Dear President Obama,
As you prepare for the state visit of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on August 2, 2016, we write to highlight key human rights concerns that we hope you will raise in both public and private with Prime Minister Lee. These include issues of freedom of speech, assembly, and association, and the rights of LGBT people. We provide further detail on these topics in the appendix to this letter.
Singapore’s political environment is highly stifling, and citizens face severe restrictions on their basic rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. The government of Singapore effectively controls the print media, and online media outlets are forced to register with the government and post a significant bond. Bloggers who comment on political issues are targeted for prosecution using vague and overly broad legal provisions on public order, morality, security, and racial and religious harmony. For example, Alex Au, a popular blogger and LGBT activist, was convicted in January 2015 of violating the archaic offense of “scandalizing the judiciary” because he posted a critical comment about case management in the court’s handling of two constitutional challenges to Singapore’s anti-sodomy law.
Outspoken activists are subject to government harassment. In May 2016, the police intensively interrogated political activist and blogger Roy Ngerng Yi Ling and long-time activist Teo Soh Lung on grounds of allegedly violating election laws restricting political campaigning during a “cooling-off period” before the recent by-election. The enforcement action was prompted by posts they put on their personal Facebook pages. The authorities’ use of the law against private individuals was unprecedented since the election law specifically permits “the transmission of personal political views by individuals to other individuals, on a non-commercial basis, using the Internet.” The heavy-handed action by the police, who searched the homes of both Teo and Ngerng, seizing phones and computers, appeared to be an effort to intimidate the outspoken activists.
Over the years, the government of Singapore has regularly used politically motivated defamation suits to bankrupt and silence critics and political opponents. More recently, Prime Minister Lee sued the activist noted above, Roy Ngerng Yi Ling, for defamation, seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars for damages allegedly caused by a single blog post criticizing the management of the government’s Central Provident Fund. In December 2015, the court ordered Ngerng to pay 150,000 Singapore dollars (US$111,166) in damages and S$29,000 (US$21,492) in legal costs.
Public demonstrations and other assemblies remain severely limited, with a permit required for any assembly outside of Hong Lim Park, where the so-called “Speaker’s Corner” is situated. Even events held within Hong Lim Park can result in prosecution or harassment by the authorities. Activist Jolovan Wham was given a “stern warning” by the police after two Hong Kong citizens attended a protest he organized in solidarity with the Occupy Hong Kong movement, even though he made clear, in promotional materials and at the event itself, that participation by non-citizens was not permitted under Singapore’s laws. Other activists have been charged for holding an “unauthorized demonstration” on the grounds that they checked the box, in the online registration form for use of Hong Lim Park, for “speeches” rather than the one for a “demonstration.” Even efforts to hold a candlelight vigil in response to last month’s Orlando shootings were hampered by restrictions that make it impossible to plan and hold an event on the same day, and include restrictions on speakers at assemblies in Hong Lim Park.
Consensual sexual relations between men remain a criminal offense under article 377A of the Penal Code in Singapore. While the government claims it does not enforce that statute, the reality is the law remains on the books ready to be used, and the government routinely censors positive portrayals of LGBT individuals, and even mention of LGBT issues. The law itself is demeaning to individuals who experience same-sex attraction. Even your own comments, Mr. President, are not exempt. For example, Singapore deleted the statement you made during an appearance on The Ellen Show in February 2016, praising Ellen DeGeneres for her LGBT activism, when the episode was broadcast in Singapore.
We urge you to ensure that discussions during this visit go beyond economic and strategic cooperation with the United States, and firmly address Singapore’s seriously problematic human rights record. We hope you will make it clear to Prime Minister Lee that the United States expects its partners to create an environment in which basic civil and political rights are protected, activists and nongovernmental monitoring organizations can thrive, and where the law is used to protect – rather than repress – the country’s people.
Specifically, we urge you to press Prime Minister Lee to act to:
Eliminate the offense of “scandalizing the judiciary,” as many other commonwealth countries have done;
End film censorship, in both law and practice;
Revise the Public Order Act and the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act to bring them into line with international standards for the protection of freedom of assembly;
Drop the investigations of Roy Ngerng and Teo Soh Lung for allegedly violating restrictions on political campaigning during the “cooling-off” period;
Repeal section 377A of the Penal Code to decriminalize consensual sexual activity between men;
Revise the Free to Air Radio Code and other media regulations to eliminate the prohibitions on positive depictions of LGBT lives; and
Instruct the Registrar of Societies to permit the registration of LGBT organizations under the Societies Act.
Thank you for your consideration and we look forward to discussing these matters further with your staff.