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8 free speech concerns the Community Action Network highlighted for the UPR

By Lisa Li

In January 2016, Singapore’s human rights record will face international scrutiny at the United Nations (UN) for the second time.

This is part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which Singapore first underwent on 6 May 2011, with the Government delegation led by Ambassador-at-Large Ong Keng Yong. During the three-hour session, Singapore presented its National Report and engaged in dialogue with the UN’s Human Rights Council.

Leading up to Singapore’s second UPR next month, the Community Action Network (CAN) sent the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) a 16-page ‘shadow report’ offering a ground-level perspective on some of the Government’s policies and actions.

In brief, here are 8 things the Community Action Network would like you to know about Singapore’s human rights record over the past 4 years:

Outright bans

  • In September 2014, the Media Development Authority (MDA), refused to rate the film To Singapore, With Love, thus obstructing its distribution and public screening. This was on the basis that it “undermined national security” by containing interviews with political exiles.
  • In April 2015, MDA ordered the shutdown of The Real Singapore (TRS), a website with controversial content and one of the top 100 “alternative” news websites. TRS editors Ai Takagi and Yang Kaiheng were charged with criminal offences. Their hearing is still pending. (Ai Takagi has since started the Takagi Ramen Shop, also known as TRS.)
  • On 12 June 2015, MDA banned the screening in cinemas of a promotional video for LGBT rights rally Pink Dot.

Criminal charges

  • In September 2014, Han Hui Hui organised a protest to demand transparency in the management of the Central Provident Fund (CPF). Han, Roy Ngerng and four others were charged for public nuisance after they were accused of heckling another event in Hong Lim Park. Han and Ngerng were also charged with holding a demonstration without a permit under the Parks and Trees Act. (For the outcome, see “Roy Ngerng pleads guilty to disrupting YMCA event, fined S$1,900”, Channel NewsAsia, 7 Oct 2015)
  • In May 2015, the Ministry of Defence obtained a court order under Section 15 of the Protection from Harassment Act to to restrain further publication of news on The Online Citizen (TOC) about the Ministry of Defence allegedly infringing on the intellectual property rights of Ting Choon Meng, of MobileStats Technologies. (For the recent change in ruling, see “TOC case: Govt cannot invoke harassment law”, The Straits Times, 10 Dec 2015)
  • In May 2015, Amos Yee, aged 16, was found guilty under the Penal Code for making offensive remarks against Christianity, and for circulating obscene imagery. A third charge, under the Protection From Harassment Act, for the teen blogger's statements on the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, was withdrawn. (Yee is currently under investigation again for allegedly making offensive remarks against a religion.)

Defamation and Contempt of Court

  • In April 2013 the police arrested cartoonist Leslie Chew for publishing cartoon strips on Demoncratic Singapore, a satirical comic series critical of Singapore laws, policies, and the ruling People’s Action Party. This was deemed seditious, and the threatened contempt of court charges were only withdrawn after Chew made a public apology and deleted four cartoons.
  • In January 2015, blogger Alex Au was found guilty of contempt of court — and fined $8,000 — over a blogpost regarding the 377A constitutional challenge, which contained remarks about timings, procedures and the composition of the bench hearing the cases. (His appeal was rejected in Dec 2015. See “Apex court upholds blogger Alex Au’s conviction for scandalising the court”, Channel NewsAsia, 1 Dec 2015)
  • In May 2014, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sued blogger Roy Ngerng for defamation over an article he wrote comparing the government's management of the CPF with how a church allegedly misappropriated its funds. In January 2015, Ngerng was asked to pay S$29,000 in costs and filing fees over the summary judgement. Following the hearing in July 2015, the courts are now determining how much Ngerng would have to pay the Prime Minister for damages.

Unreasonable Licensing Restrictions

  • In May 2013, MDA imposed a new licensing regime that required all Singapore-based online news sites to secure a license should they reach 50,000 unique views per month over a two-month period. The two key conditions of the license are a $50,000 bond and a readiness to remove within 24 hours any content MDA deems unsuitable.
  • Arts groups have occasionally been denied public performance licenses, or been required to censor certain aspects of their work. For example, the theatre company DramaBox has been denied performances licenses on the grounds on the grounds of controversial themes. Plays in which DramaBox have suffered licensing restrictions include one touching on terrorism, race and religion, and another touching on sexuality -- it had to be withdrawn altogether and replaced with another script about divorce. In 2013, a production touching on migrant worker issues suffered when the government insisted on the excision of the entire first act and the removal of newspaper cuttings originally intended to be projected on the backdrop.
  • Outspoke Singaporeans have faced difficulties with employment. Although playwright and former political detainee Chng Suan Tze had been verbally informed that she was successful in her application for a part-time teaching position in Nanyang Technological University (NTU), the paperwork confirming her employment did not come through even after four months. No official reason was given to her but she heard from inside sources that the Ministry of Education vetoed her appointment. Journalism academic Cherian George was also denied tenure at NTU for the second time, which meant that his contract could not be renewed.

Inhibitory Actions

  • In May 2015, the National Arts Council withdrew its $8,000 grant awarded for a graphic novel 'The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye’, which addresses Singapore history, censorship and socio-political issues that the Government alleged undermined its authority.

Venue hurdles

  • Human rights advocacy group Maruah's planned forum on 'Foreign workers, justice and fairness', December 2013, had its paid-up booking cancelled by the venue owner almost on the eve of the event. The latter said the police called them, though what transpired in the conversation is not known.

Limitations on access to information

  • In July 2014, the National Library Board removed three books 'And Tango Makes Three', 'The White Swan Express', and 'Who's In My Family?' from the Children's Section of the National Library on the ground that they were "against social norms” as they were affirmative of non-traditional sexual orientation.
  • In February 2011, the film 'The Kids are Alright', about two teenagers growing up in a two-mother family, was given an R21 rating restricting it to adults at least 21 years old even though there were no explicit sex scenes. Furthermore, the Government imposed an unprecedented condition that only one print of this film could be allowed in the whole of Singapore. This action effectively limited access to the film.

All this and more is available in the 16-page shadow report from the Community Action Network (CAN), also endorsed by Reporters Without Borders. CAN is a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) based in Singapore which is concerned about freedom of expression, and civil and political rights. Started as an informal group, CAN comprises established civil society activists in Singapore, in their respective fields of expertise. CANs website can be found here.