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Living in Singapore

Limitations of Civil Freedoms in Singapore

Singapore unfortunately suffers from a number of constraints regarding freedom of speech, which has a direct impact on the political and civil atmosphere in the country. In this article, we take a look at the most prominent restrictions.

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At a glance:

  • Under the Sedition Act, any comment or action which can be seen as critical of the Singaporean government is punishable.
  • There are also other conversation topics which fall under the “out-of-bounds” category and are not to be discussed, such as corruption or alleged failings in government or the “White Elephant” incidents of 2005.
  • Despite criticism, media and internet content are both monitored and censored in Singapore, leading to very one-sided news reports.

No Public Discussion: The Sedition Act

The Sedition Act of the Statutes of Singapore aims to retain political stability as well as racial and ethnic harmony. Any acts, tendencies, or statements which can be construed as a threat to the government, such as inciting criticism, rioting, or an affront against the multiracial and multiethnic Singaporean population, are punishable under this act. With its history of race riots and political turbulence, it is easy to see why such an act could be considered necessary.

Even though the idea of punishing racism is surely not a bad one, some Singaporean and foreign observers have made negative comments on this act. Effectively, the Sedition Act bans the public discussion (the term “public” has also come to include the internet, see below) of most matters of race, religion, or sexuality, as well as direct and vocal criticism of the government. This is seen as a restriction of free speech, and it has also come up as one of the reasons for the racial tensions the act aims to prevent. Some have remarked that without the opportunity to openly discuss matters of racial diversity, antipathy could blossom more easily.

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Taboos in Public Discussion

In Singapore, not every political topic is considered a matter for public discussion. Some are considered to be a taboo subject, regardless whether or not they are pressing issues, the latest hot topic, or have other societal significance — those topics are not to be brought up. In Singapore, the term “out of bounds marker”, or OB marker as it is more frequently referred to, has come to signify the limits of acceptable topics.

Of course, OB markers can experience significant shifts over time. Topics which were once perfectly okay to discuss suddenly are not, and vice versa. It is hard to guess or anticipate whether or not a shift is going to take place in advance, or a topic is on the verge of becoming taboo. The problems with OB markers do not stop there: more often than not, they are not explicitly flagged or clearly defined as such. This, of course, can limit the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press, but it is often the journalists themselves who choose self-censorship over run-ins with the government or law.

Control of the Media

Most, if not all, of the media outlets available in the country — this includes newspapers, radio stations, and TV broadcasters — are closely linked to the government. All seven television channels are controlled by MediaCorp, which is in turn owned by a state investment company. Satellite dishes are banned in Singapore, although broadcasts from neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia are available.  While news outlets from those countries are generally freely available to Singaporeans, access can be restricted if the government deems it necessary. This often means that coverage of the news and political issues tends to be one-sided, although critical pieces such as editorials can occasionally be found in local newspapers.

“Access Denied”: Internet Censorship in Singapore

The Singaporean Media Development Authority (MDA) monitors and regulates internet use and connections which are made via the three major service providers SingNet, StarHub, and M1. A number of websites are inaccessible from within Singapore as they are deemed “objectionable”. The undisclosed list of banned web addresses includes Malaysian news sites, homosexuality-related sites, pages with pornographic content, and a number of YouTube videos. Blog entries from Singaporean bloggers as well as comments made on popular social media pages are also subject to monitoring, having already led to a number of criminal charges and layoffs.

The MDA also requires online websites to be individually licensed when they meet two criteria: they publish on average at least one article per week, and have at least 50,000 visitors from Singapore over a period of two months. The licenses are subject to renewal. Besides a performance bond of 50,000 SGD, they need to remove any objectionable content within 24 hours of receiving a government order.

Updated on: December 11, 2019
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