United States President Barack Obama should press visiting Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to address the Singapore government’s severe restrictions on fundamental freedoms, Human Rights Watch said today. President Obama will meet with Prime Minister Lee in Washington, DC, on 2 August 2016.
“President Obama should make it clear to Prime Minister Lee that Singapore’s increasing repression of its own people has not gone unnoticed,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “He should call on Singapore to revise laws curtailing free speech and peaceful assembly, and end discrimination against the country’s LGBT community.”
In a letter to President Obama on 8 July, Human Rights Watch highlighted key human rights issues including restrictions on fundamental rights, lack of protection for LGBT individuals, and censorship of media and the arts.
Consensual relations between two male persons remains a criminal offense in Singapore, and the government routinely censors positive portrayals of LGBT lives, or even mention of LGBT issues. A recent episode of the US program The Ellen DeGeneres Show on which President Obama praised host Ellen DeGeneres for her activism for LGBT people was censored when it was shown in Singapore. LGBT organizations are denied the right to register as associations, and LGBT individuals have no legal protection against discrimination on grounds of sexuality.
Singapore’s long-time restrictions on civil and political rights have not been relaxed under the Lee Hsien Loong government, Human Rights Watch said. The government stifles the political environment and imposes severe restrictions on basic rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. It also effectively controls the print media, and online media outlets are required to register with the government and post significant performance bonds.
The authorities target for prosecution bloggers who comment on political issues through vague and overly broad legal provisions on public order, morality, security, and racial and religious harmony. Over the years, Singapore has also regularly used politically motivated defamation suits to silence critics and bankrupt political opponents.
In May 2016, the police interrogated long-time activist Teo Soh Lung and blogger Roy Ngerng Yi Ling, alleging that they violated election laws restricting political campaigning during a mandatory “cooling-off period” before a recent by-election. The police based their actions on separate posts the two activists had made on their personal Facebook pages. The heavy-handed actions by the police, who searched the homes of both Teo and Ngerng, seizing phones and computers, appeared to be an effort to intimidate the two outspoken activists.
Public assemblies are strictly regulated in Singapore, with permits required for gatherings outside of the designated Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park. Permits for anything remotely political are routinely denied, and even within Hong Lim Park protesters face restrictions on what they can do or say.
“Singapore likes to position itself as a modern center for trade and the arts,” Robertson said. “But President Obama needs to say frankly that the government’s harsh laws and harassment risk undermining the country’s role as a hub for international business.”