Police should stop harassing civil society activists

On 12 July 2017, a group of Singaporeans organised a candlelight vigil to mourn the impending execution of Malaysian citizen Prabagaran, who was scheduled to hang at dawn the following morning. Prabagaran was convicted of trafficking drugs into Singapore. The family of Prabagaran was also at the vigil and supporters were there to be in solidarity with them.
The gathering that night, which was held outside Changi Prison, had about 10 participants . It was a peaceful event. Participants put up photos of Prabagaran and lighted several candles. However, 15 minutes later, a police contingent of approximately 10 interrupted the vigil and told the group to cease their activities. They complied immediately and obtained permission from the officer to stay in the area to chat. The rest of the night went by without incident.
On Sunday 3 September 2017, police visited the homes of the participants in the morning and handed notices which said that they might be “acquainted with the facts and circumstances of the case” involving” taking part in a public assembly without a permit.”
We are disappointed that the police have decided to investigate a small gathering which was not a threat to public order. Singapore’s constitution guarantees its citizens freedom of speech and assembly. We have also been informed by some of the participants that they are not allowed to leave the country because of alleged offence.
While it is understandable that maintenance of public order is necessary, harassing participants of a peaceful vigil almost two months after the event is an overreaction. It is clear that the purpose of the investigation is not to ‘maintain ‘public order’  but to clamp down on civil society activism.  We urge the police to cease the investigation.

Complaint to UN Rapporteur on free speech filed on behalf of Li Shengwu

The Community Action Network has filed a complaint to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, on behalf of Li Shengwu, grandson of the late Lee Kuan Yew. The complaint was made in response to the Attorney General’s Chambers applying to the High Court to begin proceedings for contempt of court against Mr Li over a Facebook post he published on July 15 in which he said that the Singapore government is “very litigious” and has a “pliant court system”

Before beginning proceedings, the AGC asked Mr Li to delete the post, and publish an apology on his Facebook page. This is despite the fact that the comments Mr Li made on the court system was a “friends only” post which was subsequently re=published by various online media outlets without his permission.

The Special Rapporteur is an independent expert appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. It also communicates complaints made by claimants to the Singapore government for a response. A summary of the complaints is then presented to the Human Rights Council where a representative of the Singapore government will be present.

In 2015 a group of activists started a campaign “Don’t Kena Contempt” on social media to raise awareness of the arbitrary and draconian aspects of the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill. The campaign was concerned that the law gave the government too much powers to determine contempt, and the lack of clarity would lead people to opt for the safety of silence, rather than risk falling foul of the law.

Concerns that private conversations among friends may also run the risk of contempt were raised by the activists and members of parliament; the bill has yet to be gazetted into law, but the government’s clampdown on Li Shengwu’s private Facebook post has proven those fears to be justified. The government has initiated similar clampdowns against other individuals such as film maker Lynn Lee, activist Han Hui Hui, blogger Alex Au cartoonist Leslie Chew and lawyer Eugene Thuraisingam. 





Power, politics and fear: when sorry is not the hardest word

Donald Low’s apology to Singapore’s Law Minister K Shanmugam is another setback for freedom of expression and will reinforce self-censorship. In a facebook post last month, the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public policy academic criticized the Minister’s remarks, reported in Today, that penalties for crime need to reflect public opinion. The Minister had said that if penalties do not reflect the weight of public opinion and people do not find them fair, the law would lose its credibility and would not be enforceable. In his post, Donald Low wrote that public opinion can be “ignorant”, “ill informed” and “excessively emotional” and the Minister was wrong in his view.

This provoked a rebuttal from the Law Minister and he chastised Donald Low for “seriously misconstruing” what he said. He clarified that while public opinion was important in deciding criminal penalties, it was not the only determinant. He ended his admonishment by implying that Donald Low had damaged his own credibility and brought ill repute to “an institution which carries Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s name.”

The following day, Donald Low wrote a facebook apology to the Minister for having caused “any trouble or offence.” But it seems as if this wasn’t enough to satisfy the Minister because a few days later, another more ingratiating one was posted.

I realize my first apology was insincere. I am therefore writing now to apologize unreservedly…I have let the LKY School down…Many do not know this, but when I was out of a job in 2012, it was Minister Shanmugam who spoke with me and offered his help. He then put in a good word for me with LKYSPP, and gave me a recommendation. I decided that I should come clean about someone who had in fact helped me, and I should set out the facts in public”

This is not the first time that someone has had to apologise to the Law Minister. In 2015, activist Sangeetha Thanapal wrote a similar one after she accused him of being an “Islamaphobic bigot who thinks Malay-Muslims are a threat.” Mr Shanmugam denounced this characterisation of him and threatened to report her to the police. Faced with such pressure most people would have little choice but to acquiesce.

In Donald Low’s case, Shanmugam mentioned that he welcomes criticism and that academics have a right to comment on issues of public importance. One would expect the matter to end with a simple rebuttal. However, the apologies which followed show that it was no longer just a public exchange of views. Donald Low probably thought twice about where he stood in relation to the all-powerful Minister and it had to be written in as humiliating a way as possible.

Networks of power are so far reaching and deeply entrenched in Singapore it is easy for any politician of the PAP, especially a senior one to wield his influence. As Donald Low himself admitted, Shanmugam put in a good word to the LKY School of Public Policy. The backing of a minister can be beneficial but things can also sour pretty quickly.

Spaces for civil society resistance have either been obliterated or co-opted. There hasn’t been any public support or solidarity from fellow academics for Donald Low.  A chicken has been slaughtered and the monkeys are scared.

Crippling defamation suits which have destroyed the livelihoods of those who are critical of the regime are a hallmark of PAP politics and one of the most shameful characteristics of the regime. Petty threats of reports to the police by a powerful political figure, and remarks which result in a critic having to capitulate not once but twice in apology should not happen in a free, open and democratic society.

Public and academic discourse in Singapore already suffers from a high degree of self censorship and there are many who fear that being too critical will cost them a promotion or even their jobs. But boundaries cannot be pushed and ideas cannot flourish when there is no tolerance for transgressions. When a public exchange of views results in an obsequious apology, academics, activists and journalists can only view this latest saga as yet another cautionary tale in the politics of fear.

Stop the intimidation of Sungei Road vendors

We are deeply concerned about the ongoing police investigation into a “threatening” letter allegedly written by the Chairman of the Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods at Sungei Road flea market, Mr Koh Eng Khoon. According to media reports, the letter in question was sent to Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, and signed “Koh Eng Khoon (Friend)”. Police visited Mr Koh at his one room flat at around midnight on 28 April. They did not produce a warrant, but officers ransacked the apartment, took photos of Mr Koh, and confiscated his mobile phone as part of the investigation. The visit ended only at approximately one in the morning.

While we understand that all complaints from the public should be investigated, we question whether it was necessary to carry it out in such an intimidating, aggressive, and intrusive manner. This kind of action intensifies a climate of fear that deters frank discussion of public interest issues, and curbs citizens’ participation in matters which the government is not comfortable with.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) announced plans to close Sungei Road Market in 2014. The Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods was formed for the purpose of persuading the government to allow the 80-year-old market to continue by letting the vendors operate in an alternative location. However, in February this year, government agencies announced that the market will close on 11 July. Since then, Mr Koh, the vendors and members of the public have escalated their efforts in urging the government to reconsider.

Is the government harassing Mr Koh to intimidate others – especially the Sungei Road street vendors – from campaigning to save their livelihoods and culture? We call upon the state to ensure the immediate return of all confiscated property to Koh and to stop using intimidating investigative tactics on ordinary citizens.

Image source: http://www.ghettosingapore.com/img_0855-1/

Police question Singapore Bersih participants

Members of the Community Action Network (CAN) and participants of a solidarity event at Hong Lim Park were questioned by police officers at Kreter Ayer Police Post between 6.20pm to 7.30pm on Sunday. The event, called “The Yellow Sit-In”, was organised in solidarity with Bersih 5.0, a movement of Malaysian citizens and activists, calling for electoral reform and genuine democracy in their country. Participants were rounded up at the conclusion of the event. Prior to and during the event, CAN members had noticed plain clothes police walking around the park and taking pictures of the participants secretly.

According to the questions asked, the police were concerned about the following:

1. Our nationalities

2. The reasons for the event

3. The reasons the attendees were there

4. How the participants knew about the event

5. Whether the organisers took any precautions to prevent foreigners from participating;

6. Whether the foreign attendees were merely observers

7. The use of the Singapore and Malaysia flags during the event.

The police were not specific about why we were brought in for questioning, nor did they cite the legislation granting them powers to seize our items (a Singapore flag and a mat) when we asked them. A CAN member was prohibited from calling his lawyer for advice when he requested it. A participant also had his photo taken in the police station without prior notice from the officer.  It is our view that all persons assisting in investigations should be told of the alleged offence that had taken place and have the right to seek legal advice when necessary.

We would like to thank friends, colleagues and other members of the public who showed their concern when we were questioned by the police. We are also grateful for the support of the foreigners who observed the event.

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.