Political space shrinking in Singapore through ‘creative repression’ of activists
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Political space shrinking in Singapore through ‘creative repression’ of activists

“KILL the chicken to scare the monkeys” is a Chinese idiom, referring to punish one person as an example to others. It is a phrase commonly used as an analogy for the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party.

It is also, ironically, the title of a new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report about “severe” political repression in Singapore – an ethnically Chinese-majority city-state which has long styled itself as a liberal anti-Beijing.

Released at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, last week – because it would have violated Singaporean legislation that prohibits foreigners participating in “cause-related gatherings” without a police permit – the report details comprehensive restrictions on what Singaporeans are allowed to say, perform, read or watch.

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A woman passes a private condominium estate in Singapore February 13, 2017. Source: Reuters/Edgar Su

SEE ALSO: Singapore: The legal rights we don’t have

HRW’s report claimed that contempt, sedition and the Public Order Act are the laws “most frequently used to prosecute peaceful expression”. Quashing of political activity through the courts has ruined the lives of a handful of opposition figures and activists in the tiny country.

Unlike China, “you’re not worried about physical violence or being disappeared [in Singapore],” Kirsten Han, a Singaporean anti-death penalty campaigner and journalist told Asian Correspondent.

“But definitely there is this sense that there are many ways in which the government can ‘fix you’ if they are not happy with what you’ve been doing. There are stories about people losing jobs. Because so many things are ‘arrestable’ they can search your home.”

“I think we have accepted there is always police surveillance,” said Jean Chong, who heads up a Singaporean queer women’s organisation named Sayoni.

“Now no warrant is needed for even the media authority to raid your house either.”

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Amendments to Singapore’s Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) enforcement powers. Source: Supplied

Culture of fear

Deputy director of the watchdog’s Asia Division, Phil Robertson, said that Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) was “maintaining a culture of fear” through prosecuting select activists who violate the country’s broadly defined legislation.

For example, human rights activist Jolovan Wham was charged in November for participating in several gatherings held outside of Speaker’s Corner in Hong Lim Park – the only space Singaporeans are permitted to hold demonstrations.

Even at Speaker’s Corner, non-citizens face a fine of SG$3000 for participating in an “assembly or procession”. Wham has also fallen foul of the law on this account for inviting Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong to speak at a rally via Skype. As the organiser, he faces a fine of SG$10,000.

SEE ALSO: Arrest of 2 peaceful protesters raises questions on freedom of assembly in Singapore

Wham has also been charged with organising public assembly without a police permit participating in a silent protest on the city’s Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) train in June 2017 to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the arrest of 22 activists under the Internal Security Act in 1987.

Moreover, vandalism charges have been laid against him for allegedly taping two pieces of paper to the inside of the train. For this offence, Wham could spend three years in prison.

“I think being an activist in Singapore can be a lot about figuring out the boundary markers. What is allowed,” Chong told Asian Correspondent. “But why should it be this way?”

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Wham (centre) leaves the State Court after a hearing in Singapore November 29, 2017. Source: Reuters/Edgar Su

Asian values

Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew famously dismissed universal human rights as being at odds with so-called “Asian values”, espousing an authoritarian form of government based upon collectivist “unity”, economic development and political stability at the expense of individual rights.

Singapore’s denial of civil and political rights has historically been justified by a supposed “social contract” which favours economic progress over other rights and freedoms. Robertson argued that Singaporeans “haven’t been asked the question fairly” and that people have only become increasingly apolitical because “it’s dangerous to be political.”

“I think a lot of Singaporeans are told that we accept that trade-off,” said Han. “But when were we okay with it? When have people been asked?”

She pointed to breakdowns on the MRT of an example of where cracks in Singapore’s sheen have begun to emerge. Singaporeans’ reactions to a less-than-perfect MRT might seem like an overreaction, said Han, but it is a reminder that “things aren’t what they seem to be”.

Anger at MRT breakdowns is symptomatic of wider social frustrations – rising cost of living, inequality. “It’s starting to look like the trade-off is not going well.”

But instead of being accountable to its citizens, Singapore continues to introduce draconian legislation to police criticism of government and its policies.

SEE ALSO: Singapore: Commuters frustrated with train company’s lies

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Chong participates in a World Economic Forum event in 2017. Source: YouTube

“They come down hard on you using the kind of state powers ordinary citizens do not have access to or could even afford to use,” said Chong, who is also a member of the Steering Committee of the Asean SOGIE Caucus, a regional network of Southeast Asian organisations working on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression issues in the region.

In 2018, Singapore assumes the Chairmanship of Asean from the Philippines.

Robertson told Asian Correspondent that this raises concern for civil society groups in Southeast Asia – not least the Asean People’s Forum, a coalition of NGOs which meets alongside the regional bloc to promote human rights and democratisation.

“I was just in Quezon in the Philippines, where you had 900 NGO activists from across the region gather,” he said. “Is Singapore going to allow that kind of assembly to meet?”

“You have a country which claims that it is a leader of Asean but it is not willing to play by other people’s rules.”

SEE ALSO: Singapore: Thousands turn out in support of LGBT rights

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A woman wrapped in the rainbow flag is seen at the Pink Dot rally, Singapore’s annual gay pride rally, at a park in Singapore, on July 1, 2017. Source: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

Shrinking space

New laws were introduced in 2017 to prevent foreign involvement in the country’s annual event to promote of LGBT rights, known as Pink Dot.

While previous years’ events had gathered donations from major multinational corporates such as Google, Bloomberg and JP Morgan, the government this year introduced new revisions to the Public Order Act to bar foreign companies from sponsoring the event.

Barricades and checkpoints were established around the Hong Lim Park to prevent non-Singaporean participants from entering. Robertson said the creeping introduction of more and more restrictive legislation at Speaker’s Corner was indicative of Singapore’s own brand of “creative repression”.

Is the Little Red Dot likely to allow greater freedom of speech and expression anytime soon?

No, according to Chong. “The political space is shrinking for sure, with an increase in all kinds of laws and regulations to censor free speech and organising. No warrant is needed in many cases,” she said.

Han agrees. “Right now it feels like the space is shrinking. It is getting more stifling and more difficult.”