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Singapore Police Seize Computers, Demand Passwords From Advocates Over Facebook Posts

Teo Soh Lung and Roy Ngerng. Photos from International Service for Human Rights and The Heart Truths (Roy's blog).

Teo Soh Lung and Roy Ngerng. Photos from International Service for Human Rights and The Heart Truths (Roy's blog).

Singapore police launched investigations this week into two individuals, blogger Roy Ngerng and former political detainee Teo Soh Lung, and the online news website The Independent Singapore, after authorities alleged that they had breached rules related to election advertising.

Under Singapore law, election or campaign advertising is banned on the eve of Polling Day, so as to allow Singaporeans a 24-hour campaign silence period to “reflect rationally on various issues raised at an election before heading to the polls.” This is known as known as Cooling-Off Day. Campaign advertising is also banned on Polling Day itself.

Among some of the exemptions to this restriction are the transmission of personal views by individuals to other individuals on a non-commercial basis, and campaign posters and banners lawfully put up before Cooling-Off Day. While smaller media outlets and blogs are banned from reporting on the election, mainstream print and broadcast media are allowed to continue reporting as they wish.

On 27 May 2016, the Elections Department, under the purview of the Prime Minister's Office, announced that it had lodged police reports against The Independent Singapore, Ngerng and Soh Lung “for publishing several online articles and postings that may be tantamount to election advertising” on both Cooling-Off Day and Polling Day.

It is worth noting that both Ngerng and Soh Lung are outspoken advocates for transparency and promotion of democratic principles who have faced challenges from authorities in the past. Soh Lung, a lawyer and former candidate for the Singapore Democratic Party, was detained without trial in the late 1980s under Singapore's Internal Security Act. In 2014, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sued Ngerng for defamation over a blog post in which Ngerng alleged that the leader was involved in corruption.

On 31 May both Ngerng and Soh Lung reported to police headquarters at the Cantonment Police Complex for interviews. They were interrogated by the police for over two hours. Police then took them to their respective homes and searched the premises, seizing many of their electronic devices including desktop computers, laptops, hard drives, memory cards and mobile phones. Police did not show either Ngerng or Soh Lung a warrant before beginning their searches, saying that as the investigation had to do with an arrestable offence, no warrant was necessary.

Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss, a lawyer who had accompanied Teo, shared videos of seven police officers in Teo's home:

In another video, Chong-Aruldoss showed that two of the police officers in Teo's home had failed to produce warrant cards. One officer claimed that she had left her warrant card in the car:

Another lawyer, Remy Choo Zheng Xi, described on Facebook what he had witnessed when arriving at Teo's home:

I asked the IO, Angie Ng, why the police had to seize her electronic devices given that Soh Lung was not disputing the publication of the articles on her personal Facebook page on cooling off day. Soh Lung was willing to cooperate with the police by giving them all necessary information relating to the offence under the Parliamentary Elections Act which were being investigated.

The response was: “this is an arrestable offence, and we do not need to tell you how we conduct our investigations”. I pointed out politely but firmly that it was disproportionate to seize her personal electronic devices which contained personal data, upon which another officer mentioned that I could be charged with obstructing investigations.

Soh Lung was released from police custody after the search of her home. But Ngerng was brought back to the police station where he was made to hand over passwords to his laptop, phone and Facebook account.

He wrote about his experience on Facebook upon his release:

When I thought I was done, several police officers surrounded me. I was to be brought home. They were going to “raid” my home, I was told.

My phone was taken away from me.

When I wanted to speak to Jeanette – the lawyer who was representing Soh Lung, they refused to let me. And dragged me away.

I insisted I wanted to know my rights and whether it was legal for them to do what they were doing. They would not let me speak to Jeanette.

My mom was at home when the police came. She was in shock. I have never seen my mom so traumatised before.

I do not remember how long the police were there. Two activist friends came to check on me. The police would not let them into my home.

The publisher and editor of The Independent Singapore also reported for police interviews on 31 May and 1 June respectively, and had their electronic devices similarly seized.

The investigations have been condemned by local civil society groups such as the Community Action Network (CAN):

This is police harassment; as Singaporean citizens Teo and Ngerng are entitled to share their personal opinions on political issues. This should not be treated as suspicious, much less a crime warranting long interrogations and searches.

A petition hosted by CAN also called upon the state “to ensure the immediate return of all confiscated property to Ngerng and Teo, the removal of any data obtained from them from state and police possession, and an immediate and total cessation of the investigative process.” It received 140 signatures.

Function8, a group of former political detainees – including Teo – advocating for the abolition of laws allowing detention without trial, also issued a statement condemning the investigations:

Function 8 deeply regrets the actions of the police in this unnecessary seizure which is an invasion of privacy and an act of intimidation against Roy and Soh Lung. In our view, it is part of a chain of recent incidents that encroach upon the work of civil society which contribute to the legitimate exercise of good citizenship.

The Elections Department and the Singapore Police Force issued a joint statement on the evening of 1 June, saying that they had observed “what appeared to be deliberate and serious breaches of the rules,” and that the police needed to examine the electronic devices used to publish the posts for “evidentiary purposes”.

This is not the first time Cooling-Off Day rules have been allegedly breached. In 2011, PAP candidate (now Member of Parliament) Tin Pei Ling was reported for posting a comment on her Facebook page. The police later said that the posting had been made by a friend without Tin's knowledge. A stern warning was issued.

In 2015, PAP candidate (now Minister of Foreign Affairs) Vivian Balakrishnan said that the post that had appeared on his page on Cooling-Off Day had been caused by a Facebook bug.

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