Singapore plays up terrorism to curb liberties
New measures empower authorities to ban reporting, detain suspects and suppress sit-down protests in the already tightly controlled city-state
“Global terrorism is on the rise and Singapore is facing our highest level of terror threat in recent years,” reads the SGSecure website, a state-run campaign that aims to prepare citizens for a possible attack. “A terror attack is not a matter of if but when, and we cannot afford to remain complacent.”
All across the island nation, Singaporeans are constantly warned of a supposed imminent threat, from posters in train stations, to banners near bus stops, to a new five-part television series on the local English language channel.
The fear isn’t completely unfounded: transnational terrorist groups like Islamic State have identified Singapore as a potential target in their propaganda materials, while the Ministry of Home Affairs said last year that the militant group had plotted to carry out two attacks against Singapore.
Initiatives to encourage community preparedness, such as training courses for transport workers on how to react to an emergency, are clearly useful.
An SGSecure app, which broadcasts alerts during emergencies and allows people to send in tips to authorities, has been made available to the public and introduced as part of counterterrorism training for all Ministry of Defense and Singapore Armed Forces personnel.
As of September last year the app had been downloaded over one million times.
But there are simultaneous concerns that new measures under the guise of combatting terrorism and defending national security will also further curb liberties in the already tightly-controlled city-state.
Two bills passed in Parliament on March 21 were justified with references to national security despite issues raised by civil society and arts groups against the expansion of state power and new limits on freedom of expression.
The first, the Films (Amendment) Bill, will empower officers from the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) to enter, search and seize “any document or any other thing at the premises” without a warrant for the enforcement of offenses that include the possession of a “party-political film” or films banned on public interest grounds.
The second, the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Bill, allows police in certain circumstances to issue a “communications stop order” which bans the transmission, or even creation, of films, pictures, text or audio messages within areas where a “serious incident” has occurred.
The police will also be allowed to detain any individual within an area for as long as required to seek information that can aid police operations.
Although the government has sought to assure Singaporeans that peaceful protests are not the target of the legislation, civil society groups have pointed out that the actual text of the bill explicitly includes “a sit-down demonstration for a cause” as an illustration of a “serious incident.”
Ministers argued in Parliament that Singapore is “highly susceptible” to foreign agitators who aim to sow discord among the country’s multi-racial, multi-religious society by disseminating “undesirable content” through the use of technology. They also said that terror attacks abroad had highlighted gaps in Singapore’s existing laws.
“This bill suppresses fundamental freedoms and threatens the safety and important work of activists and human rights defenders,” said Filipino congressman Teddy Baguilat, a board member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), in a statement.
“Singapore already heavily restricts the rights to peaceful assembly and free speech. More broad restrictions in the name of national security are a recipe for abuse.” the statement said.
At the same time, a government Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods is studying ways to tackle “fake news” to guard against foreign actors from undermining Singapore’s national stability or meddling in its elections.
This recent raft of new legislation has confounded many observers.
“Despite no real threat whatsoever, they are introducing new overly repressive legislation,” said Stephan Ortmann, assistant professor at the department of Asian and international studies at the City University of Hong Kong. “It seems to be like [giving] chemotherapy when the patient has not even any signs of cancer [but] just as prevention.”
The specter of terrorism in Singapore is new, propelled by stories of attacks in Europe and the Middle East, but the government’s repressive strategies are not.
Historian Thum Pingtjin, co-editor of the book Living With Myths in Singapore, argues in one chapter that the myth of vulnerability — due to Singapore’s small size and exposure to nearby external threats – dates back to the colonial era, when the British used “progressively broader portraits of communist subversion” to justify clampdowns on anti-colonial protests and organizing.
Taking a page from that playbook, the ruling People’s Action Party government detained social workers, lawyers and volunteers without trial in 1987, ostensibly because they were part of a supposed “Marxist conspiracy” that aimed to overthrow the government. The claim has since been widely debunked.
While new terrorism-related measures might genuinely aim to uphold safety, stability and security, experts and analysts are already questioning the likely effectiveness of the new measures.
“Domestic law is not going to stop terrorists or foreign actors who wish to attack or launch disinformation campaigns on Singapore,” said political scientist and security researcher Chong Ja Ian. “If they are ready to take such action, they are probably not going to be worried about breaking any local laws.
“If such laws are applied wrongly, excessively or without sufficient oversight, such bills have the potential to make a society more vulnerable, more brittle, more distrustful, and more susceptible to particular points of failure,” he said. “They cannot replace citizenship education, broad-based political participation, social trust and media literacy.”