Singapore, May 27, 2005
Singapore defended its media laws on Friday and balked at the suggestion that its citizens live in a climate of fear.
Singapore's home affairs minister Wong Kan Seng said in a newspaper interview that citizens in the city-state have spoken up at public forums without reprisals and commentaries critical of government policies have also appeared in newspapers.
"What is the consequence of saying something that is challenged? Is the consequence being locked up in jail, disappearing in the middle of the night and you don't come back?" Wong was quoted as saying in Singapore's Straits Times.
Detention without trial
In September, the government released two detainees held without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA) and placed them under orders restricting freedom of movement. It also extended for a further two years the detention orders of 17 other men. In total, 36 men accused of plotting to carry out bomb attacks continued to be held without charge or trial under the ISA. The authorities said that many of the men, who were arrested in 2001, 2002 and 2004, were members or supporters of an Islamist group, Jemaah Islamiyah. The ISA violates the right to a fair and public trial and the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law. Amnesty International Report 2004
"Get real. Come on, we live in the real world in Singapore."
In an annual report released on Wednesday, rights group Amnesty International slammed Singapore's human rights record, saying that control on political expression in the wealthy Southeast Asian city-state remained tight despite Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's repeated calls for more openness.
The US State Department, in its 2004 report on Singapore, sharply criticised the country for using libel suits to intimidate opposition politicians, saying the threat of libel has stifled political opinion and disadvantaged opposition.
Early this month, a 23-year-old Singapore student in the United States shut down his personal Web site after a government agency threatened a libel suit for comments he made on the blog.
Wong, who will assume the post of deputy prime minister later this year, also defended a law which bans political videos, saying that the law is applied in an even-handed manner and not designed to stifle political debate.
"Political videos, by their very nature, will be political, will be biased and, therefore, will not be able to allow the listener or the viewer to see a whole range of arguments," Wong said, adding that proposals for films about the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) were also shot down.
Under provisions introduced to the Films Act in 1998, anyone involved in the production or distribution of "party political films" - defined as films containing partisan references or commentaries on government policies - can be punished with fines of up to S$100,000 ($60,860) or a maximum jail term of 2 years.
The law came under fire this month after local filmmaker Martyn See was summoned for police questioning over a documentary he made featuring prominent opposition leader Chee Soon Juan.
Wong was also asked about whether the law applied to TV stations airing programmes about PAP ministers, following a recent series of one-hour programmes on state broadcaster Channel NewsAsia that featured government ministers.
"That is not a political video. That's a broadcaster and a content provider doing a job. It is done in other places. The minister is explaining himself, his policies and how he wants Singapore to move ahead," Wong said.
International free-press advocates have repeatedly criticised Singapore for its tight media control.
The government bans non-commercial private ownership of satellite dishes, and publications need permits to circulate. Films and TV shows are routinely censored for sex and violence.
The government says a high degree of control over public debate and the media is needed to maintain law and order.
"Someone once said, 'My right to swing my arm must end where your nose begins'. That is the limit of free action; that is the boundary," Wong said.
Singapore has been ruled by the People's Action Party since independence in 1965. Its 84-member Parliament has only two opposition members.
The evidence is that Singapore is a city of fear.