Singapore rains down on its critics

Activist and aspirant politician Han Hui Hui is the latest government opponent to face severe legal threats for posting criticism over social media

Singapore, March 16, 2017 3:42 PM (UTC+8)
Singapore has targeted activist Han Hui Hui with punitive legal threats and actions. Reuters / Edgar Su
Singapore has targeted activist Han Hui Hui with punitive legal threats and actions. Reuters / Edgar Su

Singaporean authorities have taken issue and threatened legal action over political activist and parliamentary aspirant Han Hui Hui’s social media posts alleging she was mistreated while in detention for staging an unsanctioned public protest.

The move reflects ongoing government attempts to regulate speech in the highly-connected island nation, where social media has allowed citizens to participate in more strident political discussion than allowed in mainstream media. In recent years, investigations and criminal proceedings have been taken against activists and bloggers for critical content they’ve posted to online platforms.

The Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) wrote to Han on Monday demanding that she remove a YouTube video and five Facebook entries in which she alleged that her criminal conviction was evidence of political persecution and judicial harassment. She also claimed that the courts had fined her so that she would be disqualified from standing for parliamentary elections.

“These are very serious allegations which scandalize our courts. They are scurrilous, false, and made without any rational basis,” the Attorney-General’s Chambers wrote in a letter to Han quoted in local media.

The letter said that Han had wrongfully insinuated in her posts “that the court secured your convictions by deliberately finding fault with you on unimportant issues.” Han had referred to her conviction as “deliberate nit-picking” by the court.

Han told Asia Times that the Attorney-General’s Chambers wants her to issue an apology spanning multiple pages, including an admission that she had “wrongfully stated to the public that the Singaporean courts were politically motivated and wanted to politically persecute me and the other co-accused persons trialled jointly with me.”

Han said she has not yet decided if she will issue a formal apology. She has been given seven days to apologize and remove the posts, failing which contempt of court proceedings that carry a possible prison penalty will be initiated against her by state prosecutors.

Protester Han Hui-hui from Singapore speaks as she joins Hong Kong students to demand the release of Singaporean teenager Amos Yee, outside the Singapore Consulate in Hong Kong, China, June 30, 2015. Singapore court has ordered teenage blogger Amos Yee to undergo a mental health re-evaluation, after he was found guilty on charges of offending Christians and spreading an obscene image online.  REUTERS/Bobby Yip - RTX1IDC0
Dissident voice: Han Hui Hui’s speeches chafe the government. Reuters/Bobby Yip

Han alleged in a February 23 blog post that while she was in custody awaiting her court hearing she was  subjected to a strip search where male officers walked past in clear sight of the examination, that auxiliary police officers had made disparaging comments during the probing search and that detainees were not given access to toiletries.

“Ms Han could have raised the issues at any time while she was in custody and the [Singapore Prison Service] would have looked into it. However, she chose not to do so. Instead, she chose to publish the fabricated, false and misleading accounts on social media,” the home ministry said in a statement.

Han continues to stand by the allegations, publishing line-by-line rebuttals on her Facebook page and challenging authorities to release publicly the CCTV footage of her time in lock-up.

Han was found guilty last year of causing a “public nuisance” during a June 2014 protest where she and a clutch of supporters disrupted a charity event concurrently held in Hong Lim Park. A one hectare area of the park, known since 2000 as “Speaker’s Corner”, is the only space in Singapore where public demonstrations and assemblies are allowed with a government permit.

The protesters, carrying placards and shouting slogans, were accused of encroaching into the space of a neighboring event to heckle its guest-of-honor, the then-Minister of State for Trade and Industry Teo Ser Luck. Han was fined S$3,100 (US$2,200) for disrupting the event and organizing a protest without approval from the National Parks Board.

The conviction was universally criticized by rights groups. In the run-up to the appeal hearing for Han and her co-accused, Amnesty International called on the government to “end the harassment through the legal system of peaceful protesters and government critics”, adding that the conviction “may be politically motivated.”

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong makes remarks during a State Dinner at the White House in Washington, U.S., August 2, 2016.
Permitted speech: Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the US White House.

Han is a vocal opponent of Singapore’s government, which has been led by the People’s Action Party (PAP) for over five decades. In 2014, she was active in organizing monthly “ReturnOurCPF” protests which focused on the administration of the state-run pension fund and other issues such as the cost of housing, fair wages and access to education.

Her speeches, often delivered in a mix of English, Mandarin and Hokkien and posted to her social media accounts, pull no punches in critiquing government policies, ranging from healthcare to human rights.

Han stood as an independent candidate in a small constituency in the 2015 general election, entering a three-cornered fight against a PAP politician and an opposition candidate from the Reform Party. She lost but won 10% of the vote. Her conviction and fine means she is now legally disqualified from standing in future parliamentary elections.

Another “ReturnOurCPF” event is planned for March 18, with “persecution” the announced theme. “I will be at the protest…but won’t be giving speeches because there’s no sound system,” Han said. The event’s format, which Han suggests might be held as a “silent protest”, has not yet been decided by its organizers.

“We can just have a gathering to show that regardless of what they try to do, the people will still gather,” she said. At the time of writing, none of Han’s posts identified by the Attorney-General’s Chambers had been removed.

Lawsuits and charges of contempt are not new to Singapore, where the government and high-ranking politicians have often resorted to the courts to stifle critics and opponents.

Speaker Roy Ngerng, of online blog The Heart Truths, addresses the crowd during a protest against new licensing regulations imposed by the government for online news sites, at Hong Lim Park in Singapore June 8, 2013. Human Rights Watch on Friday said that Singapore is undercutting its status as a financial centre by expanding media censorship to the web and urged the city-state's government to withdraw the new licensing requirements for online news sites. REUTERS/Edgar Su (SINGAPORE - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY BUSINESS) - RTX10G54
Fined: Blogger Roy Ngerng owes Prime Minister Lee US$107,000. Reuters / Edgar Su 

In 2015, a court ordered blogger Roy Ngerng to pay Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong S$150,000 (US$107, 000) in damages in a civil defamation case. Alex Au, another well-known blogger, was found guilty of “scandalizing” the court in January 2015 and later fined S$8,000 (US$5,700). His appeal against the ruling was dismissed later that year.

In August 2016, Singapore’s Parliament passed a bill codifying contempt of court offenses, stipulating penalties that far exceed legal precedents. The Act has not yet come into force. While the United Kingdom, from which the former British colony inherited its legal system, abolished the offense of “scandalizing the judiciary” in 2013, the offense is still on the books in Singapore.

“The courts are integral to a well-functioning democracy. People must have faith and confidence in them,” K Shanmugam, minister for law and home affairs, said in defending the contempt of court bill in Parliament last August. “Baseless attacks on the judiciary erode trust and affect confidence in the administration of justice.”

Independent observers, however, feel that Singapore’s laws are overly restrictive and curb freedom of expression, including in Han’s case.

“If the court feels it’s been wronged by Han Hui Hui’s comments and internet postings, let them answer with explanations of their decision,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, a rights lobby.

“In truly modern and developed democracies, independent courts can stand up to criticism on their own, so it’s puzzling why the [Attorney General] feels he has to mollycoddle Singapore’s courts by criminalizing those who question verdicts.”

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