Letter on Amos Yee not published because of concerns over sub-judice

Three months ago, Community Action Network wrote a letter to local newspaper Today, in response to the charges against Amos Yee.

Even before the Administration of Justice Bill was passed in parliament, we received this message on July 26, that our letter would not be published in their Voices section as it would constitute a contempt of court offence. The first reading for the Administration of Justice Bill was on July 12.

Dear XXXX,

Thanks for your contribution to Voices.

However, after Amos Yee had been charged on May 26, the case was sub judice, i.e. under judicial consideration, which precluded the publication of your letter because the view of the Attorney-General’s Chambers is that commenting on a case before the courts is a no-no.

Nonetheless, I appreciate that you responded to a report in TODAY by writing to Voices.

This was the letter we submitted:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I refer to the recent charges against Amos Yee (Amos Yee to face new charges related to religion) and would like to express our disappointment at what the state has done .

Those charges not only violate Yee’s right to free speech, but also the rights of Singaporeans to express themselves freely. These are rights enshrined in Article 14 of Singapore’s Constitution and affirmed in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In his video, Yee makes comments that some deem offensive to the Muslim and Christian communities. Yee’s Youtube rant was rude and in poor taste. However, Yee’s opinions—no matter how offensive to certain members of the Muslim and Christian faiths—should be viewed as opinions of an individual. It should not be a crime to have an opinion, even if it is an unpalatable opinion about a religion or religious figure. Yee did not preach hatred or incite violence with his words. Those who disagree can either engage with or ignore him.

Singapore is an advanced and prosperous nation. We boast a highly-educated, literate and resilient population. We should allow space for people to express diverse opinions, and, if offended, engage in robust and civilized debate, without turning to legal avenues when disagreements arise. A mature society is one in which people engage each other in rational discourse, not one which resorts to punitive action to silence those with opinions deemed disagreeable. We should not have to turn to the police every time our feelings are hurt.

The Convention for the Rights of the Child (CRC) which Singapore has ratified advocates alternative measures to child and youth offenders, without resorting to judicial proceedings. These measures include a variety of dispositions, such as care, guidance and supervision orders; counselling; probation; foster care; education and vocational training programmes and other alternatives to institutional care; they should also be undertaken in a manner appropriate to their well-being and proportionate both to their circumstances and the offence.

Therefore, the eight charges against Yee are disproportionate and heavy-handed and violate the fundamental principles of our constitution and the Convention for the Rights of the Child. Instead of fostering tolerance, they encourage the policing of thought and speech. If we truly aspire to live up to the democratic ideals of our pledge, we need to find more progressive, compassionate ways of dealing with differences in opinion.


New law protecting the judiciary will stifle free speech

On 30 July, Community Action Network was invited to speak at an event “Protecting our judiciary and free speech” at the Singapore Management University. This is an excerpt of the speech.

In the last 5 years, the government has clamped down on freedom of expression in ways which we have not seen since pre GE (General Elections) 2011. This is no doubt due to the government’s perceived threats of the influence of social media. In the cases where it has relied on case law to deal with contempt of court, it has been arbitrary in how it decided what it was, and what scandalising the judiciary meant. This proposed Bill in our view, codifies this arbitrariness even though it claims it seeks to clarify it.

In April 2013 the police arrested and interrogated Leslie Chew, a cartoonist, and detained him for two days for publishing works which the authorities deemed seditious and which the government said “scandalises our Courts through allegations and imputations that are scurrilous and false”. The threatened contempt of court charges were only withdrawn after Chew made a public apology and deleted four cartoons.

Filmmaker Lynn Lee was documenting the first strike in Singapore in 26 years involving a group of bus drivers from China who were working for the Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT). The strike was deemed illegal and five men were charged for instigating it. During Lynn’s interviews with them, two of them alleged police brutality while in custody. Lynn released the two short videos describing the assault on her blog in January 2013. A week later, the police took her in for questioning and confiscated her mobile phone, laptop, iMac and hard drive. The Attorney General’s Chamber gave her a letter of warning for contempt of court.

Civil society groups and activists were accused by the government of casting aspersions on the integrity of the police and the government even though we were telling the stories of the accused drivers solely from their point of view and calling for transparency in how the investigations were conducted. One of the calls we made was for sound and video recordings of police interrogations to be used so that any allegations of police abuse could be verified. The government said that it had investigated and did not find any wrongdoing on the part of the police. But the investigations were done by the internal affairs office, which is a department under the Ministry of Home Affairs. It is not independent at all.

Court proceedings as defined by the proposed bill commences when the issue of a notice to attend court to answer a charge is given, when summons are issued for a person to appear before a judge, or any other process to compel the attendance of the person to answer a charge of the offence. This means that you run the risk of committing a contempt of court offence even when you make comments when the police or other authorities start investigations against a person. This was exactly what happened in Lynn Lee’s case. She had released those videos before the workers had appeared in court. But what Lynn Lee did wasn’t even a commentary. She merely broadcast what the bus drivers said had happened to them while they were in police custody.

When Community Action Network launched a campaign to free Amos Yee last year, we started a petition which gathered a few thousand signatures, we organised a HLP event which attracted approx. 200 people denouncing the charges and even publicised a complaint we filed to the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression. But the government did not take any action. We were not hauled up on any charges. Why didn’t they do so? How did they decide that Lynn Lee and Leslie Chew committed an offence whereas members of Community Action Network didn’t? This new Bill does not shed any light on this. It leaves too much room for interpretation. The Bill says you are in contempt of court if what you say or do has a “real risk of prejudice” to the outcome of the case. You are also in contempt if your “motives” are found to be “improper” But what does all this really mean in practice?

The Bill also allows the police to arrest and detain you. This is disproportionate, considering that the offender has not caused any harm to society, in the way that a robber, shoplifter, murderer or cheat has.

How the law will be applied was explained in a Channel News Asia (CNA) article quoting the law minister. It’s quite clear it is targeted at socio-political websites, activists and those with a significant following on social media.

Said the Law Minister: “Let’s say your son has been killed by someone, or you believe your son has been killed by someone. That person is facing charges. You say in anguish that ‘This person is a murderer, and that he has killed my son and he ought to hang.’ Now strictly speaking. that’s contempt, but I think it will be unlikely that any attorney-general will prosecute such a person. People will give some latitude.”

“At the same time, let’s say a national newspaper or somebody with a broad reach starts a campaign to say that so and so should be found guilty, and he should hang, and mobilises public opinion in a significant way. You can see that there is a difference between the two. I’m sure the attorney-general will act in the second case,” he added. 

This new law will end up stifling civil society advocates, many of whom base their campaigns on injustices suffered by vulnerable individuals. How can we as social change makers even launch our campaigns, start the process of reform when such a blunt instrument hangs over our heads? Anti-death penalty activists, who base their advocacy on court cases will not be able to speak up against the death penalty or the administration of justice. When someone’s life is on the line, when the death penalty is irreversible, it is a moral imperative for many of us to do whatever it takes to save this person. We’ll no longer be able to do that. Comments on the case can only be expressed when the case has concluded, and this includes when all avenues of appeal to the higher courts have concluded. This could take months and even years for some cases. By then, interest in the case would have died down.

Defenders of the Bill will say that Part 4 of the Bill allows for defences to contempt. As long as the comments published are “fair and accurate” and in “good faith” an individual will not be said to be in contempt. But what exactly is fairness? What is good faith? When Lynn Lee posted the videos of the SMRT drivers who were assaulted under police custody, she did it in good faith that justice would be served and Singaporeans would be educated about the injustices experienced by vulnerable migrants, and that something could be done about police abuse. Would this be acceptable to the government? Advocates do not base their campaigns on an opposing party’s arguments and points of view. And how is fairness defined? And can it apply in situations when campaigns are launched? When I campaign for a person on death row, I can’t possibly trot out arguments why he deserves to die, in order to present a more “balanced point of view”? How ridiculous is this? If laws are unjust to begin with, how can we campaign against them with the operation of this proposed Bill?

Even in part 4 of the Bill where it codifies acceptable defences to contempt, the language is vague and unhelpful. As long as the opinion is published “in good faith”, “fair and accurate report of the proceedings”

In the Benjamin Lim case, for instance,The Online Citizen (TOC) published close to 20 articles documenting opinions and facts from various sources in these articles. According to TOC, it tried to get responses from the police to verify and clarify the information it obtained but there was no answer. How does one write a “fair and accurate report” in the absence of the State’s response?

As for the mainstream media’s coverage of SMRT strike, was there not a real risk of prejudice when they called the workers “illegal strikers” when they had not even been convicted in court? How was the coverage of the case “fair and accurate” when many of the articles already prejudged the case and made the drivers look like criminals?

When the strike happened, even before the workers were formally charged, the government and politicians were issuing statements saying that the workers were wrong to have taken industrial action and that they should have gone through proper channels to address their grievances. How was this not prejudging and prejudicing the case?

Another area of concern is in the government’s jurisdiction over publications outside of Singapore. Paragraph 11 of the Act states:

“Where the publication in relation to contempt of court was published through the internet or other electronic media (regardless of whether it was first published in Singapore or elsewhere), the publication is taken to be published in Singapore if it was accessed by members of the public in Singapore”

This means that even if you don’t publish the offending the article, but it was published by someone else in another country, you could be in contempt of court simply by sharing an article on facebook and twitter.

In cases where allegations of corruption are made against the judiciary, or in a hypothetical situation, a campaign is launched against the judiciary that it is corrupt and rotten to the core, I don’t think public confidence is placated by prosecuting the person making these allegations; coming down hard on the offender might even be seen as attempts to conceal a wrong doing. False allegations can always be countered by producing facts and evidence or asking for those making the allegations to substantiate their claims. Moreover, a prosecution gives further publicity by bringing them back to public attention, and this ultimately is self-defeating.

The coverage of the law is very wide and it gives the government too much discretion to decide who to prosecute. Self-censorship is one of the most pernicious characteristics of Singapore society and this proposed Bill will entrench it even further.


Civil society event at Hong Lim Park to address public powers and due process

On 18 June, Community Action Network (CAN), Function 8 and Think Centre invite all concerned members of society to join us at Hong Lim Park for ‘Kenna Police How?: Your right to due process’.

Recent events have highlighted uncertainty among members of the public about the scope of police powers and how current procedures ensure due process. These events include Law Society President Thio Shen Yi’s February 2016 call for immediate or early access to counsel, the Benjamin Lim case, and recent police action in response to alleged breaches of the Cooling Off Day regulations.

This event has been organised to allow members of the public to share their experiences with police investigations, as well as their concerns and suggestions for how the fairness, proportionality and consistency of police action can be best ensured. Over 100 members of the public have indicated their intention to attend on Facebook, with 300 more expressing interest in the event.

“We urge more clarity about the rights of individuals in contact with police – especially vulnerable people like children or migrants,” said Kokila Annamalai, a volunteer with CAN. “When can the police archive your email or confiscate your phone? Do they need a warrant? More awareness of the scope of these powers is needed. It’s in everyone’s interests that justice is not only done, but also seen to be done.”

In January, as part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations (UN), numerous UN member states made recommendations for Singapore to strengthen its protection of citizens’ rights to free expression. At the time, the Singapore delegation to Geneva affirmed its support for the UPR process and stated its commitment to protect fundamental human rights. We hope that the government will stand by its proclamations and welcome this event’s contribution to societal dialogue on advancing rights.

Among the speakers are civil society activist Vanessa Ho, who will address sex workers’ experiences with the police, Damien Chng of anti-death penalty group We Believe in Second Chances, and Function 8 member Pak Geok Choo. Members of the public are invited to create placards at the event to express their views on police accountability and their ideas for how the protection of individual rights can be achieved.

We invite you to attend this important event and to cover it for your media channel. For more information, please contact Kokila at communityactionnetworksg@gmail.com. Date: 18 June 2016 (Saturday) Time: 5pm – 7pm Venue: Hong Lim Park

About Community Action Network

Community Action Network is an NGO based in Singapore concerned about freedom of expression, and civil and political rights.

About Function 8

Function 8 is an initiative by a group of citizens who believe that there is a need to facilitate the sharing of social, political and economic experiences of those who had, or are eager to contribute to society through reflection and civic discussion.

About Think Centre

Think Centre (TC) is an independent NGO in Singapore that was founded in 1999. TC aims to critically examine issues related to political development, democracy, rule of law, human rights and civil society. Its activities include research, publishing, organising events and networking. It has been a member of Forum-Asia, a regional human rights organisation, since 2001.

Cease all investigations against Teo Soh Lung and Roy Ngerng

We the undersigned are gravely concerned by the ongoing police investigations into alleged breaches by Roy Ngerng and Teo Soh Lung of the Cooling Off Day rules.

We are disquieted by the seizure of their property from their homes, in particular without warrant, and the wholesale and indiscriminate archiving of broad swathes of their personal data.  These excessive and intimidating measures are completely disproportionate to any harm alleged to have been caused by the actions of Ngerng and Teo.

To openly express a political view – including and especially views on party politics – is the fundamental right of every member of society.  If we are to achieve a democratic society where legislators and the government are truly representative of the values and wishes of citizens, every individual must be free to fearlessly express their views of politicians, parties and electoral processes.

For an individual seeking to understand the Cooling Off Day regulations, the application of the prohibitions on individual conduct is not clear.  Someone relying on the wording on the Elections Department website, which indicates an exemption for “the transmission of personal political views by individuals to other individuals, on a non-commercial basis, using the Internet, telephone or electronic means”, might reasonably conclude that their posts were exempt.

Given this ambiguity and the great importance of freedom of expression for individual citizens, it is wholly inappropriate for police investigations of such an intimidating and intrusive nature to take place.  The main effect of this police action is to intensify a climate of fear that deters the frank discussion of political issues by all individuals – a discussion that our society both needs and deserves.

We note that there have been previous allegations of breaches of the Cooling Off Day rules by electoral candidates.  Such conduct is far more likely to cause the harm to the electoral process which Cooling Off Day is designed to avert.  Yet we are not aware of such draconian investigations made in those circumstances.  A society which values the free exchange of political ideas must not apply more restrictive standards to ordinary citizens than to electoral candidates.

We call upon the state to ensure the immediate return of all confiscated property to Ngerng and Teo, the removal of any data obtained from them from state and police possession, and an immediate and total cessation of the investigative process.

Signed by:

  1. Abdul Salim Harun
  2. Adrian Heok
  3. Alex Sng
  4. Alexander Luciano Roberto
  5. Alfian Sa’at
  6. Alvina Khoo
  7. Ana Abdullah
  8. Ananth Tambyah
  9. Andre Goh
  10. Ang Chong Leong
  11. Annie Jael Kwan
  12. Ariffin Sha
  13. Ashukumar Veerapan
  14. Ashura Chia
  15. Azmi Monday
  16. Benjamin Matchap
  17. Benjamin Seet
  18. Bhavan Jaipragas
  19. Brendan Goh
  20. Brenton Wong
  21. Brian Yang
  22. Bryan Choong
  23. Cecilia Joven Ong
  24. Celine Lim
  25. Chang May Lian
  26. Chan Wai Han
  27. Chew Keng Chuan
  28. Chng Nai Rui
  29. Christine Sng Mechtler
  30. Chui Yong Jian
  31. Dan Koh
  32. Dana Lam
  33. Darius Zee
  34. Daryl Yang
  35. David Lee
  36. Dinah Sim
  37. Dolly Peh
  38. Edmund Wee
  39. Edward Eng
  40. Edwina Shaddick
  41. Elisa Kang
  42. Emily Lim
  43. Erica Chung
  44. Esther Kong
  45. Fadli Bin Fawzi
  46. Fadly Razali
  47. Farhan C. Idris
  48. Fenwick Melville
  49. Fong Hoe Fang
  50. Gina Lim
  51. Godwin Koay
  52. Goh Chok Chai Ricky
  53. Ho Choon Hiong
  54. Hong Weizhong
  55. Irene Oh
  56. Ivan Heng
  57. Jackie Heng Lim
  58. Jamal Ismail
  59. James Weng Hong Lam
  60. Jason Soo
  61. Jeremy Tiang
  62. Jocelyn Teo
  63. Johannes Hadi
  64. Jolene Tan
  65. Jolovan Wham
  66. Jony Ling
  67. Joo Hymn Tan
  68. Joshua Chiang
  69. Keith Tan
  70. Kenneth Lin
  71. Kokila Annamalai
  72. Kuan Wee
  73. Lee Yi Ting
  74. Li Xie
  75. Lim Jialiang
  76. Lim Kay Siu
  77. Lim Xiuhui
  78. Linda Ong
  79. Lionel Deng
  80. Lisa Li
  81. Lita Patricio
  82. Loo Zihan
  83. Low Yit Leng
  84. Lucas Ho
  85. Lukas Godfrey
  86. Lynn Lee
  87. Mansura Sajahan
  88. Mark Wong De Yi
  89. Matilda Gabrielpillai
  90. Megan Boey Sean Ching
  91. Melvin Wong
  92. Merv Tan
  93. Miak Siew
  94. Morgan Awyong
  95. M Ravi
  96. Muhammad Faliqh Rahman
  97. Muhd Firdaus
  98. Nathanael Tan
  99. Neo Swee Lin
  100. Ng Guohui Nigel
  101. Ng Yi-Sheng
  102. Niki Ng
  103. Nina Chabra
  104. Ong Sooi Eng
  105. Pak Geok Choo
  106. Rachel Zeng
  107. Robyn Yzelman
  108. Roy Tan
  109. Sam Lim
  110. Sam Ong
  111. Sathiya Moorthy
  112. Sean Francis Han
  113. Semangeline Teo
  114. Sha Jumani Basari
  115. Shelley Thio
  116. Shimin Wong
  117. Shirleen Chong
  118. Siauw Chong
  119. Siew Kum Hong
  120. Smith Adrian Jude
  121. Sonny Liew
  122. Stephanie Chok
  123. Stephen Baldy Ho
  124. Tan Elice
  125. Tan Pin Pin
  126. Tan Tee Seng
  127. Tan Zong Xuan
  128. Tay Kheng Soon
  129. Teng Qianxi
  130. Teng Yong Ping Daryl
  131. Terry Xu
  132. Thum Ping Tjin
  133. Timothy Todd
  134. Trevor Chan
  135. Valence Sim
  136. Vanessa Ho
  137. Vivian Wang
  138. Wendy Chan
  139. Wong Souk Yee
  140. Yap Ching Wi
  141. Yap Hon Ngian
  142. Yee Kai
  143. Zee Wong
  144. Zulkarnain Hassan



The Community Action Network welcomes the news that Amos Yee has been freed. We understand he is in poor health after not having eaten for several days and wish him a speedy recovery.

Despite our relief at this turn of events, CAN would like to express our deep discomfort over the way the state has conducted proceedings against Yee. In prosecuting him as an adult, Singapore has breached its obligations under the UN Convention on Child Rights.

Even before he was sentenced, Yee spent a total of 55 days in custody, during which time, he was shackled, tied to his bed, deprived of sleep, denied access to toilet facilities, and placed in a mental institution alongside inmates who were criminally insane. He also faced the possibility of at least 18 months in a Reformative Training Centre, despite the fact that the option was not raised during his trial.

In handing Yee a backdated sentence of four weeks in prison, the court has narrowed not just Yee’s right to free speech, but also whittled away space for Singaporeans to express themselves. These are rights enshrined in Article 14 of Singapore’s Constitution and affirmed in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They should not be so readily eroded.

Yee’s Youtube rant was rude and in poor taste. But it should not be a crime to have an opinion, even if it is an opinion about a religion or religious figure. Yee did not preach hatred or incite violence with his words. He was merely expressing a point of view. His cartoon of two former world leaders having sex, while crude, can hardly be regarded as pornographic. Both the video and the drawing were simply attempts by a teenager to express himself. Those who disagree can either engage with or ignore him. There is no reason for the state to make a criminal out of an opinionated teenager. Yee’s convictions should be quashed.

A mature society is one in which opinions – even provocative ones – can be openly discussed and debated. We should not have to turn to the police every time our feelings are hurt. Indeed, by criminalising the verbalisation of certain views, we do nothing to cultivate tolerance.

Yee’s case isn’t the only Singaporean being persecuted for speaking his mind. Blogger Roy Ngerng faces financial ruin as a result of a defamation suit brought against him by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Ngerng has repeatedly apologised to PM Lee over his blog post on Singapore’s Central Provident Fund (CPF). He has also offered to pay damages of up to $10,000. But in court recently, Ngerng was told he lacked sincerity. He is now liable for damages of at least $250,000.

It is our belief that in raising questions about CPF, Ngerng was merely giving voice to the many Singaporeans who have similar queries. If the Prime Minister felt that his reputation had been impugned as a result, we respectfully suggest that the logical thing to do would have been to debunk Ngerng’s post in an open debate. Suing an ordinary citizen stymies discussion and raises even more questions in the minds of other citizens.

We believe that defamation suits brought by public personalities and holders of political office should meet higher thresholds of admissibility in order to safeguard free speech. Eminent individuals who enjoy easier access to the media (especially through their official positions) than the layman to remedy falsehoods should also be entitled to lower damages than that awarded to ordinary persons for the same injury.

Genuine progress is only possible when there is a free flow of ideas, robust debate and space for diverse opinions. A cohesive society is not built on a foundation of lawsuits and legal threats. Rather, we become stronger when we recognise that we can disagree and still coexist, and politicians will win more respect by engaging their critics, rather than bankrupting them through defamation suits.

Statement on the Assault on Amos Yee

First published here on May 1 2015

The Community Action Network is deeply alarmed at the recent attack on Amos Yee.

Yee was assaulted, in broad daylight, outside the State Court yesterday. It appears no one attempted to stop or pursue the assailant. Photographs of Yee shortly after the attack show that he suffered some bruising to his eye. It is unclear if he was sent for a physical examination or offered medical support following the incident.

In addition to the physical attack, Yee has been subject to weeks of verbal abuse on the Internet. The language used is often aggressive and emotional. One commenter – allegedly, a grassroots leader – said Yee’s penis should be severed and stuffed into his own mouth. Others hoped he would be raped in prison. Still others have suggested that he deserves a beating. No government official has spoken up or condemned the violent language. It would not be a stretch to say that their refusal to do so might have contributed to yesterday’s assault.

Given the rhetoric against Yee, and the numerous threats to his safety, he should have been “committed to a place of safety or a place of temporary care and protection” under the Children and Young Persons Act. Instead, he is now back in remand, over his failure to abide by his bail conditions.

CAN believes that the conditions imposed on Yee are unnecessarily onerous. Apart from having to report to his Investigating Officer every day, he is also barred from posting anything online. This curtailment of Yee’s right to express himself doesn’t just infringe on his constitutional rights as a citizen, it is also disproportionate to the charges he is currently facing.

We would also like to respectfully remind authorities that under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), Singapore is required to explore measures other than judicial proceedings, when dealing with juveniles who might have breached the law.

We humbly suggest that the State might have overreached in its eagerness to prosecute Yee. We understand that the charge relating to harrassment has been stood down. We urge the State to withdraw it completely, and to do so with the other two charges as well.

Shelley Thio, Rachel Zeng, Jennifer Teo, Woon Tien Wei, Terry Xu, Roy Ngerng, Martyn See, Jolovan Wham, Lynn Lee, Kirsten Han, Vincent Law

Community Action Network and Reporters Without Borders Submit Joint Report on Freedom of Expression

Since the last General Elections, Singapore has seen an unprecedented crackdown on freedom of expression. Bloggers and citizens have been sued, harassed and charged in court for criminal offences. This report, written together with the NGO Reporters Without Borders was submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council for the Universal Periodic Review. It documents the many human rights violations committed by the Singapore government in curbing the right to free expression.

Read the report here: UPR_singapore_freedomofexpression_CAN