Freedom of Speech and Expression: The constitution provides for freedom of speech and freedom of expression but imposes official restrictions on these rights, and the government significantly restricted freedom of speech and of the press involving criticism of the government and statements that the government contended would undermine social or religious harmony. Government intimidation and pressure to conform resulted in self-censorship among many journalists. Nevertheless, there was an increase in open debate regarding government policies, particularly during the year’s general election, to a minor extent in newspapers but more often on the internet. The government-linked media extensively covered opposition parties and candidates.
Citizens need a permit to speak at indoor public gatherings outside the hearing or view of nonparticipants if the topic refers to race or religion. In the campaign leading to the year’s general election, no opposition parties reported facing any restrictions in holding campaign rallies.
The government effectively restricted the ability to speak or demonstrate freely in public to a single location called Speakers’ Corner, located in a public park adjacent to a noisy intersection. Prospective speakers must be citizens, must preregister online with the National Parks Board, and must provide the topic of their speech. Regulations governing the Speakers’ Corner state: “The speech should not be religious in nature and should not have the potential to cause feelings of enmity, ill will, or hostility between different racial or religious groups.” Permanent residents and other foreigners may also speak or participate in or organize activities at the Speakers’ Corner but are required to obtain a police permit. Those who organize “assemblies and processions” involving foreigners are also required to obtain a permit.
Press and Media Freedoms: Under the ISA the government may restrict or place conditions on publications that incite violence, counsel disobedience to the law, have the potential to arouse tensions in the country’s diverse population, or threaten national interests, national security, or public order. The government has not invoked the ISA against political opponents since 1998.
Government leaders urged that news media support the goals of the elected leadership and help maintain social and religious harmony. In addition to enforcing strict defamation and press laws, the government’s demonstrated willingness to respond vigorously to what it considered personal attacks on officials led journalists and editors to moderate or limit what was published. In some instances the government sued journalists or online bloggers for defamation or for stories that the authorities believed undermined social and religious harmony.
The government strongly influenced both the print and electronic media. Two companies, Singapore Press Holdings Limited (SPH) and MediaCorp, owned all general circulation newspapers in the four official languages of English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. SPH is a private holding company with close ties to the government; the government must approve (and can remove) the holders of SPH management shares, who have the power to appoint or dismiss all directors or staff. The government investment company Temasek Holdings wholly owned MediaCorp. As a result, while newspapers printed a large and diverse selection of articles from domestic and foreign sources, their editorials, coverage of domestic events, and reporting of sensitive foreign relations topics usually closely reflected official government policies and the opinions of government leaders.
Columnists’ opinions and letters to the editor expressed a moderate range of opinions on public issues, some critical of government policies.
Government-linked companies and organizations operated all domestic broadcast television channels and almost all radio stations. Only one radio station, the BBC World Service, was completely independent of the government. Residents could receive some Malaysian and Indonesian television and radio programming, but with few exceptions authorities prohibited satellite dishes. Cable subscribers had access to numerous foreign television shows and a wide array of international news channels and many entertainment channels. The government did not censor international news channels but did censor entertainment programs to remove or edit coarse language, representations of intimate gay and lesbian relationships, and explicit sexual content.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Media Development Authority (MDA), a statutory board under the Ministry of Communications and Information, continued to regulate heavily broadcast, print, and other media, including movies, video materials, computer games, and music. Banned publications consisted primarily of sexually oriented materials but also included some religious and political publications. The MDA developed censorship standards including age-appropriate classification of media content with the help of various citizen advisory panels. The ISA, UPA, and Films Act allow the banning, seizure, censorship, or restriction of written, visual, or musical materials if authorities determine that such materials threaten the stability of the state, contravene moral norms, are pornographic, show excessive or gratuitous sex and violence, glamorize or promote drug use, or incite racial, religious, or linguistic animosities. The MDA has the power to sanction broadcasters for broadcasting what it believed to be inappropriate content. All content shown between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. must be suitable for viewers of all ages. In June, a day before the annual Pink Dot event in support of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community, the MDA refused a rating for a 15-second pre-event advertisement, not because of explicit content but on the grounds that “it is not in the public interest to allow cinema halls to carry advertising on LGBTI issues,” thus effectively banning it.
In 2014 the National Library Board of Singapore (NLB) banned two children’s books that describe various family structures, including adoption by gay parents and interracial couples. The NLB subsequently announced it moved these books to the adult section rather than destroy them. In April the NLB set up the Library Consultative Panel comprising 19 members from “a broad cross-section of society” to provide recommendations to NLB in reviewing titles identified by the public as controversial. This panel may seek public views through focus groups and interviews.
Under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, the government may limit the circulation of foreign publications it determines interfere with domestic politics. The act requires foreign publications with circulation of 300 or more copies per issue that report on politics and current events in Southeast Asia to register, post a bond of S$200,000 ($144,000), and name a person in the country to accept legal service. The requirements for offshore newspapers applied to nine foreign newspapers but exempted three others.
The government may “gazette” (limit) the circulation of publications. The government also may ban the circulation of domestic and foreign publications under provisions of the ISA and UPA. The Broadcasting Act empowers the minister for communications and information to gazette or place formal restrictions on any foreign broadcaster deemed to be engaging in domestic politics. The government can require a gazetted broadcaster to obtain express permission from the minister to continue broadcasting in the country. The government may impose restrictions on the number of households receiving a broadcaster’s programming and may fine a broadcaster up to S$100,000 ($72,000) for failing to comply.
Libel Laws/National Security: Critics charged that government leaders used defamation lawsuits or threats of such actions to discourage public criticism, coerce the press, and have used them in the past to intimidate opposition politicians. Conviction on criminal defamation charges may result in a prison sentence of up to two years, a fine, or both.
The attorney general may bring charges for contempt of court, and he used this power during the year to intimidate at least one author who published criticisms of the judiciary.
In May 2014 Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sued blogger Roy Ngerng for defamation over Ngerng’s allegations that Lee was guilty of criminal misappropriation of citizens’ contributions to the government’s Central Provident Fund (social security system). The High Court found the blogger guilty of defamation and ordered him to refrain from publishing or disseminating such allegations. In January the court ordered Ngerng to pay S$29,000 ($20,800) to Lee for costs of legal fees and related expenses and S$150,000 ($106,000) in damages. This was the first case where a defendant was found liable for defamation published online.
In 2013 authorities charged well-known blogger Alex Au with two charges of contempt of court for articles posted on his blog Yawning Bread. The Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) asserted the post contained allegations of wrongdoing by senior judicial officers. The High Court heard the case in October 2014, and in January, Au was found guilty of contempt of court over one of the two blog posts in question and fined S$8,000 ($5,750). Au appealed the decision but the appeal was dismissed.
Playing of musical instruments is banned during processions, including religious foot processions, to “deter public disorder which may be caused by rivalries between groups and to minimize the impact of the procession along the procession route.” During the annual Hindu Thaipusam procession in February, after failing to prevent some participants from playing drums, which contravened permit conditions, event organizers requested police support. Police arrested three men for vulgar speech and injury of police officers. The arrests prompted online comments, with some calling the ban on musical instruments unjustified and others alleging that the excessive police reaction provoked the situation. The AGC released a media statement to warn the public against making comments that could be considered contempt of court for interfering with the administration of justice. Local media ran stories with headlines such as “AGC warns against public or online comments on Thaipusam incident.” The online discussions stopped in short order.
Although residents generally had unrestricted access to the internet, the government subjected all internet content to similar rules and standards as traditional media, as defined under the MDA’s Internet Code of Practice. Individuals and groups could engage in the expression of views via the internet, including by e-mail. Internet service providers (ISPs) are required to ensure that content complies with the code. The MDA also regulates internet material by licensing the ISPs through which local users are required to route their internet connections. The law permits government monitoring of internet use, and the government closely monitored internet activities, such as social media posts, blogs, and podcasts. The MDA was empowered to direct service providers to block access to websites that, in the government’s view, undermined public security, national defense, racial and religious harmony, or public morals. Political and religious websites must register with the MDA. Although a government-appointed review panel recommended that the government cease banning 100 specific websites for being pornographic, inciting racial and religious intolerance, or promoting terrorism and extremism, the ban remained in effect. In 2014, 88 percent of households and as of 2013, 81 percent of individuals had internet access.
The 2013 Online News Licensing Scheme (ONLS) requires certain internet news sites to obtain a license. This requirement applies to sites that publish on average at least one article per week over a two-month period that relates to issues in Singapore and receives at least 50,000 monthly site visits over a two-month period from the unique addresses of Singapore-based internet providers. The license requires these sites to submit a bond of S$50,000 ($36,000) and to adhere to additional requirements to remove prohibited content within 24 hours of notification from the MDA. Many citizens viewed this regulation as a way to censor online critics of the government. The MDA stated there was need to regulate commercial news sites and promote conformity with other forms of media such as print and television. The minister of communications and information stated that the intent of the new regulation was not to target individual bloggers or blogs. To date, 12 news sites received notification from MDA to move to the ONLS and acceded to the request. News sites that cover political issues are required to register under the Broadcasting Act Class License to ensure that registrants do not receive foreign funding. Most websites registered upon request by the MDA, with the exception of one that chose to shut down.
In March, 16-year-old blogger Amos Yee was charged with obscenity and “wounding of religious feelings” after uploading a YouTube video criticizing the late prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. The High Court found Yee guilty of both charges in June and sentenced him to four weeks in jail. Authorities backdated the sentence and released Yee immediately as he had already spent more than four weeks in detention, including two weeks under psychiatric observation at the Institute of Mental Health. Yee filed an appeal against both the court conviction and sentence in July, and the case was pending. During the trial the AGC issued a take-down notice to local socio-political website The Online Citizen for publishing a letter from Yee’s lawyer that questioned the AGC’s process in submitting evidence as well as the suitability of a reformative training sentence for Yee on the grounds that the letter was in contempt of court.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There was limited autonomy of all public institutions of higher education and political research. Although faculty members were not technically government employees, they were subject to potential government influence. Academics spoke, published widely, and engaged in debate on social and political problems, although public comment outside the classroom or in academic publications that ventured into prohibited areas--such as criticism of political leaders or sensitive social and economic policies or comments that could disturb ethnic or religious harmony or appeared to advocate partisan political views--could result in sanctions. Publications by local academics and members of research institutions rarely deviated substantially from government views.
The law authorizes the minister of communications and information to ban any film, whether political or not, that in his opinion is “contrary to the public interest.” The law does not apply to any film sponsored by the government and allows the minister to exempt any film from the act.
Certain films barred from general release may be allowed limited showings, either censored or uncensored. Films, including banned films, were available through YouTube and other websites.