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Singapore’s Internal Security Act and the Dismal State of Human Rights in Singapore - Is Singapore Burma with Money?by Mark Beales

14 September 2010

In Singapore, the US report confirmed: ‘There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.’

However, there have been reports of torture. In 2004, a defendant was freed after a judge ruled his confession was obtained illegally. The man claimed physical force was used against him and he was told his wife would be arrested if he did not cooperate. Curiously, the High Court later agreed the confession was involuntary but convicted him anyway and jailed him for two years. No action was ever taken against the police officers allegedly involved in the incident.

The ISA allows the Ministry of Home Affairs to take action against possible spying, terrorism and subversion. The key point is that the government can have an extremely broad definition of what is ‘subversive’.

Under the ISA and several other Acts, people can be arrested without the need for a warrant. In practice, most defendants are tried relatively quickly and have legal representation. Those who are arrested under the ISA can be detained for up to two years and their cases can be renewed without any limits in subsequent two-year blocks.

Those detained under the ISA fall into a distinctly different category from normal criminals. They cannot challenge their detention and cannot appeal through the usual judicial process. They have to appeal to a special advisory board and, even then, the president can over-rule any decision. Nearly all of those detained under the ISA are suspected terrorists. In contrast to Burma, Singapore has no recorded political detainees. Cynics would argue that, unlike Burma, it doesn’t need to put them in jail; it already has them tightly under control.

As with Burma, there is a definite blur between the judiciary and the government; some Supreme Court judges have links with the PAP and are appointed by the president. Some claim this smudging of the legal lines gives the government a clear advantage – it brings defamation cases against its critics and nearly always gets the decision it wants.

Keeping the Press in Check

In practice, the law allows for freedom of speech. The reality is rather different. The government’s hard-line on any form of criticism means opponents can never voice their case loud enough to gain wide attention – and that’s just how the PAP likes it. The threat of expensive law suits, or even jail time, is enough to keep people in check and self-censorship is the norm.

As activities in Burma have also discovered, the obvious way to be critical is not to use newspapers, but to use the internet. Many websites are critical of Singapore, safe in the knowledge that they’re relatively anonymous and much harder to sue. The Online Citizen is one such example. It says of press freedom: ‘There appears to be two main reasons for the Government’s control of the newspapers. First, the Government wants to ensure the media remains sensitive to national interests and protects racial and religious harmony. Second, it sees the media playing a complementary, rather than adversarial role to the Government, where the former explains the latter’s decisions and policies to the people.

‘While this has its merits and can be lauded for helping Singapore achieve what it has today, this system of operation has become warped; instead of working as partners, the press has internalized the idea that it must look to the Government for directions, while the Government has come to take it for granted that the press is the Government’s voice.

‘The press has simply become another branch of the Government.’

Even with online messages though, the government is catching on. Its defamation laws now extend to online publications, and Singaporeans living abroad have been warned about comments made on blogs.

A prime example of how Singapore’s press acquiesces to government demands is the case of Mas Selamat bin Kastari. This Indonesian-born Singaporean was suspected of plotting to bomb the island’s airport. He escaped from custody in February 2008 after climbing through a toilet window and using a floatation device to get across the Straits of Johur. Singapore’s biggest ever manhunt was launched as police hunted for Mas Selamat. In April 2009 he was finally recaptured.

The government didn’t reveal any details about the escape until the following day. This led to widespread criticism – albeit online – about the lack of openness. The incident was a huge embarrassment for Singapore’s normally efficient government and an example of how its tight grip over the news could, sometimes rather ironically, itself be a threat to national security.

Singapore doesn’t take kindly to criticism of it supposed freedoms, though. When it was ranked 144 out of 166 countries in terms of press freedom by the group Reporters Without Borders, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew didn’t mince his words.

‘You are not going to teach us how we should run the country. We are not so stupid, we know what our interests are and we try to preserve them.’

Reporters Without Borders cited the lack of independent newspapers, radio and TV stations, self-censorship and jail terms for press offences as reasons for the ranking.

In Singapore, The Straits Times is the leading newspaper. It is run by Singapore Press Holdings, which the Singapore Democratic Party claims has close links with the PAP. The other main media firm, MediaCorp, is completely owned by a government investment company. No surprise then that it softens any criticism of those in power.

The PAP doesn’t need to keep the domestic press in check, as self-censorship ensures they are toothless tigers. The press is seen as being a tool to aid national development and not as a way to provide checks and balances to those in authority.

Foreign media do have a presence in Singapore, but a $114,000 bond that needs to be posted for each publication tends to ensure softer coverage too. The Wall Street Journal and Far Eastern Economic Review both had their publications restricted after critical features, and there are no Malaysian newspapers in Singapore. In 2004, The Economist paid Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and another minister damages, apparently of around $230,000, for implying nepotism was involved in a business appointment.

The ISA isn’t often used against political rivals or the media, as the defamation laws generally do the job. For example, there is a Speakers’ Corner in one of Singapore’s public parks. If you wish to speak there, you need to be a citizen and register your appearance with the police. You don’t need to say what you will talk about beforehand, but the law says that any speech made ‘should not be religious in nature and should not have the potential to cause feelings of enmity, ill will, or hostility between different racial or religious groups.’

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