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In Singapore, Facebook Offers No Refuge For Freedom Of Speech

The city-state's leadership has never tolerated too much political dissent; and now when it comes in the Facebook variety, officials are using the courts to silence critics.

Supporters of Singapore's Workers' Party at a rally
Supporters of Singapore's Workers' Party at a rally
Han Liying

SINGAPORE — About two years ago, Leong Sze Hian, a sixty-five-year-old financial advisor in Singapore, did what countless others do every day: He shared an article on his Facebook page.

What he didn't know, was that by doing so he'd soon find himself in a protracted legal battle with none other than the city-state's prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, who chose to sue Mr. Leong for defamation.

The article in question was from a Malaysian website, which reported that the prime minister had become the main subject of an investigation into a multi-billion-dollar state investment fund scandal during the administration of Najib Razak, Malaysia's former prime minister. The report claimed that Lee Hsien Loong had a secret transaction agreement with Najib Razak. Some of the report's allegations were later proved to be false.

The defamation case finally headed in September to Singapore's High Court; and if history is a guide, the defendant doesn't stand much of a chance.

Either way, the case is attracting no small amount of attention, especially among free speech advocates. And that's because it is a prime example, they say, of how the Singaporean ruling party — the People's Action Party (PAP) — uses the courts, time and again, to silence dissident voices.

Their primary tool is the so-called Defamation Act, a civil defamation law allows the leadership to sue anyone who dares criticize them. Their argument for doing so is that any tolerance of false accusations will harm the reputation of Singapore as a reliable and clean investment destination. Such criticisms can also weaken the public's trust in the government, the PAP argues, and jeopardize the interests of the Singaporean people and the entire country.

In the past, such suits tended to target opposition leaders. But PAP has also gone after press people — including journalists from Western media outlets — and even everyday citizens like Leong Sze Hian.

At least two people have gone bankrupt because they couldn't afford to pay the large sums of compensation awarded to the PAP. Others, including some press outlets, have chosen to settle out of court in order to avoid high legal fees. The International Herald Tribune and the Far Eastern Economic Review have both had to pay the PAP compensation for objectionable news content.

Show us the money

Six years ago, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also took a blogger named Roy Ngerng to court. At issue was a blog post comparing an embezzlement case involving a church leader to management problems concerning the Singapore Government Investment Corporation, which Mr. Lee chaired. The prime minister's take on the article was that it accused him, in not so many words, of misappropriating state pension funds.

Such criticisms can weaken the public's trust in the government, the PAP argues.

Because of the suit, Mr. Ngerng — who in addition to blogging also worked as a patient coordinator in a hospital — lost his job. And unable to find new employment in Singapore, he later had to emigrate to Taiwan, where he now works for the Risk Society and Policy Research Centre of Taiwan University.

Ngerng was also ordered, back in 2015, to pay Prime Minister Lee roughly $110,000 in damages and legal costs. Years later he's still making payments, and is expected to keep doing so until 2033.

As it turns out, getting saddled with such a large penalty is par for the course when the plaintiff is a high-ranking civil servant. In these kinds of libel cases, people in leadership positions are compensated more, on average, than regular citizens. Studies have shown, furthermore, that the PAP never, in fact, loses such cases, and that the money they are awarded can be as much as 12 times what an ordinary person would receive.

"Most public leaders have the right to receive higher compensation," the High Court stated back in 2010. "This is because of their status in Singaporean society and their dedication to the people. Any libel or defamation against their personality or public office not only damages their personal reputation, but also Singapore's reputation, because Singapore's leaders are known globally for their honesty, integrity, and dedication to the people."

A one-fingered salute

Leong Sze Hian's case, on hold for the moment, is expected to resume at the end of November. In the meantime, Prime Minister Lee is pursuing another high-profile defamation case, this time against Terry Xu, the chief-editor of the independent Singaporean news website The Online Citizen.

In August, 2019, the site posted a commentary piece about the prime minister's poor relationship with his younger brother and sister. The article also mentioned Lee's deceased father, Lee Kuan Yewwho, and the home he left behind.

The prime minister charged Xu with defamation. The editor was also charged, along with one his writers, for a separate article accusing the Singapore government of corruption at the "highest level."

A 23 year-old university student and social activist is also in hot water right now because of something she posted on Facebook. The woman, Averyn Thng, was first contacted by the police in September and is currently under investigation, all because she shared a photo — taken last year — in which she's seen raising her middle finger to security cameras in the city-state's Hong Lim Park.

In the photo's caption, Thng described the current state of affairs in Singapore as an "ugly reality" and accused the authorities of using "militarization to control people, especially those who are marginalized." The young woman hasn't yet been charged with any crimes. But she was subjected to a lengthy police interrogations.

Another activist, Jolovan Wham, has undergone similar police investigations, also because of something he put on Facebook — more than two years ago. The offending post, which compared political cases between Singapore and Malaysia's judicial institutions, led to charges and ultimately a conviction, for contempt of court.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong arriving at a polling station during Singapore's general election in July — Photo: Then Chih Wey/Xinhua/ZUMA

Rather than pay the corresponding fine, Jolovan Wham spent seven days this past April in jail. But afterwards he was again convicted, this time for "holding an illegal assembly" (because he had invited Joshua Wong, the Hong Kong activist, to give a speech at a seminar through the Skype video service). Again he refused to pay the fine, and in August was imprisoned for 10 days.

"I'm convinced that imprisonment is a continuation of the resistance movement," said Mr. Wham. "It's an expression that one does not accept the legality of the sentence... No, I refuse to accept the legitimacy of this sentence."

Keeping it to themselves

Singapore has extensive and vaguely worded laws governing how citizens behave and what they can and cannot say, even online. As a Singaporean, one has to bear in mind always that there exists an obscure OB marker (out of bounds marker), a term adopted from golf and used commonly in Singapore denoting which topics are permissible in public opinion.

Stephan Ortmann, associate professor at the Center for China Studies of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is an expert on authoritarianism and Singapore. He pointed out to the Initium that, "Except for a few activists or rights defenders, most people in Singapore are still wary crossing that ill-defined political opinion boundary."

In October 2019, a new act, commonly called the Fake News Law, took effect in the country, with the aim of preventing internet falsehood and online manipulation. The new legislation gives the government the power to order that supposed falsehoods be either removed or corrected.

More than 70 individuals and internet platforms have since been prosecuted. The crackdown has been a pause, nevertheless, since this year's general election, on July 10.

"Accusations of contempt of court as well as the fake news laws have had an impact on people's discussion on social media", Prof. Ortmann told Initium. "When there's concern about stepping over the red line, even if there's no risk involved, people are going to self-censor."

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