Singapore kills a Chicken to Scare the Monkeys
Presented with a critical article on sex lounges, authorities make sure that won't happen again
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Singapore government, under the direction of section 11 of its “Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act of 2019 (POFMA),” has demanded that Asia Sentinel post the following demand for correction. Although we are posting the government’s demand, which we received at 10:51 AM on May 27, we are reserving the right to answer their demand at a future time. In the meantime, we stand by our story.
This article contains false statements of fact. The facts are:
The Singapore Government did not threaten to end the business operations of Nikkei Inc. in Singapore;
M Ravi was not suspended from practising law for criticising the Government; and
Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Suet Fern were not threatened with Government action for warring with Lee Hsien Loong.
For the details of the facts, click here: https://www.gov.sg/article/factually260523
On July 23, 2021, an article appeared in the Tokyo-based English-language weekly Nikkei Asia Review, calling attention to the Singapore government's handling of so-called KTV lounges, alleging that decades of institutional failures in dealing with what the article called "organized crime cartels” were running what amounted to illegal brothels, which were responsible for the widespread spread of Covid-19 among the lounges’ patrons.
The result was astonishing. The story got an unheard-of 1.5 million hits from amid Singapore’s 5 million-odd population virtually from the moment it was uploaded, and far more than Nikkei had ever scored on a Singapore story, by a factor of thousands. As most Singaporeans know, the KTV lounges have been an embarrassment to strait-laced Singapore for decades, widely regarded as an unregulated hotbed not only for the coronavirus but as places where prostitution flourishes openly as authorities have long looked the other way.
The article appears to have generated absolute fury at the very top of the Singapore government, particularly in the office of law minister K Shanmugam. Singapore's answer to the story, which was written by a 28-year-old security analyst named Andy Wong Ming Jun, wasn't long in coming. Indignant articles appeared calling the Nikkei article “full of inaccuracies” and justifying the government’s control over the lounges and pointing out, among other things, that “Singapore has laws against organized crime, money laundering, and trafficking-in-persons” that keep the lounges squeaky clean.
The government apparently didn’t turn to the courts for defamation, as usual when deeply offended although officials in Singapore’s Tokyo embassy relayed a threat to throw Nikkei's entire business operations out of the country, reliable sources say, not just Nikkei Asian Review.
Wong is now in the UK, writing his master’s thesis and counting his scars, and unlikely to ever return to the city of his birth absent a political revolution. In the aftermath of the publication of the article in Nikkei Asia Review, he says, his life has been taken apart in stunning fashion, to the point where his professional and social life in Singapore have been ruined and he's been forced into exile.
According to his account, as well as news reports and court records made available to Asia Sentinel, Singapore mounted an attack on him that can only be described as unprecedented. It extended even to the consulting firm boss he was working for, who will remain unnamed, but who was blackballed from Singapore by his industry and political contacts, who “implied because they questioned his judgment in hiring a Singaporean who turned out to be a political critic.” The owner of the firm was forced by circumstances to close his consultancy and leave Singapore.
Three days after the article appeared, Wong and three others were arrested and charged in court with possessing or transmitting obscene materials through a Telegram chat group in an affair that had occurred 20 months before and seemingly gone dormant. Wong has repeatedly been identified as a ringleader of the group in state media reports and social media chatter as allegedly possessing vast amounts of porn on his iPhone and on his computer although in court documents he was identified as only a member of the chat group, which had 25,000 members.
Never mind that according to the Straits Times, 90 percent of teen boys and 47 percent of teen girls in a survey acknowledged viewing pornography. (Downloading such materials, however, is an offense.)
“I was just a normal Singapore citizen who had multiple career tracks spanning corporate services, port logistics, analyst work, and freelance journalism,” Wong wrote in a description of his ordeal which he emailed to Asia Sentinel. “Up till July 2021 I was also gainfully employed in business/political risk advisory in Singapore under a British boss, from which I've since had my ties severed due to significant compromising and blowback from my ongoing political persecution.”
Andy Wong is in company with victims of Singaporean government vindictiveness going back to four decades to the days when opposition leader Joshua B Jeyaretnam was persecuted falsely for irregularities in his party’s financial books. More recently the targets of government wrath have included citizen journalists Terry Xu and Ai Takagi, critic Roy Ngerng, cartoonist Leslie Chew, blogger Alex Au and many opposition politicians who have ended up in court facing charges and crippling fines after they called attention to alleged shortcomings in the Lion Republic.
Human rights lawyer M. Ravi was recently suspended from practice for five years for criticizing government vindictiveness against one of his clients who was on death row. He had previously also represented Alan Shadrake, who was jailed for more than five weeks in 2010 for his criticism of the death penalty in Singapore with his book Once A Jolly Hangman.
This process was described earlier at length in a 2017 Human Rights Watch report titled “Kill the Chicken to Scare the Monkeys: Suppression of Free Expression and Assembly in Singapore, which said that “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.”
More recently, just last week Amnesty International charged that officials are “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.” The prime minister Lee Hsien Loong’s ’s own brother Lee Hsien Yang and his wife, Lee Suet Fern, have been forced to leave Singapore under threat of government action after warring with Hsien Loong, as Amnesty International reported.
Wong acknowledged in his correspondence with Asia Sentinel his membership of Telegram groups directly affiliated with an online adult forum as an offshoot of his personal alternative lifestyle in the local adult community. Describing each group as numbering as many as 25,000 members in each, they ranged from general chat to people sharing adult content through Telegram/Onlyfans when he was “single and footloose.” He stated emphatically that all three groups did not deal in “illegal leaked nudes” and that strict rules had been put in place to deter such sharing or discussions in them, owing to past high-profile cases such as the “Nasi Lemak” group in October 2019.
In November of 2019, he says, police raided his home and those of three others, apparently acting on a police report from an unnamed young woman angered about their alleged organized possession and sale of “illegal nude pictures.” While the other three were administrators of these groups, he says he was just a member along with 25,000 others. His passport and electronic devices were impounded and he was bailed for S$5,000.
Things went very quiet, he says, with no progress, and subsequent devolution of the initial accusations of selling illegal pornography or being a group administrator into simple possession by the time the first interview had ended. As a direct result of his arrest and ongoing investigations, he missed work and was later forced to resign from his position as a corporate secretary.
Then Covid happened. Without a job, unable to leave Singapore because of his impounded passport, he took other jobs such as working in port logistics (for which he was featured as a positive example by Singapore state media) and freelance defense writing. He says he established a strong network with thinktank heads, industry professionals, and people within the local political establishment.
In July 2021, he wrote the offending personal post about the Singapore government's handling of the pandemic on his LinkedIn social media platform, gaining traction among local expatriates. An acquaintance and think tank associate forwarded it to Nikkei Asia Review, whose editor then asked him for permission to modify it for publication.
The article elicited a furious response in local mainstream media and even in Parliament. Nikkei was threatened with the use of Singapore’s “Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act,” commonly abbreviated as POFMA and known colloquially as the Fake News Law, and threatened with being kicked out of the country altogether. The publication stuck by the article, as Asia Sentinel has verified.
“So, what do you do when you can’t take down a message online? You destroy the person who said it. You shoot the messenger with any convenient weaponized leverage within reach That's what happened to me,” Wong said. “An immediate campaign of character assassination was initiated against me by Singaporean state media, calling my article full of falsehoods and inaccuracies. Shanmugam even went on record in the news and televised parliamentary sessions denouncing me and calling me out as a fraud with an axe to grind against the government.”
This was a sitting law minister actively interfering with public comments on an open case, despite also stating in a 2016 Law Bill that “Persons in court cases should not face prejudgment by the media or by the public, in a way which whips up sentiment and creates a real risk of interfering with their trials.”
The wheels of justice spun fast. Barely a weekend after the publication of the offending Nikkei article, the Singapore Police acted on Wong’s dormant porn possession charges. He and the three other unrelated suspects were ordered to Tanglin Division police headquarters on July 26 – three days after publication.
Two days later on July 28 he was in court to officially acknowledge charges and start the court process, more than 20 months after his initial arrest. The case had been in limbo for so long that the police had to assign a new investigating officer because the original one had been reassigned elsewhere.
Wong ended up facing a total of 11 charges relating to possession of pornography, of which the most serious three were officially proceeded on to exact the highest possible punishment, he says. There was no mention of any aggravating factors such as “illegal nudes,” nor of linkages of his private pornography possession with his membership of the Telegram groups.
Although the original charges in the press circular put out by the police didn't contain any names of the four, their names were added in and plastered all over the police news web. Wong says state media character attacks increased as he attended court to acknowledge the possession charges.
“This concerted character assassination campaign resulted in a trial by trial by media and public opinion before a trial by law in a court to defend and address my charges,” he told Asia Sentinel. “This was the ultimate intent of the government in weaponizing my dormant criminal investigation case to discredit and destroy my life, even if it was utterly irrelevant and unlinked to my article.”
He says that as a direct result, he was subjected to targeted harassment and personal attacks on various local social media forums, he says, with some disclosing his publicly-available court dates in case potential troublemakers wished to turn up and harass him.
“The whole country and media reports painted me as some sort of ringleader running a Telegram group involved in transmitting and selling illegally leaked nudes and general porn.” But he didn’t and hadn’t. While there were public claims and repeated media reports that he had possessed more than 2,000 videos and 1,400 photos on his smartphone, there were only 119 videos on his impounded laptop.
His three co-accused were sentenced in December 2021 and the following month, leaving him to twist in the wind amid continuing social media furor and press reports.
In fact, in the end, the attorney general said the office had no intention of adding anything about transmission to possession of porn charges, and they would only be asking for a fine and no prison time. But, he says “this didn’t stop them from attempting to put me behind bars, for after the three other individuals linked to my case were sentenced to jail time, the deputy prosecutor was still communicating to my lawyer stating that his superiors had ordered “one final look” at my case to see if there was any justification to put me in prison.”
When his lawyer tried to raise this point in his defense statement, the deputy public prosecutor sought a hearing against the lawyer to discredit him in the eyes of the judge. His request was ultimately denied
He says the government set out to “weaponize my ‘porn possession’ charges although there were no links to any of the Telegram groups he was a member of, as attested to by the public prosecutor’s own statement of fact. Nonetheless, prosecutors asked for a "double fine" for his two video possession charges, with a maximum fine S$20,000 each. With another S$2,500 charge for possessing porn pictures on his phone for a total of S$42,500.
“I have been effectively publicly and professionally silenced and societally outcasted in Singapore,” he says. “I was robbed of any chance to defend myself in the open and say whatever the media and Shanmugam had reported about me was false and wrong. This was in large part due to obfuscation and stonewalling by the police and attorney general’s chambers towards my lawyer’s protestations as to who was responsible for the erroneous press circular put out about my case. As long as it was not changed, state media could then have their smokescreen to claim objective factual reportage of my case even before final sentencing.”
His lawyer, he says, “strongly advised me not to defend myself in public about my Nikkei article or my case till we have more legal clarity out of concerns about further state aggravation and trial by media over my unrelated article muddying my legal case and we had to somehow play dumb and pretend that my case is going to be tried and handled in a vacuum independent of external circumstances and political interference. Not that it worked in the end.”
Shortly before Wong was convicted and sentenced, Singaporean state media released a documentary indirectly corroborating and confirming his Nikkei Asia Review article on YouTube titled “Sing City: What Drives Singapore's Underground KTV Industry?”
Really don't know what they are afraid of. This is one of the most stable, most successful governments in the world. It has won a great deal of legitimacy all over, especially where it counts most, with its citizens. But it acts like it is one step ahead of widespread revolt.
Strange that you didn't also receive a POFMA for the article below John. Keep up the courageous work, a great response to the POFMA team!