Singapore’s relationship with freedom of speech and expression has been a rather complicated affair. Its censorship laws, in particular, have been subjected to major international scrutiny and criticism, sparking debates as to whether or not this universal human right even exists within the country. By definition, freedom of speech and expression refers to the right of people to express their personal opinions publicly without fear of governmental interference, censorship or persecution (Oon).
In Singapore, the right to freedom of speech and expression is constitutionally guaranteed for citizens through Article 14 of the Singapore Constitution. However, the Parliament is entitled to impose restrictions in two situations; firstly, to protect the privileges of the Parliament or provide any contempt of court, defamation or incitement to any offence and secondly, if it is expedient in the interest of national security, friendly relations with other countries, public order or morality. This essay looks at both sides of the argument to determine whether the right to freedom of speech and expression in Singapore is myth or reality.
Article Nineteen of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” (Koh). In response to accusations of violating the UDHR from the international community, Singapore has argued that restrictions on the absolute freedom of expression is a necessity.
Citing the fact that the UDHR is built around a Western framework inapplicable to governance in Singapore, the Singaporean government has posited that an excessive focus on civil and political liberties is destabilizing and inimical to economic growth and communitarian ‘Asian’ values such as collectivism and authority (Thio). Hence, while Singaporean authorities do recognise that both the Singapore Constitution and international law protect the freedom of expression of individuals in the country, the right is by no means absolute; instead, a calibrated approach towards regulating speech is taken. This is evident in how constructive dissent is allowed, but not that which is adversarial in nature. For instance, local newspapers are allowed to and do occasionally publish content critical of the government.
According to the official narrative, as well as common understanding, the harmony between the various ethnic and religious groups in Singapore is fragile and should be fiercely protected as any racial or religious strife could have the potential to tear the country apart. This need to minimize conflicts between various groups within its multi-ethnic state has resulted in the strict regulation of offensive speech, especially when it comes to the tone on how race and religion is discussed (Abdullah). Restrictions on the freedom of race and religion-related in the island state can be found in the Singapore Penal Code, in the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act in addition to a range of other acts prohibiting content circulation of “undesirable content” in the media.
This allows the authorities to take swift action on the basis of contempt, violations of the Public Order Act or the Sedition Act as well as anything which may hurt or incite ill will toward other racial or religious groups. One example where this has occurred is the 2015 case of sixteen-year-old Amos Yee who was prosecuted and sentenced to three weeks in prison for insulting Christianity in violation of Penal Code section 298 after uploading a YouTube video of himself drawing offensive analogies between Jesus Christ and the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (Radics and Poon).
Yet, in spite of this necessity, there are strong arguments which have cast doubt on whether the freedom of speech and expression truly exists in Singapore. High-profile clampdowns on free speech as well as press freedom have become part of the Singaporean consciousness, leading to the prevalence of a fear-driven “censorial culture” (Rowlins). This is reinforced by regulatory restrictions for the press as well as defamation lawsuits against individuals.
In 2018, Reporters Without Borders ranked SG 151 out of 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index, noting that as a result of financial and judicial pressure from authorities, self-censorship is widespread. In fact, the red lines imposed by the authorities, known as out-of-bounds(OB) markers by journalists, apply to a broad spectrum of issues and public figures. Topics deemed taboo by media and society are avoided, and this pervasive fear of retaliation is manifested in a reluctance to participate in writing, distributing, or being associated with material critical of the government. Attempts have also been made by the government to curtail online news platforms existing outside of mainstream media.
For instance, The Online Citizen was gazetted by the Prime Minister’s Office as a “political association”, forcing it to adhere to political donation laws which banned from receiving funding from foreign sources while also limiting the amount of anonymous donations it could receive annually. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long has also successfully sued bloggers Roy Ngerng and Leong Sze Hian, and is currently suing TOC Editor Terry Xu over an allegedly ‘libellous’ article (Gunia).
The right to peaceful assembly in the city state is also severely restricted. The only location where a resident of the country can hold a public assembly without a permit from the government is “Speakers’ Corner” in Hong Lim Park. Permits for “cause-related” assemblies outside of the area are rarely, if ever granted. Even in the case of assemblies which don’t require one, numerous restrictions are imposed. During the 2017 annual gay pride event, Pink Dot, for example—barricades were placed around the location and each attendee’s identification card had to be checked in compliance with the law. Participation in protests is similarly subtly discouraged and placed in a negative light, with CCTV cameras covering the entire area in addition to an intrusive police surveillance that makes itself known (“Kill the Chicken”).
Seelan Paley, a performance artist, was convicted of violating the Public Order Act for walking from Hong Lim Park to Parliament while carrying a piece of art which commemorated the 32 years Chia Thye Poh was detained under the Internal Security Act. Activists who hold protests frequently also often find themselves becoming targets of police scrutiny, being called in for investigations into “illegal assemblies”, which often lead to confiscated mobile phones and laptops.
Looking at both sides of the argument as to whether the right to freedom of speech and expression in Singapore is myth or reality, it does seem to truly exist, albeit with the necessary regulation and restrictions to mitigate threats against public order, economic growth as well as communitarian ‘Asian’ values arising from free speech. However, the pressure on the press and society to self-censor as well as the suppression of speech and assembly seem to suggest otherwise. While the right may be a reality in Singapore, the scope is a rather narrow and limited one, likely in the protection of the interests of Singapore’s society as a whole.