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The Subtle Authoritarianism of Southeast Asia’s Wealthiest City-State

Jeevan Vasagar on Singapore’s Ongoing Suppression Dissent

Singapore’s government has embraced the internet as an essential technology for economic growth. But it is wary of its ability to spread dissent. This was underlined to authoritarian regimes worldwide during the Arab Spring, which established the power of social media as a tool for documenting oppression, coordinating anti-government protest and magnifying the reach of protests. Ordinary people became angry at their governments, marched against them, and realized that others were marching too.

Middle Eastern autocracies have tended to use clumsy means of repression, blocking websites and jailing bloggers. Singapore offers a test case for a more subtle model. Its system of media control is indirect, with reporters pressured by their editors to ensure their political coverage never challenges the government. “You’re not supposed to ask questions in a difficult way,” one former Singapore journalist, who worked for a business publication, told me. “The government will complain to your supervisors about that. But you’re allowed to write what you want to write. After that, the editors will change it so much that you can’t recognize it anymore.”

This system cannot simply be transferred online. It was Facebook, Twitter and YouTube that let protesters across the Middle East share images of police brutality, fueling public anger and bypassing government monitoring of domestic newspapers and television. Unlike reporters for the Singapore press, bloggers can broadcast directly to the public from their bedrooms.

For the Singapore government, strengthening technological skills and encouraging the flow of ideas that can be commercially exploited are high priorities. One consequence of this desire to maintain an open and dynamic internet is that, unlike China and other authoritarian regimes, Singapore makes little attempt to block political content online. The OpenNet Initiative, an advocacy group that tracks attempts at online control and surveillance, finds that Singapore practices ‘extremely minimal’ filtering of internet content, restricted to pornography sites, sales of banned drugs and religious extremism.

Instead, the government has been pushed to cede some ground on the internet, allowing voices that would never be heard in Singapore’s neutered mainstream press. From heritage campaigns to activists against the death penalty, social media has created new spaces for debate.

Singapore’s elite had grasped that allowing people to gather in the untamed space of social media could be as risky as allowing them to gather in the streets.

It was a blogger named Alex Au, a softly spoken man in rimless glasses, who gave one of the earliest demonstrations of the power of the new media. Au is a writer, whose blog Yawning Bread is an elegantly crafted series of observations on culture and politics in Southeast Asia. Just ahead of the 2006 general election, Au went to a rally of the opposition Workers’ Party in Hougang, a bustling northeastern suburb of malls and housing estates. Finding the rally so crowded he could not reach the front, Au headed to a nearby tower block instead, climbing thirteen floors up the stairs as the lift lobby was full of people with the same idea.

From this vantage point, he took a photograph that has become famous, showing tens of thousands of people gathered in a floodlit field. He published the picture, along with an account of the rally and a speech by an opposition politician attacking the government over healthcare costs, on his blog. The picture and blog post “On Hougang Field” was shared with delight by Singaporeans, accustomed to a tame media dominated by the ruling party’s perspective. No one could recall seeing wide-angle pictures of opposition rallies in Singapore’s mainstream media, which favored close-up shots that concealed the size of the crowd.

By the time of Singapore’s 2011 general election, the power and reach of social media was becoming clear. The election that year was unusual. Voters were worried about the rising cost of living and openly critical of the government over an influx of foreign workers. The public complained of overcrowding on trains and buses, where the system had failed to keep pace with growth in the population. Social media amplified this dissent. The youngest candidate in the election, a twenty-four-year-old advertising executive named Nicole Seah who ran for one of the opposition parties, became an unexpected star on YouTube, with fiery speeches calling for a more inclusive society.

At the heart of Singapore’s efforts to tame the internet is a battle over the truth and whose version of it prevails.

During the campaign, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong displayed contrition, telling a rally: “If we didn’t quite get it right, I am sorry.” The ruling party held onto power, but their 60 percent share of the vote was their worst outcome since independence. It seemed as if the Internet was living up to its promise of creating a new space for conversation that highlighted the gaps between official rhetoric and reality, even in one of the most carefully managed societies in the world.

The government appeared caught off-guard, with the prime minister acknowledging that ministers had to work harder to engage voters online. He expressed an Olympian disdain for the unruly qualities of the internet. “It is anonymous, it is chaotic, it is unfiltered, unmoderated and so the medium lends itself to many negative views and ridiculous untruths,” he complained. Singapore’s elite had grasped that allowing people to gather in the untamed space of social media could be as risky as allowing them to gather in the streets. The question that perplexed them was: how were they going to bring this new medium to heel?

Remy Choo Zheng Xi was fourteen when Speakers’ Corner at Hong Lim Park was opened in September 2000. A student at the Anglo-Chinese School, he had acquired an interest in debating in his second year, and that got him interested in political news from the region. He read about the student protest that culminated in the fall of Indonesia’s President Suharto, and about demands for reform in Malaysia. “I started relating a lot of that to how things were different in Singapore… Singapore was exceedingly tightly controlled,” he told me.

In the first week that Speakers’ Corner was open, Choo decided to give it a shot. Speaking to a crowd of about seventy mostly elderly folk, he gave an impassioned speech about democracy. “I said public participation was important in getting the government to improve the lives of ordinary Singaporeans. As Singapore is a one-party state, it is not as attentive to the citizenry as it could be.”

It was thrilling. “The crowd were kind of excited,” Choo recalled. “When you are a kid, you have the courage to say things that make you cringe on hindsight.”

Halfway through what Choo describes as a “very privileged” upbringing, SARS hit Singapore. Air travel slumped, pummeling industries that relied on tourists. His father’s restaurant business was wiped out, and the family sold their car and moved from private to public housing. He shrugs off its impact on him—”children are very adaptable”—but that shift in perspective feels significant. Choo became a lawyer, dividing his time between commercial litigation and legal cases likely to have a broader impact on society. While at law school, he helped found a blog site, The Online Citizen, one of the first outlets to cover taboo topics, from migrant workers’ rights to rising inequality.

A slim, handsome man, now in his mid-thirties, Choo is gay and he has taken up legal challenges to Section 377A, the section of the penal code which criminalizes gay sex, as well as championing free speech. When he speaks about his life, discrimination against gay people in Singapore and its intolerance of free speech feel like two sides of a coin, illustrating the corrosive impact of secrecy. “The biggest unspoken impact of 377A is just not being able to be out, not being able to be fully comfortable with being out. It certainly has an impact on the confidence with which members of our community can express ourselves, with even loved ones who may have a different world view,” he says.

Choo was thirty-one when he came out to his family. He was outed by someone who created a website that combined images of Choo kissing a man with a legal case that he had handled, about a website accused of stirring up racial hatred. “I’m not sure whether it was my political views or my sexual orientation that they were targeting,” he says.

Unlike China and other authoritarian regimes, Singapore makes little attempt to block political content online.

After its setback in the 2011 election, Singapore’s ruling party promised to listen to its citizens and address their complaints. But in the years that followed, the government began to exert a firmer grip over the flow of information online. In 2013 Singapore introduced a licensing scheme for news websites, extending the system that regulates broadcasters and newspapers. These licenses require news sites to remove content deemed “in breach of standards” within twenty-four hours. They are also required to post a bond of S$50,000, creating a financial forfeit for non-compliance with the regulator. The Online Citizen was one of those required to register.

Singapore’s government has frequently used libel suits against foreign media, suing and winning damages from the New York Times, Bloomberg and The Economist, among others. The country’s leaders insist on their right to defend their reputation, but their eagerness to turn to the courts to police criticism of the government has troubled human rights advocates.

Under Singapore law, libel is not just a civil matter, but a criminal offense which can be punished with up to two years in jail. As in Britain, it is up to the person defending a libel claim to prove that their statement is true, which tends to put newspapers and campaigners on the back foot. Government ministers sue for libel in the Singapore courts, where they have never lost.

Personal blogs, too numerous to police individually, were excluded from the formal licensing scheme. Instead, Singapore has used legal tools to pursue a handful of dissidents, like a gardener plucking dandelions from a stretch of lawn. A defamation suit was deployed against a blog for the first time in 2014, when the prime minister sued blogger Roy Ngerng, a slender young man in dark-framed glasses who had been a dogged critic of the government and whose blog, Heart Truths, probed the reasons for the persistence of poverty, especially among the elderly, in what had become one of the world’s richest countries.

Inadequate retirement income is an emotive topic in Singapore. Although people make substantial mandatory contributions to the state-run retirement savings kitty, the Central Provident Fund, the fact they are allowed to withdraw money to pay for housing, healthcare and other needs often means their savings are eroded by the time they retire. Pensioners often find they need to keep working in old age.

A government survey in 2011 found that 29 per cent of Singaporeans over the age of sixty-five were still working, up from 15 per cent in 2005. Most were working from financial necessity rather than the desire to stay active. Many very old women, in their seventies, were working as cleaners or low-paid service staff. Singaporeans had grown indignant at the sight of old people gathering cardboard to sell for recycling or carrying stacked trays in fast food restaurants.

The country’s rulers could instead use an armory of laws to pick off targets one by one, and remind everyone of the risks of asking too many questions.

On his blog Ngerng effectively accused the government of misappropriating pension funds, comparing it to a case in which the leaders of a Singaporean church had been charged with fraud. The comparison was absurd—government ministers had not stolen public money—but the consequences for Ngerng were disproportionate to his offense.

After receiving a warning letter from the prime minister’s lawyer, Ngerng took the blog down and apologized. But he kept pressing the government over pensions. One Saturday in June, three weeks after the blog was published, he was among the speakers at a rally which drew around 2000 people to Speakers’ Corner under the slogan “Return our CPF.” There were loud cheers as Ngerng asked probing questions about the government’s management of its financial assets. It looked like a dangerous mix. A blogger was asking troublesome questions on an issue that triggered a strong public reaction. The prime minister’s lawyers sued for damages. “Freedom of speech does not come free from the need to be responsible for what one says,” the premier observed on Facebook.

Days later, Ngerng was sacked from his job as a patient coordinator at a government hospital after his employer said his conduct was incompatible with “their values and standards.” He was convicted of defamation and ordered to pay S$29,000 in legal fees. The court later imposed damages of S$150,000.

The blogger raised thousands of dollars from the public to help fund his defense, after making an appeal on his site. The successful fundraising implied that at least some fellow Singaporeans felt the government’s tactics were heavy-handed. But his case had underlined the severe financial penalties that an individual who challenges the Singapore government can incur. A few months after the prime minister sued Ngerng, Alex Au was convicted of contempt of court over a blog in which he wrote about legal challenges to Section 377A. Au was fined S$8000. It was not quite the life-changing punishment meted out to Ngerng but the conviction disturbed human rights activists for its use of an archaic corner of the law.

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At the heart of Singapore’s efforts to tame the internet is a battle over the truth and whose version of it prevails. For decades, the government had told a story of how Singapore had been created by Lee Kuan Yew and his allies, and how this transformation had been threatened by communists and malign foreign powers. There is an element of truth to this account, but like all national stories there is a dash of myth-making too. Singapore’s leaders insist that the threat of a violent communist insurrection in the 1960s was a genuine one. But many Singaporeans are skeptical of this version of events, noting that fear of a radical left takeover, and the government’s repeated insistence on Singapore’s vulnerability, have helped the ruling party to consolidate their hold on power.

This struggle burst into the open when Singapore drew up its fake news law in 2019. While plenty of countries around the world have acted to curb misinformation online, Singapore’s legislation, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, is exceptionally harsh and unusually broad. Known simply as “Pofma,” the law sweeps across a range of potentially sensitive topics, from public health to Singapore’s relations with other countries, including anything which might diminish public confidence in the government. For individuals, publishing false statements can, in the most extreme cases, attract a jail term of up to ten years, a fine of up to S$100,000 or both. Companies that participate in the spread of online falsehoods or fail to comply with a correction notice can face fines of up to S$1 million.

The martyrs of free speech in Singapore include some extreme and unsympathetic figures, but many more of those who have fallen foul of the law have been moderate voices asking thoughtful questions, like Roy Ngerng and Alex Au. Ngerng moved to Taiwan and continued to post critical commentary on Singapore. Au continued to write and speak out. The country’s independent media has been buffeted, but it has escaped a knockout blow; blogs that question the official narrative are still operating.

For a well-entrenched ruling elite with little by way of significant political challenge, running a well-resourced and organized state, Singapore’s government can seem surprisingly anxious. But it is an anxiety which makes sense when you observe the speed at which apparently stable regimes have collapsed once they lose control of both the internet and the streets. Singapore had demonstrated that a determined and well-resourced national government could effectively impose its will on the internet, without taking the extreme steps of shutting down the flow of information entirely or building up a patchwork of censored websites. The country’s rulers could instead use an armory of laws to pick off targets one by one, and remind everyone of the risks of asking too many questions.

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Via Pegasus Books

Excerpted from Lion City: Singapore and the Invention of Modern Asia by Jeevan Vasagar. Copyright © 2022. Available from Pegasus Books. Adapted with permission.

Jeevan Vasagar
Jeevan Vasagar
Jeevan Vasagar is the former Singapore and Malaysia correspondent for the Financial Times. He travelled the region to report on demands for political reform, the rise of digital businesses and the growing influence of China. He is now Environment Editor for The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, based in London. Prior to joining the FT, he reported for the Guardian for twelve years, including spells as east Africa correspondent and education editor. Lion City is his first book. He can be found on Twitter: @jeevanvasagar





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