Activist Jolovan Wham

[Singapore] Cyberspace Headed for More Control

Singapore‘s media industry has long been tightly controlled by the government. This is unlikely to change in 2019; in fact, new legislation is expected that could further curb press freedom and freedom of expression.

In January 2018, Parliament convened a Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods to hold public consultations and gather feedback on how to deal with “deliberate online falsehoods” or “fake news” before making recommendations to the government. The Select Committee solicited written feedback and also held open hearings.

By September 2018, the Select Committee released a lengthy report with 22 recommendations for the government. These recommendations included the provision of media literacy education, as well as support for “quality journalism.” Also among the recommendations were suggestions to introduce new laws that would tackle the spread of “deliberate online falsehoods.” Although the exact details of such legislation were not specified in the report, the Select Committee made reference to powers that would allow the government to “break the virality” of misinformation within hours, or to defund publications that spread falsehoods.

The government swiftly accepted the Select Committee’s recommendations. Speaking at the Singapore-based regional broadcaster Channel News Asia’s 20th anniversary celebrations on 29 March 2019, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that a bill would be introduced in Parliament for its first reading on 1 April 2019.

A strong grip on the press and broadcast media

Observers see this as having the potential to curtail free speech in cyberspace. As it is, long-standing laws already allow the government a large degree of influence and control over the mainstream media. The Broadcasting Act, enacted in 1994, for instance, allows the government to regulate broadcasters. There is also the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, which requires print publications to obtain an annual license to operate. The Act says as well that the government, as represented by the Minister, “may at any time withdraw the license either permanently or for such period as he thinks fit.” In addition, the Act gives the government the power to appoint the management shareholders of any newspaper company, thus allowing the government to have a say over key staffing decisions within the company and the newsroom. Amendments made in 2002 even state that no person can become a substantial shareholder of a newspaper company without government approval.

These have been possible in large part because the People’s Action Party, commonly known as the PAP, has been in government in Singapore since it first came to power in 1959. The party has long enjoyed a supermajority in Parliament, allowing it to pass laws and amendments — including constitutional amendments — with ease.

The ruling party is currently in the midst of a leadership transition from the third generation (3G) to fourth generation (4G) of party leaders. Lee Hsien Loong, who has been Prime Minister since 2004, has indicated that he intends to step down from the top spot after the next general election, due to be called before 2021. During the PAP’s Central Executive Committee election in 2018, Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat was appointed the first assistant secretary general of the party, which has been taken as a sign that he could be Lee’s successor.

Given both the ongoing transition and speculation over a snap election, there are concerns that the Lee Hsien Loong administration will clamp down on dissent both offline and online. Recent rulings already point to such a pattern, as do notable cases of investigations and prosecutions.

Gearing up against ‘foreign interference’

Alongside anti-“fake news” legislation, Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong has indicated that the government is considering laws to deal with foreign interference in Singapore’s domestic politics. In response to a question in Parliament, he said: “In the physical world, foreign actors may interfere in our domestic politics through the use of proxies, by funding or donating to politically-involved individuals and organizations, or by taking on key leadership roles in the organizations.  Our laws must minimize the possibility of such entities being thus used and manipulated. We must not allow foreign actors to undermine our political sovereignty, nor our ability to make our own choices on how we want to govern our country, and live our lives.”

There is as yet no bill detailing the measures and powers that the government would like to have. But there are concerns that the authorities’ plan to deal with “foreign interference” is yet another way to further curtail rights. After all, the Singapore government has previously used “foreign interference” as a justification to clamp down on civil-society activities. In 2017, for example, the government added regulations to Hong Lim Park — the only space in which Singaporeans can demonstrate without a permit — that banned foreigners from being present during activities, which meant that the annual LGBT rights rally Pink Dot had to be barricaded and attendees ID-checked.

“Foreign interference” was used as a justification as well to deny registration in April 2018 to the parent company of New Naratif, a Southeast Asian multi-media platform founded by Singaporeans Dr. Thum Ping Tjin, Kirsten Han, and Sonny Liew. According to the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority, not only was New Naratif  “political” in nature, it was also being funded by the likes of the U.S.-based Open Society Foundation, thus making it “contrary to Singapore’s national interest” to allow the outfit to register as a company in Singapore. In September 2018, an appeal against the decision was rejected.

The case of New Naratif is also significant since local alternative media in Singapore exists solely online. They continue to run into sustainability challenges in terms of fundamental needs such as funding and talent. Numerous outlets — such as Breakfast Network, Inconvenient Questions, SIX-SIX, and The Middle Ground — have started up and shut down over the years amid difficulties in obtaining sufficient funding to keep operations afloat. Government regulation that restricts alternative-media publications from obtaining funding, such as grants or donations, from foreign sources — for reasons of preventing foreign interference — further adds to these platforms’ financial woes.

Counterbalance to mainstream media

But these alternative voices are crucial to Singaporean democracy. The long-term influence and control of PAP rule in Singapore, along with current legislation, have rendered public perception of the mainstream media — both print and broadcast — as “pro-government” (often conflated with being “pro-PAP”, given the local context) and toeing the establishment line. And while documented instances of government influence and pressure on mainstream media newsrooms are unusual, they are not unheard of. In October 2018, Yahoo! Singapore reported that Li Xueying, the former political editor of The Straits Times, had been transferred to the Enterprise desk two months earlier because government officials had been unhappy with some of the paper’s political stories under her watch.

The online alternative media’s experiences with the state’s heavy hand have been more apparent. For example, The Online Citizen, popularly known as TOC, was previously gazetted by the Prime Minister’s Office as a “political association.” Operating since 2006, it is Singapore’s  longest-standing online independent media platform and survives on limited advertising revenue, as well as donations and support on platforms like Patreon. The website was eventually de-gazetted, but in February 2018 it was required to register with the Info-Communications Media Development Authority (IMDA). Under this registration, all income must be declared to the IMDA on a monthly basis. In December 2018, the IMDA also required TOC to verify that donations were all coming from Singaporean citizens by collecting full names and national registration identity numbers.

In addition, TOC Chief Editor Terry Xu and contributor Daniel De Costa have been hauled into court. On 4 September 2018, The Online Citizen published a letter to the editor written by a “Willy Sum” (a pseudonym apparently used by De Costa) that made reference to “corruption at the highest echelons” of Singapore’s ruling party and “tampering with the constitution.” IMDA then sent TOC a letter demanding that Xu remove the article within six hours. Xu complied, but IMDA still lodged a police report against him in October 2018, which led the police to search his house and seize his electronic devices.

Xu and De Costa were charged with criminal defamation on 13 December 2018; De Costa also faces an additional charge of unauthorized access to computer material.

Chasing after Wham

It is civil-rights activist Jolovan Wham, however, who is currently the individual most caught in the crosshairs of the Lee Hsien Loong administration. A social worker who has been active in advocating for the rights of migrant workers for over a decade, Wham has been outspoken about the state of civil liberties and political rights in Singapore. He now has a long list of investigations and charges to his name.

In February 2019, Wham was convicted of organizing a public assembly without permit and refusing to sign a police statement. The public assembly in question was an indoor forum on civil disobedience and social movements, in which Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua was a speaker, giving his talk via Skype. The authorities said that, as Wong was a foreigner, Wham should have obtained a permit for the event. Wham was sentenced to a total fine of SGD 3,200 (around USD 2,360). He is currently appealing the conviction and sentence, but has indicated that, if unsuccessful, he would serve a 16-day prison term in lieu of paying the fine.

The Attorney-General Chambers has not yet proceeded with the other charges against Wham, some of which are also for allegedly organizing illegal assemblies. These assemblies include a silent protest on an MRT train, and a candlelight vigil outside the prison the night of an execution. On top of this, the police have opened a new investigation against Wham — again for alleged participation in an illegal assembly—for having taken a photo outside the State Courts that showed him holding a small sign calling for the charges against TOC Chief Editor Xu and letter-writer De Costa to be dropped.

Wham has also been convicted of “scandalizing the judiciary” for a Facebook post. On 27 April 2018, Wham posted a link to an article about a constitutional challenge filed in Malaysia against its Anti-Fake News Act. His comment included the remark that “Malaysian judges are more independent than Singapore’s for cases with political implications” and that it would be “interesting to see” how the case turned out. Wham was charged under Singapore’s Administration of Justice (Protection) Act and convicted in October 2018 of scandalizing the judiciary, a form of contempt of court. Opposition politician John Tan was also charged and convicted for posting on Facebook that, by charging Wham, the Attorney-General’s Chambers had merely proven that Wham was right. Both Wham and Tan were each fined SGD 5,000 (about USD 3,670) on 29 April 2019, and are appealing their sentence and conviction.

A procession of investigations

Other cases have raised concerns as well about the shrinking space for freedom of expression in Singapore. In October 2017, artist Seelan Palay was arrested while performing the piece “32 Years: The Interrogation of a Mirror. As part of this performance, Palay had walked from Hong Lim Park to the National Gallery, and then to Parliament House, all the while carrying a mirror. He stood outside Parliament House alone in silence. He was arrested by the police and later charged with participating in an illegal procession. He was convicted in October 2018 and fined SGD 2,500 (USD 1,845). He refused to pay the fine, and was thus jailed for two weeks instead.

In November 2018, the tabloid website States Times Review — a website run by a Singaporean in Australia, known to be both critical of the PAP as well as unreliable in terms of accuracy — published an article claiming that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had become a key target of Malaysia’s infamous 1MDB investigations. It was also picked up and circulated by The Coverage, a Malaysian website with a similar reputation for playing fast and loose with the facts. The article was then widely shared on social media. Leong Sze Hian, a Singaporean financial advisor and former president of the human-rights NGO Maruah was among those who shared the piece, posting a link to it on his personal Facebook page, but without comment.

The Singapore government was quick to denounce the article. The Monetary Authority of Singapore filed a police report against States Times Review, while IMDA issued a takedown order. The website was later temporarily blocked by the Singaporean authorities after it refused to comply with the order.

In his personal capacity, Prime Minister Lee is now suing Leong for defamation, claiming that the article was “an attack against me personally as well as against the Singapore Government, of which I am the head.” Leong’s attempt to counter-sue Lee for abusing court process was dismissed in March 2019. As of this writing, Leong has indicated that he will be appealing the decision.

Then there is Sangeetha Thanapal, an independent scholar vocal about racism in Singapore. In January 2019, she was investigated by the police during a trip back to the country from Australia, where she is now based. The official scrutiny had to do with a Facebook post she had made with regard to the Hollywood film Crazy Rich Asians, which is set in Singapore. Among other things, Thanapal wrote that Singapore “is a terribly racist country” that had “embarked on a form of eugenics in the 1980s meant to displace its indigenous population and replace it with settler colonial Chinese people.” She was later issued a stern warning by the police, who claimed that the post spread “feelings of ill-will and hostility between races.”

Literal threats against state’s ‘critics’

But Singaporean authorities do not have to go through official routes for citizens to feel under threat just for expressing their views. In September 2018, four Singaporeans — Dr. Thum Ping Tjin, Jolovan Wham, Kirsten Han, and Sonny Liew — met Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad alongside Malaysian activist Hishamrudin Rais and Singaporean political exile Tan Wah Piow. After the visit, Thum posted a photo of himself with Mahathir on his Facebook page, and included in the caption that he had urged the newly elected Malaysian prime minister “to take leadership in Southeast Asia for the promotion of democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of information.”

At least two members of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods reacted quickly to the post. Seah Kian Peng, a PAP Member of Parliament, said in a Facebook post that the Singaporeans who visited Mahathir had invited him to interfere in Singapore’s domestic affairs. “PJ Thum does not wish Singapore well,” Seah added in his post. Another Committee member, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, later amplified Seah’s claims in comments to the mainstream press.

Thum, Wham, and Han reported an uptick in online abuse after these remarks. Numerous comments accused the trio of treason and demanded penalties ranging from arrest to detention without trial and even death.

This is the Singapore that exists beneath the façade of a developed, cosmopolitan “Smart Nation” that is open for business. Indeed, while Singaporeans enjoy a high level of online and social media access, there are many levers of control at the government’s disposal. With the incoming legislation against “deliberate online falsehoods,” observers have become even more pessimistic.

Even as means of communication expand and advance, Singaporeans seem doomed to have an ever-shrinking space for press freedom and freedom of expression.

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