SINGAPORE: Government uses fear to stifle Freedom of Expression

LRWC Press release – July 18, 2005

SINGAPORE: Government uses fear to stifle freedom of EXPRESSION

Singapore police used plain clothes officers to seize a video screened at the JULY 9, 2005 launch of the latest book by opposition leader Dr. Chee Soon Juan. Dr. Chee has long been an outspoken critic of the government, and the recent release of his book, The Power of Courage: Effecting Political Change in Singapore through Nonviolence, was no small step toward exercising a meaningful right to freedom of expression in Singapore. The attendance of the police at the event was a disappointing indication that the Singapore government, while professing to “open up Singapore” and adhere to democratic values, continues to use heavy-handed methods to rein in peaceful political dissent.

The book launch was held indoors at Singapore’s Grand Plaza Parkroyal Hotel and attracted about 50 people. Plainclothes officers videotaped the proceedings, which included various speeches and a question and answer session. As the event drew to a close and Dr. Chee was signing copies of his book, a 2003 video clip of Hong Kong residents protesting peaceably against a proposed anti-subversion law was projected on to the wall behind him.

At that point, the police demanded to know whether the organizers had a permit for the video clip. They questioned Dr. Chee, then seized the CD and said that it would be used for further investigation. Police spokesperson Assistant Superintendent of Police Victor Keong asserted that the CD was seized under the Films Act for investigation because it did not possess a certificate for public exhibition. Licensing rules were eased last year with respect to indoor public talks, but restrictions remain for public assemblies.

The officers also demanded identifying information from two activists who had spoken before Dr. Chee’s presentation. Charles Tan and Jonathan Siow, both in their twenties, had said that they found non-violent action to be an effective tool in helping to empower Singaporeans.

Dr. Chee is Secretary General of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). The Singapore government is led by the People’s Action Party (PAP), which has held power, uninterrupted, for the last half-century. The PAP has repeatedly targeted Dr. Chee throughout his public career. In 1992, three months after he joined the SDP, he was forced out of his university teaching position and faced charges of defamation when he attempted to dispute his dismissal. He was forced to sell his home to pay legal costs. In 1999, he served jail time on two charges of violating the Public Entertainments Act, which required police permits for public events involving more than five people. Dr. Chee had made public addresses, without a license, protesting the lack of freedom of speech in Singapore. In 2001, he faced a second lawsuit by government officials for allegedly defaming them during an election campaign, and subsequently signed an apology in order to avoid becoming ineligible to run in the election. fFor more information from Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada regarding those incidents, please see: In The Matter Of An Addendum To The Report To Lawyers’ Rights Watch On The Trial Of J.B. Jeyaretnam As A Result Of Observations On The Trial Of Dr. Chee Soon Juan; Newsletter VII, item I.3

The Singapore Constitution guarantees every citizen of Singapore the right to freedom of speech and expression, the right to assemble peacefully, and the right to association. The PAP, however, has a history of using fear to stifle those very rights that the Constitution guarantees.

For example, in May the government refused entry into Singapore to international non-violence expert Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan to prevent his interfering in Singapore’s domestic politics. On another occasion, the police disrupted a forum on the death penalty by demanding the particulars of the moderator, Salbiah Ahmad, a lawyer from Singapore. On that occasion, uniformed officers were summoned in an apparent attempt to cause alarm to those present. The authorities also barred an Amnesty International spokesperson from speaking at the forum.

In the past, Singapore has also silenced dissent by using its draconian Internal Security Act – ISA, which allows for detention without trial. In 1966, opposition politician Chia Thye Poh accused the PAP of harassing opposition leaders, and staged a boycott of Parliament. Soon afterwards, he was arrested and detained under the ISA. He was never charged and never received a public hearing, but nevertheless remained in detention for 23 years. Selective application of an array of criminal laws against government critics is a display of force by the state that serves to intimidate anyone who wishes to publicly express a dissenting political opinion. By doing so, the Singapore government strips meaning from its citizens’ fundamental human rights and demonstrates its lack of commitment to a free and democratic society.

Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada
Gail Davidson
Tel: +1 604 738-0338; toll free
Canada/U.S. 1 877 662 7344
Fax: +1 604 736-1175


Kelley Bryan