What you need to know
It’s a worrying state of affairs when expressing your political opinions on Facebook on a particular day is all it takes for police to gain access to all your data without a warrant or court order.
Last Friday Singapore’s Elections Department announced that its Assistant Returning Officer had lodged police reports against news website The Independent Singapore and two individuals, Roy Ngerng and Teo Soh Lung, for breaching election rules relating to Cooling-Off Day during the Bukit Batok by-election held earlier this month.
According to the Cooling-Off Day rules under the Parliamentary Elections Action, election advertising is banned on the day before Polling Day, as well as on Polling Day itself. However, “the telephonic or electronic transmission by an individual to another individual of the first-mentioned individual’s own political views, on a non-commercial basis” is exempted from these rules.
Both Ngerng and Teo are social activists who have crossed paths with the powerful: Ngerng was famously sued for defamation by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, while Teo had, in the late 1980s, been detained without trial for about two years under the Internal Security Act.
Ngerng and Teo reported to the police headquarters this morning for interrogation (or, as the police would prefer to put it, “interviews”). What followed were long sessions in which they were asked questions about the number of Facebook “likes” they had received on various posts, whether they felt their posts would “promote the electoral success” of the opposition candidate Dr Chee Soon Juan, whether anyone else has ever managed their Facebook pages for them.
The interrogations weren’t the end of it, either: the police then indicated their intention to search their homes. Ngerng told The New Lens International that police had told him they were going to “raid” his home. Although he wanted to speak with a lawyer who showed up in support of Teo, he says he was not allowed to do so.
Separately, Teo was asked to hand over her mobile phone before the police took her back to her home so they could search it and seize her computer. She refused to comply at first, saying they did not have a warrant. She was informed that the police did not need a search warrant, or a warrant to seize her property, as these things were being done in the course of the investigation. She was threatened with arrest if she did not comply, leaving her with the Hobson’s choice of handing over her phone voluntarily, or being arrested and having her phone confiscated anyway.
In the end, the police took her desktop computer, her laptop and her mobile phone. They also took two laptops, two hard drives, his mobile phone and some memory cards from Ngerng’s home.
“The individual’s rights are all gone,” Teo told The New Lens International by telephone. “There is no right to privacy at all.”
While Teo’s ordeal ended after the confiscation of her electronic devices, Ngerng was brought back to the police station to further “aid” in the investigations. He was asked to access his Facebook account so that his activity log and archive could be downloaded. Attempts were made to do the same with his WordPress account, but they were unable to log in.
“They pretty much have complete access to my phone,” he said. “I’m not sure what they’re going to do with the access to my phone.”
By the time Ngerng was released from police custody, over eight hours after he first presented himself in the morning, it was already beginning to seem surreal – and outrageous – that this whole episode had been triggered by something as inconsequential as some social media posts. Yet it would appear that this is all it takes for Singaporean authorities to get their hands on all your data.
Teo and Ngerng aren’t the only ones to find their electronics confiscated by the police for investigation. In 2013, journalist Lynn Lee was similarly investigated – and her laptop, mobile phone and hard drives seized and/or examined – after she published interviews with two bus drivers who had alleged police brutality while being interrogated for their participation in a strike. Last year, teenage blogger Amos Yee had his electronics confiscated after he published a rant against Lee Kuan Yew and Christianity on YouTube after the elder statesman’s death. His electronics were confiscated again this year after he was arrested on charges of wounding religious feelings (again) and failing to report for police questioning. He was charged in court last week.
It’s a worrying state of affairs when expressing your political opinions on Facebook on a particular day is all it takes for the police to have “sufficient cause” to gain access to all your data without the need for warrants or court orders. It’s a sign of the wide-ranging powers the authorities have in Singapore, with a troubling lack of checks and balances.
And it shouldn’t just be civil society that is troubled by police harassment and unchecked power. In a context where similar complaints against ruling party politicians are easily explained away as mistakes and “bugs” while others are subjected to long interrogations and home raids, such episodes can erode public trust, thus hurting the legitimacy of the state. Ultimately, everyone loses.
So much more needs to be done to ensure openness and accountability in Singapore. Cooling-Off Day rules have no place in a society where the political playing field is already so skewed towards one party. The police shouldn’t be able to search and seize property without warrants. Lawyers should be allowed to accompany clients into interrogations, and to advise people under investigation of their rights.
Until such accountability is achieved, all talk of open governance, inclusivity, consultation and innovation is little more than hot air.