Singapore’s government placed greater restrictions on the country’s already sharply curtailed free expression rights in 2019, said Human Rights Watch in its World Report 2020.
The report, which is HRW’s 30th edition, reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. It’s a sort of report card on a nation’s track record with human rights.
Freedom of expression and peaceful assembly
In the chapter on Singapore, HRW notes authorities here have used existing laws to penalise peaceful expression and protest, with activists, lawyers, and online media facing prosecution, civil defamation suits, and threats of contempt of court charges.
Highlighting the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), which took effect in October 2019, deputy Asia director at HRW Phil Robertson said, “Singapore’s long intolerance of free expression virtually ensures the online falsehoods law will be used to silence dissenters.”
“The law’s mere existence has already led critics of the government to self-censor online. Singapore’s trading partners should tell the government that every new restraint on free expression makes the country a less hospitable place to invest and do business,” he added.
HRW took note of the case against Jolovan Wham in April when he and opposition politician John Tan were fined S$5,000 each for “scandalizing the judiciary” on social media in violation of the country’s contempt laws.
HRW also highlighted Singapore’s laws which defines assembly extremely broadly. Those who fail to obtain the required permits face criminal charges. Mr Wham was also convicted in January 2019 for violating the Pubic Order Act by allowing Hong Kong citizen Joshua Wong to participate in an indoor conference via Skype without first obtaining a permit. Mr Wham was sentenced to 16 days in jail and/or a fine of S$3,200. The High Court dismissed Mr Wham’s appeal in October.
The report also mentioned the criminal and civil defamation charges being pursued against TOC chief editor Terry Xu for articles published on the site in relation to the Prime Minister and administration. One of the articles, published in September 2019, included claims made against PM Lee Hsien Loong by his siblings about the saga with their father’s property.
Criminal justice system
In terms of Singapore’s justice system, HRW’s report notes that the country still has a death penalty which is mandated for many drug offences and certain other crimes. The report points out the lack of transparency in the timing of executions and that these often take place with short notice.
The report also mentioned the execution of a Malaysian man in March despite pending petitions for clemency and another execution of a Malaysian man in November. HRW highlighted Singapore’s strong defence of the death penalty in the face of Malaysian officials calling for clemency in those cases.
Ten people were notified in July 2019 that their petitions for clemency had been rejected.
Sexual orientation and labour rights
Next, the report points to Singapore’s continued criminalisation of homosexuality under the colonial-era law it inherited from the British, Section 377A. It also notes that the government systematically censors and severely restricts any positive media or public depiction of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
Last year, the High Court heard three constitutional challenges to 377A, which the government defended.
Finally, the report also pointed to the labour issue in the country where it says foreign migrant workers face labour rights abuses and exploitation. This includes debts owed to recruitment agents, non-payment of wages, restrictions on movement, confiscation of passports, and sometimes physical and sexual abuse.
HRW noted that Singapore was one of only six countries which abstained from the new International Labour Organization convention introduced in June 2019 against violence and discrimination in the workplace.
The organisation also noted that Singapore is a regional hub for international business and it maintains a good political and economic relations with China and the United States, both of which consider the country a key security ally.
And while the European Parliament passed a resolution in February last year over concerns about the country’s treatment of its LGBT population and ongoing restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, few countries have publicly criticised Singapore for its poor human rights record, focusing priorities on business and trade instead.