the rights conferred by clause (1) (a), such restrictions as it considers necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of Singapore or any part thereof, friendly relations with other countries, public order or morality and restrictions designed to protect the privileges of Parliament or to provide against contempt of court, defamation or incitement to any offence; (b) on the right conferred by clause (1) (b), such restrictions as it considers necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of Singapore or any part thereof or public order; and (c) on the right conferred by clause (1) (c), such restrictions as it considers necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of Singapore or any part thereof, public order or morality. (3) Restrictions on the right to form associations conferred by clause (1) (c) may also be imposed by any law relating to labour or education.”

The city/state uses a parliamentary republic form of government and regularly holds open elections for office, though the PAP dominates elections and regularly pressures news outlets expressing alternative opinions to keep such material out of the public eye.

Free Speech

Though most incidents of government suppression are only known to those who live in Singapore, there have been several incidents which have garnered the attention of the global stage. The most recent was on Jan. 12, 2011, when the High Court rejected Singapore Democratic Party’s Dr. Chee Soon Juan’s appeal for free speech and ruled that he pay a $20,000 fine and serve 20 weeks in prison. In June 2006, Chee was charged with eight counts of speaking in public without a license, a clear illustration of how constitutional loopholes in Section IV and XII allow laws to restrain, and in this case punish, free speech and expression.

IFEX updated this story in 2009 and provided additional background on Chee and his efforts to give a voice to minority opinions in Singapore. According to this article, Chee had “lost his university post, served seven prison terms and has been banned from contesting parliamentary elections.”

The article points to Singapore legislation such as the Defamation Act, and a law enacted in 2009, which limits the freedom of assembly and political gatherings as clear examples of government suppression., an organization concerned with international freedom of speech, expression and press rights, conducted a study on Singapore in 2005 in which it found that the government “prohibits organized political activities except by groups registered as political parties or political organizations under the Political Donations Act. This prohibition limits opposition activities, and contributes to restricting the scope of unofficial political expression and action.”

The government believes it is its duty to regulate divisive speech, which the government and the courts have allowed to be open to interpretation, as outlined in response to UN Representative Githu Muigai’s criticism of policies restrictive of free speech and expression during an eight day visit in April 2010.

“Race, language and religion will always be sensitive issues in Singapore. This does not mean that they cannot be discussed, but a balance must always be struck between free expression and preservation of racial and religious harmony. This balance is only for the Singapore government to determine because only the Singapore government bears the responsibility should things go wrong. The UN bears no such responsibility and we see no reason to take risks for the sake of an abstract principle. We believe most Singaporeans agree with the government’s approach.”

Free Press

The most prominent case of the restriction of the press came in July 2010, when British journalist Alan Shadrake was arrested for contempt of court stemming from his book, “Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore’s Justice in the Dock,” which is critical of the use of the death penalty in the Singapore justice system. Shadrake was charged with contempt of court and on Nov. 10, 2010 was fined $20,000 Singapore dollars and sentenced to six weeks in jail; he was 76 at the time. The BBC covered the trial and carried a quote from Human Rights Watch, who said the ruling was a “major setback for free expression in Singapore.”

This case brought to light the extensive use of political power by the PAP to silence critics. An article in The Economist following the verdict in the Shadrake case, said that “the country’s elder statesman, Lee Kuan Yew, whose son is now prime minister, has brought and won a number of suits over the years to defend his reputation from criticism in the press or from political opponents.” This information is also backed-up in the baseline study, which found that “the threat of civil libel or slander suits has stifled the full expression of political opinion.”

Though Shadrake was not charged with defamation in this particular case, multiple media outlets predicted defamation suits following the criminal verdict – these predictions have not come to light.

The Article 19 study on Singapore revealed layers of government censorship controls, which are exacerbated by the overwhelming PAP majority, who wish to maintain their grip on power.

The most prominent issue is that of media ownership, which the baseline study revealed “is carefully regulated and media content strictly monitored.” The study also found that “until 2000, Singapore Press Holdings owned all dailies in the city-State after the People’s Action Party (PAP) government successfully managed to consolidate and tame a once vibrant press culture.” The study further points out issues regarding the freedom of information (pg. 64) and protection of journalist’s sources (pg. 76).

The Article 19 study did point to a couple of news sources who have found ways to voice opposing opinions, and do so in very different ways. Singapore Review is an online news group hosted through Yahoo! Groups, which touts the failings of the government-regulated news-daily Straits Times.  The group asks if you, as a reader, have been “Straits Timed?” which pokes fun at the paper who many believe leaves out alternate perspectives and facts in the government’s interest. “We put back in what the Straits Times takes out” claims the group on their description page, and while Singapore Review focuses on flushing-out news stories for hidden truth, another group takes a satirical approach to the pomp surrounding the ruling PAP.

Talking Cock is an online website founded in 2000 that was originally intended as a forum for jokes among friends and eventually blossomed into a full-blown satirical campaign against the “speech smothering tentacles of the state.” They make no claim to being a reputable news source and even clearly state that they “make stuff up,” but over their course of operation, Talking Cock, which includes contributions by journalists, writers, teachers, lawyers, doctors and others, have established themselves at the place to go for critical commentary. The group also clearly states on their website that they are not a political site, but perhaps because of the restrictive operation of the Singapore government, the group is central to the free speech issue in the country. The operators of Talking Cock posted a message on Feb. 15, 2009, announcing a hiatus to work on “massive projects,” and the group has several movies to its credit, but there have been continued through sporadic posts when news has popped-up. The last was on Sept. 6, 2011.

Critical Comparison

On the surface, Singapore is an open and free economy with a constitution that guarantees its citizens the basic liberties of free speech, but there are several key areas where Singapore and the United States differ in the interpretation of such rights. The first is in each government and judiciaries’ treatment of free speech and expression rights as laid out in each constitution. The Singapore government has used all of the restrictive power given by the country’s constitution to its fullest extent, repeatedly passing laws that restrict free expression and speech especially in the political arena. These laws are backed-up by the High Court, which sentences people accused of such infractions against the enacted laws, thus holding these laws to be constitutional.

The United States government and the Supreme Court, on the other hand, have fought to balance the interests of personal liberties with government interests much more effectively when you look at the history of USSC rulings in cases like Cohen v. California (1971), R.A.V. v. St. Paul (1992), Yates v. United States (1956), Brandenburg v. Ohio (1968) and other cases upholding the freedom of expression – even for ideas that are disturbing.

The second key area is in the treatment of defamation and libel cases brought by public officials against the media. Article 19’s study points out that “the threat of civil libel or slander suits has stifled the full expression of political opinion”(14), and articles in the Economist and other news outlets point out repeated abuse of such power by officials. In the United States, government officials and other public figures are held to much higher standards, and winning such suits is difficult, as established by the Supreme Court in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964).

The article in the Economist covering the verdict in the Shadrake case illustrates how contempt cases in Singapore differ from other ruling bodies:

“Critics say Singapore’s courts have set a low bar; prosecutors simply have to show that a defendant could have given an average reader an impression of judicial bias or impropriety. This is in contrast to many other jurisdictions, which require that, for there to be contempt, a comment must create a ‘real risk’ of prejudicing the administration of justice.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Pennekamp v. Florida in 1946 protected the Miami Herald from punishment in a case involving a contempt of court charge against the publication. If this case were decided in Singapore, it would have likely gone the other way.

Current Issues:

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit – the business information arm of The Economist Group, publisher of business and world news publication The Economist – Singapore ranks as the third most competitive economic city after New York (1st) and London (2nd). As you would expect from such economic success, safety is not an issue for this city/state, especially for journalists. The International News Safety Institute, an organization that monitors travel and other safety issues for journalists, currently has no alerts or other warnings for Singapore and even lists the government as “politically stable.”  But it is that perceived safety and veil of freedom that makes Singapore such an interesting case. Part XII of the country’s constitution allows the Parliament to enact legislation designed to stop or prevent subversion. Such legislation is also allowed through loopholes included in language establishing liberties contained in Part IV of the constitution.

This two-faced nature of Singapore’s constitution is what has upset groups such as Human Rights Watch, which issued a 2011 report prior to that year’s elections. The International Barr

Association’s Media Law and Freedom of Expression blog keeps up with free speech issues around the world, and posted this update to their site:

“Human Rights Watch released a report criticizing Singapore for failing to comply with international human rights standards. The report found that Singapore hindered freedom of expression through the use of defamation laws and preventative detention. The report also concluded that Singapore’s Ministry of Information, which grants licenses to the media, was acting as a mechanism of censorship.  The report urged Singapore to respect freedom of expression principles as the 2011 election nears.”

Following the elections, the Singapore government cut salaries in response to backlash from the voting public, which was clear as the majority PAP lost seats in Singapore’s Parliament, and received the lowest percent of popular vote in history.

– Image of the Singapore flag is used creative commons from Wikipedia.

For more work by Chris, a multimedia journalist who is now the Web Editor at Texas Public Radio in San Antonio, visit his online portfolio: The Underground Post.


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