Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression in Singapore: Myth or Reality?
Singapore has faced criticism from around the world over its censorship laws. This has resulted in discussions on whether the right to freedom of speech and expression even exists in Singapore.
Does the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression Exist in Singapore?
The right to freedom of speech and expression in Singapore is actually constitutionally guaranteed in Article 14 of the Singapore Constitution.
Only Singapore citizens are granted this right. In addition, the Singapore Parliament is entitled to restrict the right in 2 situations:
1. Where the restrictions are designed to:
- Protect the privileges of Parliament
- Provide against any contempt of court, defamation or incitement to any offence.
2. Where Parliament considers that doing so is necessary or expedient in the interest of:
- Singapore’s security
- Friendly relations with other countries
- Public order
For example, section 298 of the Penal Code makes it an offence to utter a word within hearing distance of a person, with the deliberate intention to wound that person’s racial feelings. This restriction can be said to be in the interest of public order, due to the need to maintain racial harmony in Singapore.
How to Interpret the Restrictions on the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression
Challenges to the restrictions on the right to freedom of speech and expression usually first start when a person makes a particular speech which causes him to be charged for breaking a certain law.
(For example, the person could have allegedly made racist slurs against another person in violation of section 298 of the Penal Code, as mentioned above.)
This person then challenges in court that the law which he was charged under goes against (i.e. has illegitimately restricted) his right to freedom of speech and expression. The court then has to see whether this has been the case.
In past cases, the court has interpreted the wording of the restrictions to the right to freedom of speech and expression as meaning that the restrictions are legitimate if they are “necessary or expedient” in relation to interests stated in them, such as Singapore’s security or public order.
This phrase “necessary or expedient” gives Parliament a very broad discretion to decide whether a restriction on the right is legitimate. The court cannot interfere with Parliament’s decision on this issue. It can only decide whether the law’s necessity and expedience relates to the interest of Singapore’s security, friendly relations with other countries, public order or morality.
To do this, the court will see if it can establish a connection between the object of the law and one of the allowed restrictions to the right to the freedom of speech.
When trying to establish this connection, the court will interpret the law broadly and may also consult relevant parliamentary material, such as parliamentary debates and white papers.
Finally, the court is of the view that the Constitution permits Parliament to impose restrictions on the right to freedom of speech not just to maintain certain interests, but to also promote them. Therefore, laws passed by Parliament which promote the stated interests are likely to be legitimate restrictions even if these laws do not directly maintain such interests.
Apart from examining the law, the court will also examine the nature of the speech made to determine whether it has been legitimately restricted. Take the examples of fake news, defamatory statements, and hate speech, which are usually made with ill intentions. In these cases, the court is likely to prioritise the protection of public order over the person’s right to make such speech because of the speech’s harmful effects on society.
Case Study: Chee Siok Chin v Ministry of Home Affairs
In Chee Siok Chin v Ministry of Home Affairs, a group of political activists were conducting a peaceful protest against the Central Provident Fund scheme when they were ordered by the police to disperse for being a public nuisance under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act (MOA). The police also seized items used in the protest.
In court, the activists argued that their right to freedom of speech and expression had been illegitimately restricted by the provisions in the MOA. On examination of parliamentary debates on the MOA and the MOA’s long title, however, the court found that the objective of the MOA is to uphold “public order”. The MOA’s restrictions on the right to freedom of speech and expression were therefore legitimate.
Penalties for Exceeding the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression
The penalties for exceeding the right to freedom of speech and expression vary, depending on which law(s) the person was charged under and the penalties imposed for breaching that law(s).
For example, people convicted under section 298 of the Penal Code for uttering words, with the deliberate intention of wounding another person’s racial feelings, can be fined and/or jailed for up to 3 years.
Also, owners of online news websites which put up content deemed to be against public interest, public order or national harmony or to offend “good taste or decency” must remove such content within 24 hours of being notified by the Info-Communication Media Development Authority of Singapore to do so.
Finally, the Official Secrets Act also restricts the right to freedom of speech and expression by making spying (e.g. communicating information which might be useful to foreign powers for purposes prejudicial to Singapore’s safety or interests) an offence. As a result, any person found guilty of spying may be fined up to $20,000 and jailed for up to 14 years.
The right to freedom of speech and expression is certainly not a myth – it does exist in Singapore. In reality, however, the scope of this right is limited, in the protection of the interests of Singapore’s society as a whole.
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