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Chapter: 

I. Legal Framework

Constitutional privacy framework

The Singapore Constitution is based on the British system and does not contain any explicit right to privacy.1 The High Court has ruled that personal information may be protected from disclosure under a duty of confidences.2

Statutory rules on privacy

There is no general data protection or privacy law in Singapore.3 The government has been aggressive in using surveillance to promote social control and limit domestic opposition.4 Singapore has no governmental authority affiliated with privacy or data protection, except for a small privacy division within the Ministry of Finance.5 The idea of data protection legislation has been officially "under review" by the government for 13 years. However, some organizations believe that personal data protection laws will be in place by June 2008.6 A Straits Times survey revealed that 80 percent of readers feel that personal information contained in databases is too freely accessible.7 For purposes of e-commerce, the National Internet Advisory Committee proposed the Model Data Protection Code (MDPC) for the Private Sector in February 20028 and the National Trust Council implemented it in 2003,9 though businesses will not be required to adopt its provisions.10 The MDPC spells out certain standards for the collection and use of customer data by merchants that the National Trust Council certifies.11

In September 1998, the National Internet Advisory Committee released an industry-based self-regulatory "E-Commerce Code for the Protection of Personal Information and Communications of Consumers of Internet Commerce" ("Code").12 The Code encourages providers to ensure the confidentiality of business records and personal information of users, including details of usage or transactions. It prohibits the disclosure of personal information, and requires providers not to intercept communications unless required by law. The Code also limits information collection, prohibits the disclosure of personal information without informing consumers and giving them an option to stop the transfer, ensures accuracy of records, and provides a right to correct or delete data.13 In 1999, the Code was adopted by CaseTrust - a joint project operated by the Consumers Association of Singapore, CommerceNet Singapore Limited and the Retail Promotion Centre in Singapore - and incorporated into its code of practice as part of an accreditation scheme promoting good business practices among store-based and web-based retailers (CaseTrust is).14 The Info-Communications Development Authority (IDA), the lead agency in charge of e-commerce regulation, announced in March 2000 that it would endorse the TRUSTe system as "an industry 'trustmark' seal."15

Development of anti-spam legislation was initiated in May 2004. IDA announced a multifaceted approach including legislation, public education and self-regulation of the marketing industry.16 IDA and the Attorney General's Chambers of Singapore (AGC) issued a joint report proposing the legislative strategy for anti-spam legislation and recommended an opt-out approach. The report also recommends requiring advertisers to label marketing e-mail as such and prohibiting fake return e-mail addresses.17 On April 13, 2007, a new law was passed requiring businesses to add the tag "ADV" on all advertisement email and SMS messages that they send to individuals.18

The Singapore AntiSpam Resource Centre web site was launched in May 2004 "to provide a central anti-spam repository for the public and industry."19 The site includes information for consumers, including reviews of anti-spam software and free software downloads, and information about Singapore's anti-spam legislation and consumers comments. The Singapore Information Technology Federation, a group of technology security companies such as Brightmail and Symantec, held an anti-spam forum on June 22, 2004, bringing together government, industry and trade associations, IT companies and academics to discuss legal, policy and technical anti-spam solutions.

In early 2005, the Internet Industry Association of Singapore (IIAS) was launched and kicked off two nationwide initiatives regarding privacy and offensive content on the Internet. IIAS, a non-profit organization representing the views of the Internet industry, established a privacy portal for consumers about spam, phishing and other security issues.20

Employer monitoring of employee phone calls, e-mails, and Internet usage is also permissible under Singapore law. Under Singapore property law, workplace e-mail, telephone and computer contents are the property of the employer. Thus, if an employee loses his job because of the contents of his communications technology, he has no grounds for defense based on an invasion of privacy.21

The Banking Act prohibits disclosure of financial information without the permission of the customer.22 Numbered accounts can also be opened with the permission of the authority. The High Court can require the disclosure of records to investigate drug trafficking and other serious crimes. The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) issued new "Know Your Customer" guidelines to banks in May 1998 on money laundering. Banks are required to clarify the economic background and purpose of any transactions of which the form or amount appear unusual in relation to the customer, finance company or branch office concerned, or whenever the economic purpose and the legality of the transaction are not immediately evident.23 Banks must report suspicious transactions to MAS. However, there are no reporting requirements for large monetary transactions, and no reporting requirements on currency amounts brought into or taken out of the country. The government is considering legal changes that would require either a declaration or disclosure system to monitor cross-border movement.24

Homosexual acts are crimes under the Penal Code.25 Singapore also has laws against sodomy. However, authorities rarely enforce them.26 Gay activists in the country have long called for their repeal. Although attitudes towards gays have become more tolerant over the years, including in the workplace, the discussion of such issues in public fora and mass media remains highly sensitive.27

Censorship

The Singaporean Constitution protects the freedom of speech but permits restrictions.28 The government significantly restricted freedom of speech and the press in practice through intimidations and pressures, leading to the practice of self-censorship among journalists. The U.S. State Department Report on Human Rights Practices on Singapore states, "there continued to be some limited progress towards greater openness in 2004, including a moderate level of ongoing debate in newspapers and on the Internet on various public issues."29

In 2002, the Singapore government created the Media Development Authority (MDA) to regulate media content - including Internet, radio, television, and radio.30 MDA formed through a merger of the existing Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA), the Films and Publications Department (FPD), and the Singapore Film Commission (SFC) with the goal of uniting various forms of media under a single authority.31 Like its predecessor SBA, MDA has assumed the strict approach towards regulating the Internet. All Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Internet Content Providers (ICPs) are required to comply with the Internet Code of Practice32 and the Class License Provisions.33 ISPs are required to register with the MDA, along with ICPs who promote the discussion of political or religious topics relating to Singapore.34 ISPs are required to deny access to sites identified by MDA as containing prohibited material.35 Likewise, ICPs may not broadcast prohibited material or entertain discussion on prohibited themes.36 Prohibited material includes pornography, material that "advocates homosexuality or lesbianism," and material that "glorifies, incites or endorses ethnic, racial or religious hatred, strife or intolerance," among other prohibitions.37 Political content, especially during elections, is regulated.38 "Over the boundary markers" - religion, race and government criticism - is strictly enforced while other issues, though still subject to regulation, have not traditionally been enforced as strictly.39

The Minister of Information, Communication, and the Arts appointed a Censorship Review Committee in 2002 to examine censorship policies related to broadcast media and to make recommendations.40 The committee released their report in July 2003. The findings recognized that young and artistic communities are restricted by current censorship rules, but reported that the majority of Singaporeans are satisfied with the censorship regime.41 The report recommended increased access to films under a more granular rating system and additional television programming allowing relaxed content restrictions after prime time.42 Although the report recognized that the Internet has wrought significant changes to access to media, it recommended that ISPs "should develop and subscribe to a code of conduct and put greater effort in protecting the young by developing an effective filtering system within a period of two years."43 Prominent members of the arts community call the recommendations "cosmetic," demanding a shift away from censorship - through editing or banning - and towards regulation of the audience permitted to view the work.44

Footnotes