Singapore’s Free Speech

Protest against Singapore's online licensing rules in 2013 | Source: The Independent

Global media outlets have been quick to report the ongoing internal feud occurring at the highest levels of Singapore’s government. After making a Facebook post condemning the highly restrictive conditions that have historically constrained people’s ability to exercise free speech in Singapore, Li Shengwu—former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s grandson who is a current academic at Harvard University—now faces legal action by the Singaporean State. Amidst this is what many commentators believe is a spat amongst the former prime minister’s children, who argue over the future of the family home Yew left behind in his will. While the will states that the family home should be demolished after his death, Lee Hsien Loong – current prime minister and eldest child of Yew – has been accused by his siblings Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang of attempting to milk their father’s legacy for political gain through his obstructing of the house’s demolition.[1] Such scrutiny generates fears of the potential nepotistic personality cult emerging from Yew’s family, with some commentators even comparing the current feud to the ruling sibling rivalries of former Chinese dynasties. [2]

Singapore is often noted as an unusual case of rapid economic development without the same level of political democratization that normally supports such processes. Many argue this is largely due to the single-party structure of the state, whereby the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has retained largely unopposed control of Singapore’s leadership since its first electoral win in 1959, legitimizing its rule on the premise of the state’s economic stability and performance.

Others have pointed out the many legal apparatuses that have helped PAP rule without fear of opposition, such as the infamous Article 14 enshrined in Singapore’s Constitution. This piece of legislature—though explicitly states a “fundamental right” to “guaranteed free speech”—permits Parliament to impose restrictions on such rights as laid out in the Defamation Act. [3] Critics have argued that such legislation gives disproportional power and advantage to PAP, who repeatedly use such policies to sue political opponents, citing slander and dissidence, which has at times led to their bankruptcy and inability to continue campaigning. Examples of this include the Worker’s Party J.B. Jeyaretnam in 1979 and the Singapore United Front Party’s Seow Khee Leng in 1989. [4]

Human Rights Watch has called on Singapore’s Government to amend such policies, including the additional Sedition and Public Order Acts, that have arguably silenced political opponents through threats of arrest, harassment and further prosecution. [5] Considering Singapore’s recent treatment of public voices of opposition, including the controversial persecution of teenage blogger Amos Yee, who had criminal charges laid against him after posting a video derogatorily celebrating the former prime minister’s passing that forced the teen to seek asylum in America, international criticism against the island state’s high levels of political censorship has been mounting steadily.[6] Only time will tell whether the state will respond to such reproach through open recognition of the state’s shortcomings in free speech and attempt to liberalize the nation’s currently “litigious” political system, as Li Shengwu has publicly argued.




[3] CHAN, 316

[4] CHAN, 319




1 “Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong.” The Guardian, 19 June 2017. Accessed 18 Dec. 2017.

2 “A history lesson for Lee Kuan Yew’s feuding offspring from the war of the eight princes in first-century China.” South China Morning Post, 30 June 2017. Accessed 18 Dec. 2017.

3 Chan, Cassandra. “Breaking Singapore’s Regrettable Tradition of Chilling Free Speech with Defamation Laws.” Winter 2003. 26 Loy. L.A. Int’l & Comp. L. Rev. 315-340.

4 Chan, Cassandra. “Breaking Singapore’s Regrettable Tradition of Chilling Free Speech with Defamation Laws.” Winter 2003. 26 Loy. L.A. Int’l & Comp. L. Rev. 315-340.

5 Ungku, Fathin. “Human Rights Watch calls on Singapore to relax free speech, assembly laws“ 12 December 2017. Accessed 18 December 2017.

6 Chappell, Bill. “U.S. Grants Asylum To Amos Yee, Young Blogger From Singapore.” 27 September 2017. National Public Radio. Accessed 18 Dec. 2017.

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