PAP Policy Forum at the Select Committee hearing to criticise the findings of HRW.

Human Rights Watch issues response to Singapore government on Select Committee hearings

Response issued by Human Rights Watch, international human rights non-government organisation towards criticism made against its report published in 2017 and its “failure” to turn up at the Select Committee’s hearing to defend its report.

On October 30, 2017, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to four senior members of Singapore’s government requesting their input and response to the findings of our research for our 133-page report, “‘Kill the Chicken to Scare the Monkeys’: Suppression of Free Expression and Assembly in Singapore.” The report analyzes the laws and regulations used by the Singapore government to suppress the rights to free speech and peaceful assembly, including the Public Order Act, the Sedition Act, the Broadcasting Act, various penal code provisions, and laws on criminal contempt. The letter, a copy of which is included in an appendix of the report, was sent to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Minister for Home Affairs K. Shanmugam, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim, and Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan. Human Rights Watch received no response by the time of publication of the report on December 13, 2017. We still have not received a response.

As the government has not disputed our factual findings and has not replied to our recommendations, which were offered in good faith to promote and protect free expression and peaceful assembly in Singapore, it is both ironic and absurd that the Ministry of Law and members of the ruling People’s Action Party are now accusing Human Rights Watch of being unwilling to defend our report.

The Singapore parliament invited Human Rights Watch to give evidence about “Deliberate Online Falsehoods.” Human Rights Watch has no staff based in Singapore. We offered to send the relevant staff member on a particular date, but the committee did not confirm a date that could work for our staff until after we had made other commitments. As we said in our response to parliament, we look forward to reading any submissions and will respond if we think it is necessary and appropriate. To date, no submission has raised any serious question about our factual findings. We have also offered to meet with government officials in Singapore or elsewhere, or relevant parliamentarians, at a mutually convenient date to discuss the report.

It is now clear that the purpose of the hearing was not to discuss our findings and recommendations in good faith, or to get our input into dealing with “deliberate online falsehoods” in a manner consistent with international standards, but to engage in ridiculous and irrelevant arguments aimed to discredit our report and Human Rights Watch. The people of Singapore are not served by a government and ruling party that appears to be more interested in public grandstanding than having a substantive discussion about threats to the internationally protected rights to freedom of expression and assembly.

During the 23rd March hearing at the Select CommitteDeliberatebrate Online Falsehoods, the People’s Action Party Policy Forum (PPF) slammed HRW’s 2017 report which described Singapore as a “repressive place” that imposed criminal penalties for peaceful speech.

PPF, an arm of the People’s Action Party that engages Government leaders on policy issues, called the report as a “type of deliberate falsehood” in a written submission to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods on Friday (Mar 23).

PPF said the report is “an example of how false and misleading impressions can be created by a selective presentation of facts, designed to promote an underlying agenda”, which is to change the society in Singapore and also criticised the report’s methodology, calling it “biased and flawed”.

It said the report was largely based on interviews with 34 individuals, whose words were used to “offer injunctions and prescriptions to an entire country”. There was also no explanation, the PPF added, on how these individuals, some of whom do not appear to be Singaporeans, were selected. Furthermore, the PPF pointed out that the report failed to include relevant, reputable third-party studies, given its claims that Singapore’s Government suppresses dissent and criticism.

On the same day, Ministry of Law issued a statement stating that HRW would have been able to vindicate itself and set out its views if it turned up at the hearing.

“HRW will be able to speak directly to the elected representatives of Singaporeans, in a public setting, with local and international media present. What is more, whatever HRW said to the Select Committee would be fully protected by the laws of parliamentary privilege. HRW will also be able to defend its Report in public.

But HRW has chosen not to appear before the Select Committee. HRW’s initial willingness to appear before the Select Committee evaporated once it was informed that its representative should be prepared to answer questions about its Report. HRW remained unwilling to appear even after it was further informed that another submission had charged that its Report was full of falsehoods. This was despite the fact that HRW was told that it could come and give evidence on any date between 15-29 March, a period of 14 days. It was also offered travel funding, which is offered to all overseas witnesses who appear at the Select Committee. HRW was also told that if its officers could not come to Singapore, they could give its evidence via videoconference on any day between 15-29 March.

HRW’s stance is disappointing, but not surprising. HRW has a pattern of issuing biased and untruthful statements about Singapore. It knows that its Report will not withstand any scrutiny, and has therefore chosen not to come to Singapore to publicly defend its views. HRW, by its conduct, has shown that it cannot be taken seriously as a commentator or interlocutor on issues relating to Singapore.”