Human right in Singapore is indeed in a sorry state because the laws and freedom that we enjoy today is a privilege and not an entitlement. Meaning it can be given and revoked at anytime if the government deems it necessary.
There are rights that citizens should enjoy but denied by the administration. One such right is the right to information. The Freedom of Information (FOI) can be defined as the right to access information held by public bodies. It is an integral part of the fundamental right of freedom of expression.
Singapore is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and under the Article 19 of the declaration states that the fundamental right of freedom of expression encompasses the freedom to “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.
However, the access of public information in Singapore is simply horrendous. Both on the media landscape and the government body. Information that the government releases. are often nothing more than jumbled up statistics that doesn’t tell the full story, such as reporting employment statistics that lump Singaporeans and Permanent Residents in one category and reporters do not care or dare to ask for the breakdown of information.
Though it is of no surprise to those living in Singapore after late Lee Kuan Yew suppressed the once-liberal press into his party’s propaganda mouthpieces.
Today, Singapore is ranked 154th under Reporters without Border’s World Press Freedom ranking.
In its report, It states that the government and its ruling party uses Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation to deter freedom of speech. Which consists of bringing defamation suits or other legal actions against isolated journalists and bloggers who cannot easily defend themselves against political powerful or weathly plaintiffs, with the aim of deterring them and their colleagues from contributing to the public debate.
The media in Singapore operate under the blessing if the ruling party. Under the National Printing Press Act (NPPA), media that are not endorsed by the government are denied the right to operate in Singapore. Those of foreign origin are allowed to operate so long it does not offend the establishment, examples have been made of publications such as Far Eastern Economic Review and Al Jazeera, who overstepped their boundaries given to them.
Journalists in Singapore, as much as they try, are unable to step out of the self-censoring mindset because their rice bowls depends on toeing the line, and even if they do manage to push boundaries, they are brought back to the confines of OB markers by their editors who are handpicked by the establishment.
We can rely on reporters for information in Singapore but we cannot trust them to tell the truth of the information that they report. The press in Singapore is either owned or co-opted into the system, helping to promote the good that the government has done and covering up the side effects that the policies bring to the people.
Censorship cannot be any more clearer than in the case of 14-year-old Benjamin Lim. It is widely understood that there was a black out of news on his suicide and circumstances. When many newspapers had interviewed his parents for their side of the story but none have decided to report on it or could not report on it because of internalised self-censorship and the threat of repercussion from the establishment.
The kind of response that came after the reports by the government has been disappointing. Instead of focusing on the lack of sensitivity by the police on handling minors, it decided to focus on the reports made by TOC which have been submitted by normal citizens.
In one of the TOC reports on how Police manage its arrests, one shared how her father was wrongly arrested by the police despite having dementia. CNA tried to report on the story along with the other stories that TOC gathered but was stopped by the powers that be.
And although Singapore has a population well-integrated in social media, many are deterred from voicing out their opinions because of the threat of being faced with lawsuits and repercussion in personal life.
Individuals such as Roy Ngerng and Amos Yee who have been prosecuted for their views and opinions, regardless of the validity of the content, have been made examples to the popluation. Since then, more have been silenced to speak up on issues that ought to be discussed.
Laws in Singapore on providing for free speech is essentially zero. The only thing I fear reporting in Singapore is not on the all powerful goverment but on corporate entities, because Singapore’s defamation laws are so liberal that one can sue another even without justification or a higher standards to fulfil when one’s target is a journalistic platform. And companies can hide behind their mistakes or grafts by simply silencing and threatening one with a massive legal battle.
Of course, freedom of expression does not mean a free for all right to say or do whatever you like, but still, one cannot be silent through legal threats and suppression from the society. Whether the opinion is right or wrong, one should be corrected with opinions and not lawsuits.
Freedom to information is the freedom to choose. Without information, one is deprived of options to choose from, sticking to only the beaten path instead of better routes to take.
One such example is the debate on death penalty. Many feel the need for the death penalty is for deterrence but yet studies have shown that death penalty does not deter the crimes that they are meant to and just recently, survey by the National University of Singapore has shown that majority of Singaporeans are not die-hard death penalty supporters as much as the establishment claim them to be.
Another clear example of how the government prevents the absorption of information is the lack of live feed of the parliament proceeding. There is no sense and logic in why there is no livefeed of the debates happening in Parliament, given its resources, apart from the point of trying to hide information from the public.
Sure, the parliament say that there is Hansard where the parliament proceedings are documented in but I can attest that there are certain stuff that happens in the parliament that are not documented. Such as the almost empty parliament during speeches and the behavior of certain MPs when it comes to bullying of the opposition parliamentary members. Perhaps, the government really believes a lag in broadcast can still garner interest with the public just as how it said it was ok to broadcast the Olympics hours after the event have ended.
A functioning democracy cannot do with proper information dissemination. Without unfiltered information, citizens will not be able to discern for themselves on the effect of national policies and the authenticity of claims made by politicians on issues and happenings in Singapore. Rendering the task of making an informed decision much daunting than it is for many citizens who have just too much things to cope with in life.
There is much to be done in improving the freedom of information in Singapore and it can only be done when people choose to ask for the rights that they are entitled to and not wait for every five years to make their voice to be heard.
This is an edited version of the speech delivered at Hong Lim Park on 10 Dec for Human Rights Day