Amnesty International’s Harsh Criticism of Singapore
Ruling PAP leadership unlikely to listen
The UK-based human rights organization Amnesty International is charging the Singapore government with continuing to silence human rights defenders and other critics ahead of upcoming elections, subjecting “well-known activists and critics of the government…to further investigation and harassment…solely for freely expressing their views and opinions.”
Although no general elections are due before November 23, 2025, the government, headed by the 71-year-old Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who has headed the People's Action Party co-founded by his father Lee Kuan Yew for the past 19 years, is expected to go to the polls later this year. While the country’s presidential election, which is held separately from the parliamentary polls, is due later this year, many in Singapore expect that inflation, rising property prices, and other issues will force Lee to call a snap election in the near future.
Singapore, with its insular political culture and long record of dominance by the PAP, which has ruled the country from its inception as a distorted parliamentary democracy, has never buckled under criticism and is unlikely to bother with the Amnesty International report. It can point to an unbroken record of electoral victories far above a mere plurality going back to Singapore’s independence in 1965 in the face of criticism that the government has used pliant courts to bludgeon the press, both international and local, as well as political opponents, into submission.
Nonetheless, the introduction of an Online Criminal Harms Bill on May 8 “threatens to further decrease the space for free speech in the country,” Amnesty International said in a prepared release, setting the conditions for a wider crackdown against dissent. The human rights organization cited the case of editor Terry Xu, who was made to pay S$30,000 (US$ 22,474) in fines and other costs for contempt of court for “impugning the reputation of the Singapore judiciary” for the publication of an open letter in 2021 on his website, The Online Citizen. The letter criticized a speech by the Chief Justice of Singapore for failing to mention a case involving the current prime minister’s brother Lee Hsien Yang and his wife Lee Suet Fern, who have been involved for several years in a bitter squabble with their brother over the disposition of the colonial era home of the late Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister and the father of Hsien Loong and Hsien Yang.
Amnesty International also cited the suspension of the license of human rights lawyer M Ravi, who specializes in death penalty cases, for five years in response to statements he made outside a courthouse and posts he shared on Facebook in 2020 about his client, Gobi Avedian, after he was spared the death penalty. “The suspension of M Ravi and the conviction of Xu are emblematic examples of the way in which the authorities are undermining the peaceful exercise of human rights, including the right to freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial,’ Amnesty International said. “This poses serious challenges at any time but especially in the context of elections, where the right to freedom of expression enables meaningful public debate, ensures that all individuals are able to freely express their opinions, and gives everyone the freedom to seek sufficient information to exercise their right to participate in public affairs.”
Amnesty International accused the government of misusing the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act and other laws to stifle criticism, pointing out that the act, under the guise of protecting the judicial system, “has been used to criminalize those who question court decisions or the administration of justice in Singapore.” The Act “prevents human rights defenders, government critics and members of the public from discussing any judicial proceeding, including cases of public interest and of crucial importance to the enhancement of human rights in the country.” Xu, it said, has faced numerous charges, convictions, and fines for previous articles published in The Online Citizen, many for their critical stance towards the government. Xu has since moved its operations to Taiwan, where he resumed publishing to scrutinize the Singaporean authorities.
The Amnesty International report follows an equally scathing one by Human Rights Watch in 2017 titled “Kill the Chicken to Scare the Monkeys: Suppression of Free Expression and Assembly in Singapore,” in which the New York-based NGO said, “Beneath the slick surface of gleaming high-rises, however, it is a repressive place, where the government severely restricts what can be said, published, performed, read, or watched. Those who criticize the government or the judiciary, or publicly discuss race and religion, frequently find themselves facing criminal investigations and charges, or civil defamation suits and crippling damages. Peaceful public demonstrations and other assemblies are severely limited, and failure to comply with detailed restrictions on what can be said and who can participate in public gatherings frequently results in police investigations and the threat of criminal charges.”
Attacks against lawyers, particularly those defending people on death row, have been increasing for some time, especially since the hanging in April of a 46-year-old Singaporean for trafficking a kilogram of cannabis, which has now become a legal recreational drug in many western countries as well as Thailand. Neighboring country Malaysia earlier this year abolished the death penalty.
Ravi, who is well known for representing people facing imminent execution and who has long been subject to harassment by the authorities, was also issued with cost orders in 2022 to pay more than S$70,000 in relation to the filing of several post-conviction appeals, after he was found to have allegedly abused the court process, Amnesty International said.
The most recent crackdown has also targeted other prominent critics, the release continued, citing the case of Lee Hsien Yang, the prime minister’s own brother, and his wife Lee Suet Fern, who were under police investigation for perjury and accused of absconding in a case that has to be a major embarrassment to the country’s judiciary, giving the impression that Hsien Loong is using the levers of the courts in a family vendetta. Hsien Yang and Suet Fern are suspected of acting improperly over Lee Kuan Yew’s will involving Lee Senior’s house.
Lee Hsien Yang has become increasingly critical of his brother’s government amid a long-running feud over their late father’s estate. In March, Lee Hsien Yang confirmed that he and his wife have left Singapore due to fear of reprisals. Their son, Li Shengwu, was previously convicted of contempt of court and fined in 2020 after expressing critical views of the judiciary and has been living outside the country for fear of further sanctions.
In findings that are regarded to have weakened the case against Hsien Yang and Suet Fern, a disciplinary tribunal fined lawyer Kwa Kim Li S$13,000 on May 5 for misconduct over her handling of Kuan Yew’s wills. According to a report of the disciplinary tribunal released on May 5, Kwa, a niece of Lee Kuan Yew’s late wife Kwa Geok Choo, misled Lee Hsien Yang and his sister Lee Wei Ling in response to their queries.
“We find that (Kwa’s) omission to disclose the emails of 30 November 2013 and 12 December 2013 in her email of 22 June 2015 is misleading. We further find that her statement in that same email that she did not receive any instructions from (Lee Kuan Yew) to change his Will is false,” said the disciplinary tribunal’s report.
Kwa is the managing partner of Lee & Lee, a Singapore law firm founded by Lee Kuan Yew, his wife, and his late brother Dennis Lee Kim Yew.
“Ahead of the Presidential elections, Amnesty International calls on the Singapore government and the judiciary to stop the harassment, intimidation, and unjust prosecution of human rights defenders and other government critics under repressive laws, and to respect the rights to freedom of expression, fair trial and due process for all people in Singapore,” the organization said.
The organization also urges the Singapore government to focus its efforts on engaging in and encouraging public discussion of human rights issues, rather than attacking and silencing critics and introducing new legislation to further stifle freedom of expression.