Singapore’s Defamation Law

Singapore’s defamation laws protect individuals and their reputations from harm from written or spoken speech; this type of speech is also known as libel or slander. While Singapore’s defamation laws can protect you and your business from defamation, they also place limits on you and your business. The limits imposed by Singapore’s laws may be more restrictive that those of your home country, particularly when it comes to protecting the reputation of public officials. This article will look at the two defamation laws in Singapore: the criminal law that can lead to jail for person who intended to harm another by spreading false information, and the civil law, which applies even if the person did not intend to defame. It will consider how Singapore’s defamation laws can affect various types of businesses. Finally, it will look at the criticism leveled at Singapore’s defamation laws.

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What is Defamation?

The Media Literacy Council, a group appointed by the Singapore’s Minister of Communication and Information to work with the business community, the public and other government agencies to create an educated and responsible participatory culture, describes defamation as:

When you write or say something that causes someone “harm”, your words can be considered defamatory by the court, especially when those words have been read or heard by many right-thinking people. Causing harm (defamation) can be defined as causing the person to lose his credibility or reputation; causing the person to be shunned or avoided; or simply exposing the person to potential ridicule, contempt or hatred. Whether your words are explicit or implied, or whether you merely repeated what someone else has written, you can still be liable for defamation.

If the defamation is spoken, it is called slander. If it is written or broadcasted, the defamation is called libel. Libel includes newspapers and other written publications, radio and TV broadcasts, the internet, email, messaging, blogs and chatrooms. It also includes pictures and cartoons as well as written words. Libel is considered more serious because it is permanent and required forethought to write it down. This is in contrast to slander which is seen as more spontaneous and fleeting.

As a former British colony, Singaporean law closely follows the British common law. Its definition of defamation tracks how defamation is defined in Britain and the United States. There is defamation only if:

  1. The words were defamatory in that they injured the person’s reputation either directly or by innuendo
  2. The person harmed by the words is identified
  3. The words are “published” which means that others read or heard the speech

The defenses against an accusation of defamation are:

  1. If the statements are true they cannot be defamatory because only falsehoods are defamatory
  2. Fair comment which means that you can express an opinion based on true fact even if that opinion is not true
  3. Privilege which means anything said in or reporting on a judicial proceeding, parliamentary proceeding or some limited governmental proceedings. It can also mean something published without malice that the public has a strong interest in learning.

Laws Proscribing Defamation in Singapore

Part IV of the Singapore Constitution states that freedom of speech is a fundamental right of every citizen but that the government can restrict it in certain circumstances. One of those circumstances is to prevent defamation. The Singapore government has passed two distinct laws, one criminal and one civil, that restrict free speech to prevent defamation.

CRIMINAL DEFAMATION

Singapore Penal Code Section 499 states that, if a person intends to defame another person or should know that what he or she says will harm that person, then that person has committed a crime that can be punished by a fine plus up to two years in jail. The Media Literacy Council explains criminal defamation:

If you write or say something with the intention to harm, or have reason to believe that your words will cause harm to the reputation of the person, you have committed criminal defamation. There are exceptions however: it is not defamation if you are expressing an honest opinion about how the person is conducting his public functions, or about his character in relation to how he is carrying out his public functions.

CIVIL DEFAMATION

Even if the person did not intend to defame, he or she still might be liable under Singapore’s civil defamation law, entitled the Defamation Act. Civil defamation is not tied to intention. So long as the effect of your written or spoken speech harms someone, it does not matter whether you intended the harm. If found liable of civil defamation, you can owe monetary damages and you may be required to publicly apologize. Note that if the speech is harmful but true, it is not considered defamation. Defamation requires that the person tell a falsehood about the other person.

CIVIL MALICIOUS FALSEHOOD

If a false statement is not defamatory but still causes harm to another person, it can still result in liability under the tort of Malicious Falsehood. An example of a malicious falsehood would be that, in your dining blog, you say that a restaurant has closed this year when it hasn’t. As a result of your blog posting, people stop coming to the restaurant, and it loses money.

OTHER LAWS THAT CAN BE APPLIED TO DEFAMATION

If a person makes defamatory statements, he or she might also run afoul of other Singapore laws as well. For example, a teenage blogger was recently convicted under Singapore Penal Code Section 298, which forbids publishing material intended to wound religious feelings. He was also convicted under Singapore Penal Code Section 292(1)(a), which forbids electronically transmitting obscene images.

ADMINISTRATIVE SCHEMES REGULATING DEFAMATION

In addition to the civil and criminal laws, the Singapore government has created a regulatory scheme for certain industries, such as newspapers and online news sources, aimed at regulating defamatory speech. The Newspaper and Printing Press Act (NPPA) gives the Singapore government the right to deny permits and otherwise control media outlets. And, the Broadcasting Act makes it illegal to disobey any order from the Singapore government limiting content in a media outlet. In 2013, this governmental control was expanded from traditional news media to online news sources. In granting a online news license, the Media Development Authority of Singapore now requires a S$50,000 performance bond to cover any violation of its standards that is not removed within one day.

Enforcement of the Law

While Singapore’s defamation law generally follows British and American law, in some important ways it is more protective of people’s reputations. First, Singapore has a criminal defamation statute. Second, it’s laws are applied in a way that vigorously protects the reputations of public officials. Third, the “newspaper rule” which protects a journalist from having to reveal his or her source appears to be weaker in Singapore. These issues are discussed in further detail below.

VIGOROUS PROTECTION OF REPUTATION OF PUBLIC OFFICIAL

Singapore uses its civil and criminal defamation statutes, as well as its regulatory schemes for the traditional and online media, to control speech that falsely undermines the authority of the government. The reason Singapore uses its defamation laws to protect the reputations of its political and governmental figures is to protect social harmony within its multicultural society. Inflammatory speed can create ethnic and religious tension and lead to disharmony as happened during the early years of Singapore’s history.

Singapore expanded its application of the defamation laws to Internet in a case against blogger Roy Ngerng Ling, who was accused of defaming the Prime Minister of Singapore when he said that he misappropriated funds from the Central Provident Fund, a retirement savings program run by the government.

NEWSPAPER RULE

The “newspaper rule,” which protects the confidentiality of a media outlet’s sources, historically has not been given the same protection in Singapore as it has gotten in other countries. A recent court ruling in a football corruption case, however, seems to have changed that.

Criticism of Singapore’s Defamation Law

No legal system or law anywhere in the world is exempt from criticism and Singapore’s Defamation Act is no exception. Critics of the law come from both within Singapore and from foreigners with business interests there.

For example, The Wall Street Journal expressed concerns over free speech limits on blogs in a 2012 article titled Debate Over Blog Limits Intensifies in Singapore. While the Singapore Constitution ensures freedom of speech and by extension a free press, the Journal worries that public discourse is being limited by the defamation act.

US Loyola Law School published a 27-page report. The extensive report follows Singapore’s history from its founding as a British Colony in 1819 through 2003. The report finds that while the intentions of the Singapore Defamation act are admirable in seeking to protect the public interest, there is potential for misuse.

Conclusion

Despite criticism Singapore’s Defamation Act continues to do more good than harm for the country, its citizens and its businesses. The act goes a long way toward ensuring that citizens, politicians and businesses act in an upright and honest manner in their dealing with each other and the public. Vigorous enforcement of defamation statutes means that consumers within and beyond Singapore’s borders can rely on what they hear as an honest representation of the facts.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

  1. What is Defamation?
  2. Laws Proscribing Defamation in Singapore
  3. Enforcement of the Law
  4. Criticism of Singapore’s Defamation Law
  5. Conclusion

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