Where does Singapore Go from Here?

With the death of the man who ruled Singapore for three decades and passed on his harsh governing tactics to his son and to the ruling People’s Action Party, Singapore’s citizens today are trying to dope out whether one of Asia’s most modern societies is ready to open up a new era in freedom of speech and expression.

The government’s first act hasn’t inspired confidence. Just an hour before the death of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was announced, Singapore revoked its Public Order Act, effectively banning any public protest or assembly that any critics might wish to perform at the Speaker’s Corner in the 2-hectare Hong Lim Park until further notice, should anybody actually want to take that chance.

The Speaker’s Corner is the only place in in Singapore that is designated as allowable for any demonstration or public assembly voicing political opinions , according to the 2009 Public Order Act. The park was selected by the government in 2000 as the venue for legal public protests although doing so requires a permit from the government. It has been closed on other occasions, including during the 2011 general election and two by-elections in 2012 and 2013.

"Hong Lim Park, including the Speakers’ Corner, is one of the designated community sites for remembering the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew," a statement issued by the National Parks Board on March 23 said. "We will not be able to accept any applications to use Speakers’ Corner during this time."

"Singapore lost something else this morning,” said Kenneth Jeyaretnam, the son of the late Joshua B. Jeyaretnam, Singapore’s most notable opposition figure. “We lost the right to speak or meet in public. Now we have no more rights of freedom of expression at all." The younger Jeyaretnam is head of the opposition Reform Party.

Nonetheless, Singapore officials and analysts say that the "revocation" is likely to be a temporary suspension that covers only the official seven-day mourning period.

“In all probability the POA orders will be reissued next week when the period of national mourning is over to redesignate Hong Lim Park as Speakers’ Corner,” Dr Jack Tsen-Ta Lee, assistant professor of Law in the School of Law told the Singaporean based online news site onlinecitizen.com.

A senior official at the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs also dismissed the revocation order as inconsequential. "It is not revoked but suspended for this week as Speaker's Corner is needed for ceremonies associated with LKY's death. It is one of the sites where the public can come to express condolences. Permits will be granted for other sites if anyone is crass enough to want to hold political demonstrations this week," he said.

But any real chance that Singapore would let a hundred flowers bloom, let alone a thousand schools of thought contend, is probably pretty slim. Lee Hsien Loong, the current premier and son of the founding father, has shown little taste for any additional loosening of the reins. He has shown a flair for following in his father’s footsteps in the pursuit of anybody who gets too critical of the government. He has been as quick with defamation suits as his father was, most recently going after blogger Roy Ngerng in connection with a blog entry accusing the prime minister of misappropriating funds from the Central Provident Fund.

Under threat, Ngerng immediately removed the article and apologized, but Lee sued anyhow, saying the blogger had sent alternative links and a video recording to local and international media reporters.

Amnesty International, in a prepared release, said the country is at a crossroads and that “At issue now is the question as to whether Singapore will continue to violate the fundamental human rights of opposition politicians, human rights defenders and other critical Singaporeans, or whether it will go forward with a program of reform to make Singapore a shining example to Asia and the world of a country where human rights are promoted, protected and cherished. “

Since the elder Lee bowed completely out of government with advancing age in 2011, according to Freedom House, in addition to contempt and defamation suits, authorities have selectively applied new restrictions for online news providers, requiring 10 of them of them to comply with takedown orders within 24 hours or risk forfeiting a S$50,000 performance bond. Three news startups were subject to a new registration process requiring details about all staff, and prohibiting foreign funding and one online cartoonist was threatened with contempt of court charges for political content.

According to Amnesty International, Lee Kuan Yew, in a 1964 speech, asked these questions:

“Is this an open, or is this a closed society? Is it a society where men can preach ideas - novel, unorthodox, heresies, to established churches and established governments - where there is a constant contest for men's hearts and minds on the basis of what is right, of what is just, of what is in the national interests, or is it a closed society where the mass media - the newspapers, the journals, publications, TV, radio… are fed with a constant drone of sycophantic support for a particular orthodox political philosophy? I am talking of the principle of the open society, the open debate, ideas, not intimidation, persuasion not coercion.”

As Amnesty said, it is time to ask those questions again.

See links for relevant documents: