For years – decades, actually – a long procession of critics has predicted the imminent demise of Singapore, arguing that the diminutive republic’s repressive political and social policies eventually would limit its economic growth as its increasingly worldly well-to-do citizens refused to go along with its repressive nature.
Well, the long procession of critics has been wrong. Singapore has the highest per-capita gross domestic product in Southeast Asia and ranks among the highest in the world while continuing to tighten the screws on its people. And in that, Singapore’s leaders have a lesson for countries like China: don’t worry about giving your citizens more political freedom as they get richer. We proved it you don’t need to.
A voluminous new report by Human Rights Watch, released today (Dec. 13) -- rather prudently in Kuala Lumpur rather than Singapore -- is depressing evidence that any hope that Singapore’s political repression would lighten up with the passing on March 23, 2015 of Lee Kuan Yew, the patriarch and founder of the modern island republic, has been misplaced.
The city “is a repressive place, where the government severely restricts what can be said, published, performed or read or watched,” according to the report, titled Kill the Chicken to Scare the Monkeys. That is a Chinese saying whose meaning is clear. “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,” according to the report. “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.”
The “chickens” who have been killed, or at least neutralized, have been given wide publicity over the recent decade. One was blogger Roy Angering, who was ordered by Singapore’s supine courts to pay S$179,000 for defaming the prime minister, fired from his job and forced into a repayment plan that will require him 17 years to pay off the damages.
Another is cartoonist Sonny Liew, whose graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, was withdrawn the day before it was scheduled to be launched. Still another was teenager Amos Yee, who posted a video online criticizing Lee Kuan Yew after his death. He was convicted and sentenced to three weeks in prison for ‘wounding religious feelings’ and jailed for an additional week on a separate obscenity charge. He ultimately sought asylum in the United States.
The editors of the online news portal The Real Singapore were prosecuted for sedition for articles that allegedly cast ethnic groups in a bad light. The editor, Ai Takagi, was given 10 months in prison. Her husband and co-editor received eight months and the website was shut down.
The British author Alan Shadrake was sentenced to six weeks in prison in 2011 for “scandalizing the judiciary” for his book, “Once a Jolly Hangman,” about unequal application of the death penalty against the rich and the poor.
Teo Soh Lung, who had been detained in 1988 under the Internal Security Act, and Ngerng were detained in 2016, their homes searched, their computers, phones and other devices seized over comments they had posted on their personal Facebook pages in reference to a by-election. Kumaran Pillai, the publisher of the online new site The Independent Singapore, and two of his associates, were given “stern warnings” in lieu of prosecution over the same election.
Although some of the rules in public assembly have been relaxed, “they remain extraordinarily strict, and restrictions on participation by foreigners have only increased over time,” the report continues. The government has also enacted new regulations to control online media”
The government, Human Rights Watch says, now uses a combination of criminal laws, oppressive regulatory restrictions, access to funding and civil lawsuits to control and limit critical speech and peaceful protest.”
The country has used its courts to go after opponents for decades. In the 1980s, Joshua B Jeyaretnam, a lawyer who became the first opposition figure to win a parliamentary seat, was prosecuted unmercifully by the government on charges of cooking his political party’s books that were found to be specious by the Privy Court. When a judge ruled in Jeyaretnam’s favor, the judge was immediately transferred to a minor job. From that point forward, no courts in Singapore ever ruled against the government again in a long string of defamation suits and contempt of court charges against political opponents and the news media.
That has included the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the new-defunct International Herald Tribune, Time Magazine, the Financial Times, AsiaWeek and many others. The Asian Wall Street Journal, which has been discontinued as a print publication, was forced to cut its circulation from 10,000 copies per day to 600. The Far Eastern Economic Review, at the time the most important magazine in the region, was printed in Singapore by the government without its advertising to deny the magazine its revenue.
“The laws most frequently used to prosecute peaceful expression in Singapore are contempt, section and the Public Order Act, although the government has also resorted to laws against public nuisance, “wounding religious feelings” and display of flags, among others, to silent dissent,” the report notes. “Laws that impose criminal penalties for peaceful expression are of particular concern because of their broader chilling effect on free speech.”
A grudging move to allow even a modicum of free expression – a “speaker’s corner” in Hong Lim Park – provides precious little of it. The rules governing the space were amended a year ago to prohibit foreign companies from sponsoring events there and the ban on participation by foreigners has been expanded.
With the print and broadcast media under the thumb of the government, alternative voices turned to the Internet, only to have the government increase its regulation of content providers. Websites found to discuss political or religious issues relating to the country are subject to additional registration procedures and restrictions. They are subject to detailed financial reporting requirements to make sure no foreigners – think George Soros and his democracy project – need apply.
Human Rights Watch presents a detailed list of recommendations to lighten up – develop a plan to repeal all laws inconsistent with international human rights standard’s, drop all prosecutions and close all investigations violating the right to freedom of expression or peaceful assembly, instruct all police departments to stop hindering peaceful assembly and end the use of warrantless arrest and searches for offenses relating to peaceful expression and assembly.
None of those recommendations is even faintly likely to be listened to.
John Berthelsen is the editor of Asia Sentinel. He was refused an additional work visa after a year in Singapore and forced to leave the country in 1988. When he attempted to visit in 2008, he was stopped and deported.