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Singapore Arrests Activists Supporting Trans Students

Arrests Focus Spotlight on Anti-Free Speech Laws

A woman wrapped in the rainbow flag is seen at the Pink Dot rally, Singapore's annual gay pride rally, at a park in Singapore on July 1, 2017.  © 2017 Darren Whiteside / Reuters

The arrests of three demonstrators in Singapore who were protesting the plight of transgender students highlights the extent of free speech restrictions in the city-state.

Authorities arrested the trio on January 26 as they picketed outside Singapore’s Ministry of Education. Their protest was sparked by a transgender girl’s Reddit post alleging that school officials had interfered with her hormone treatment — a claim the Education Ministry denies. Police are also investigating two people who participated in the demonstration and took photographs but had left before the police arrived and have questioned a journalist who was present at the demonstration.

Demonstrators under the banner of the #FixSchoolsNotStudents campaign issued a list of demands showing that trans students in Singaporean schools are not provided adequate health information and prevented from expressing their gender identity at school, including through gender-specific school uniform and hair-length policies.

Within minutes of the start of the peaceful protest, police confronted the group and ordered them to leave. They refused, and police arrested them under the Public Order Act, before releasing them on bail almost five hours later.

Police interference with peaceful protests in Singapore is nothing new. The city-state promotes itself as modern, bustling, and a great place to do business. But beneath the gleaming high-rises is a repressive regime whose government severely restricts what can be said, published, performed, read, or watched.

Those who criticize the government or the judiciary, or publicly discuss race and religion, often face criminal investigations and charges, or civil defamation suits carrying crippling damages. In 2015, authorities targeted a blogger for “scandalizing the court” when he commented on LGBT rights-related cases that were pending at the time. Peaceful public demonstrations and other assemblies are severely limited, and failure to comply with detailed restrictions on what can be said and who can participate in public gatherings often results in police investigations and prosecutions.

The official reaction to the #FixSchoolsNotStudents campaign is the latest example of Singapore authorities violating free expression protections, using speech laws to curtail the free expression of LGBT activists, and otherwise restrict information about, and for, LGBT people.

These courageous protesters have taken a stand for trans students. Singapore authorities should listen to them and respond to their concerns, not arrest them for their activism.

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