Singapore Uses Big Guns on Small 'Threats'

Singapore this week is in the middle of two controversial cases that demonstrate that despite the March 22 passing of Lee Kuan Yew, the patriarch and founder of modern Singapore, the government has lost none of its appetite for using the legal system to bring down those it considers enemies.

One of the cases involves a 16-year-old who made an obscenity-filled eight-minute YouTube post insulting Lee Kuan Yew shortly after Lee’s death. The youth, Amos Yee Pang Sang, has been spending the past two weeks in a psychiatric ward to determine if he is autistic, a tactic that smacks of the old Soviet Union on its worst days. When he was brought to court for trial in May, he was handcuffed, had his legs shackled, and was wearing a prison-supplied t-shirt with “prisoner” emblazoned across the back.

Yee apparently was strapped to a bed in the prison’s medical facility for a day and a half after he expressed suicidal thoughts. On April 30, on his way to court, he was assaulted outside the courthouse by an assailant who punched him in the face, raising concerns about the authorities’ obligation to ensure Yee’s safety. Yee has also been subjected to a rash of threats of physical violence, which the authorities do not appear to have adequately investigated, according to Human Rights Watch.

Working for the clamp down

“Amos Yee’s conviction and jail time sends a clear message that Singapore is continuing on the path it has followed for decades – one which clamps down on dissent and freedom of expression. Amos Yee's edgy criticism falls far short of the level required for criminal proceedings,” said Margaret John, the Malaysia-Singapore Coordinator for Amnesty International of Canada.

The second case involves a young blogger and activist named Roy Ngerng Yi Ling, who faces a Supreme Court hearing beginning July 1 to determine how much money he will have to pay Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong after being found guilty last October of defaming the premier in a blog post questioning the operations of Singapore’s Central Provident Fund. Ngerng and others expect that it will be a lot.

Neither Ngerng nor Yee could be considered a threat to the Singapore government. Ngerng, a gay rights activist, lives with his father, a noodle seller, and his mother, a retired factory worker, in a Housing Development Board flat. Yee lives with his parents. His mother is a mathematics teacher. Nor are they alone. In May, an independent news website, The Real Singapore, was shut down and its editors, Singaporean Yang Kaiheng and his Australian girlfriend Ai Takagi, with seven counts of sedition and other charges for allegedly what the government called printing racially inflammatory and inaccurate stories. Local Singaporeans, however, told Asia Sentinel that the stories were hardly inflammatory enough to warrant the charges and potential fines up to S$200,000 [US$150,330] and speculated that the authorities were setting out to make an example of the website.

Nonetheless, the full weight of the island republic’s legal system has fallen on all three. Ngerng, a slight, bespectacled Chinese who blogs at thehearttruths.com, became the first blogger in Singapore to be sued under laws passed last year after he drew links between Lee’s leadership of the sovereign wealth fund and a megachurch’s ongoing trial for alleged misappropriation of funds. First Ngerng sought to mollify the prime minister by offering to pay S$5,000 [US$3,699] in settlement, which Lee rejected as derisory. Ngerng then cloud-funded S$70,000 or more to pay off his libel lawsuit from ordinary Singaporeans using social media. As expected, he lost in the Singapore court. In addition to the S$70,000 he received from his crowdfunding effort, he had to pay another S$29,000 in legal fees to the prime minister.

"When the damages come, it is likely that I would be made bankrupt," Ngerng told the Committee to Protect Journalists. "For me, it has been an enduring time of ups and downs, sometimes of hope and sometimes of dismay, at why your writing does not garner and harness the effect that it has [as in other places]. I do at times feel helpless and lost as to what I should do."

These are threats?

The case against Amos Yee has drawn a good deal more adverse publicity, with Human Rights Watch demanding that authorities exonerate the youth, who faces up to three years in prison or 18 months in a juvenile detention center for uploading the allegedly obscene image and making remarks deemed “insulting to religion.”

Whether he is autistic seems to be rather questionable, since he scored an starred A for mathematics and science and an A in English and Chinese in his primary school leaving exam, then completed his O levels with “good results,” the equivalent of a US high school diploma, but chose not to go on to university because, according to the Straits Times, he wanted to pursue a career in film and videos.

“Nothing that Amos Yee said or posted should ever have been considered criminal – much less merit incarceration,” said Phil Robertson, the Bangkok-based deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The dismal state of Singapore’s respect for free expression can be seen in the decision to impose the criminal justice system on outspoken 16-year-olds.”

The government has gone to extraordinary lengths to restrict Yee’s free expression rights, Human Rights Watch said. Bail conditions set on March 31 included a gag order that Yee not post any content or comments online while his case was ongoing. After he posted a note seeking donations to support his cause, as Ngerng did earlier, the court immediately called him for violating his bail, and jailed him from April 17-21. On April 29, he again posted content online, and the next day was jailed at Changi Prison until his trial.

Lighten up

Under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose provisions are widely recognized as customary international law, Robertson said, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media.” As a person under 18, Yee is protected by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Singapore ratified in 1995. The convention guarantees children’s rights to freedom of expression.

In the Yee case, Singapore authorities have violated other rights protected under the Child Rights Convention, Human Rights Watch said. Under the convention, children are only to be detained “as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.” Moreover, in all government actions concerning children, “the best interests of the child shall be the primary consideration.”

“Any further incarceration of Yee will just compound the damage to Singapore’s already poor reputation on basic freedoms,” Robertson said. “Nothing short of Yee’s release and the dismissal of all charges will vindicate Singapore’s justice system.”

“While bloggers like Yee may have thought that Lee Kuan Yew’s death in March could present an opportunity for the country to turn over a new leaf, it appears little has changed,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists.