Capital punishment and virtual protest: A case study of Singapore
First Monday

Capital punishment and virtual protest: A case study of Singapore by Yasmin Ibrahim

This paper analyses how the online community in Singapore protested against the hanging of a Vietnamese drug trafficker in December 2005. Singapore has upheld capital punishment in the island state despite pressure from local and global civil society organisations and diplomatic channels. This paper traces how the online medium was used by the public to protest against capital punishment in the quasi–authoritarian state. The virtual community protested against the hanging by maintaining a rigorous discursive protest on the Internet. These sustained discourses became enmeshed with those of the offline media in Singapore. This confluence of the online and offline media discourses is important in building a two–tier public sphere in Singapore. The first–tier public sphere is one dominated by the government-controlled media and the ruling party while the second–tier public sphere is a space where civil society organisations and social movements express viewpoints marginalised in the offline society. The confluence of these two tiers has a material significance for the political landscape of Singapore. This paper explores this phenomenon through the case study of online protests against capital punishment in Singapore.


Press Freedom and the Offline Media Environment
Internet Regulations and the ‘Code’
The Internet as a Cultural Artefact
The Withering of Civil Society Organisations
Capital Punishment and Death Penalty in Singapore
Internet’s Implications for Empowerment




This paper examines how the spaces on the Internet enabled Singaporeans to protest against capital punishment in the country. While there has been an ongoing discourse of resistance against capital punishment in Singapore through civil society organisations and lobby groups, these overtures have remained muted due to laws which restrict public meetings and assembly. The consensual political culture and the nature of political governance in Singaporeans have also been cited as major factors for the lack of rigorous social movements in the Island. In view of this, the Internet was clearly seen from the start as a space for new forms of resistance and civil engagement by the politically initiated citizens. In 2005, two death penalty cases [1] in Singapore gained the attention of the world and regional press but the reports in the local press were scant and limited. However the virtual environment became a site for sustained dialogue against capital punishment in the country and these discourses and criticism were manifested in different ways. The political culture of censure and scrutiny in Singapore provided a catalyst for the selection of spaces and places for protest on the Internet. The paper outlines the forms of virtual protest and the spaces of resistance which provided agency for those protesting against capital punishment in the country.

... human rights and liberty became hostages to economic prosperity and progress.

The culture of protest and social movements in Singapore bears the scars of history and the political hegemony of the present ruling party (the People’s Action Party or the PAP) which has governed Singapore for over forty years since the island became a sovereign state in its own right in 1965. The political discourse of protesting and social movements whether violent or peaceful have often been couched as detrimental to the full–fledged political, social and economic development of the island. The multi–racial make–up of the country which was seen as potentially debilitating for a young nation in view of the racial discords of the 1950s and 1960s, coupled with its separation from the rich hinterland of Malaysia, placed a renewed emphasis and perhaps dominance on the discourses of prosperity and development. Singapore’s political governance since independence focused on the notion of managed unity and security in order to invite global business enterprises to set up bases in the island. The development of human rights and liberty became hostages to economic prosperity and progress. The racial riots of the 1950s became watershed events in the government’s trajectory of nation–building. For some, they were held as clear examples of why there needs to be a heavy hand in regulating civil society organisations and social movements in Singapore.

These riots became a permanent blemish in the mediated history of the island and often these are used as grim reminders of why the government needs to transgress into and regulate the private lives of the citizens. The increasing transgression of government institutions and policies into the private realms of the citizens is a well–researched phenomenon in the Singapore society (see Chua, 1995; 2000; Chan, 1971; Rodan, 1998; Tremewan, 1994; Baber, 2003). The economic survival of the island became the canvas on which new legislations were enacted to stifle the evolution of human liberties. These new regulations further augment the colonial laws enacted under the British occupation and Emergency which was imposed post–World War Two, with the impending communist threat. Today, despite being one of the wealthiest economies in the world, Singapore rates poorly in terms of its freedom and civil liberties index [2].

The ‘Lee thesis’ (in part attributed to ex–prime minister of Singapore) calls for a version of ‘Asian democracy’ which clamoured for a form of governance which was culturally suited to the East Asian polities with its emphasis on deference to authority and the need for security being a trade–off for personal liberties. It negated Huntington’s (1991) hypothesis that economic development will eventually lead to human development. In the fast growing East Asian polities economic growth did not match human development. This form of democracy, while preserving the rituals of regular elections and nominal representations, suppressed other civil society activities vital for a healthy democratic polity. These included a free press, the ability to form civil organisations without government reprisals and the freedom to engage in deliberative discourses with the government. In Singapore, with the spotlight on economic development and later recovery (during periods of recession, especially since 1997), the technocrat with the skill in steering the economy is often constructed as the best person to govern the nation and inevitably the discourses of ‘efficiency and meritocracy’ overshadow the need to create a robust democracy where the will of the citizens prevail. The public are often advised to leave politics to those in power and the layperson is often viewed as being marginal to politics. The political culture of Singapore is hence deemed as consensual and submissive.

One of the defining characteristics of the political landscape in Singapore is the construction of an invisible fence around political discourses that the government objects to. This invisible fence dubbed the ‘OB markers’ is an often–used term in the Singapore media. The term ‘OB markers’ (or out–of–bounds markers) is a well–established commonplace term in Singapore society warning citizens not to transgress into topics which the government may find objectionable. The overt politicisation of taboos under the banner of ‘OB markers’ means that the public are often wary of what may or may not fall under this remit. This makes the political landscape in Singapore both predictable and unpredictable. Topics such as corruption and nepotism as well as criticism of the ruling elites often falls under the ‘OB markers’ category. However the government has demonstrated an element of ‘unpredictability’ by allowing younger party leaders to engage in controversial discourses and at times it has opened these debates to the public, encouraging them to be open and participatory in the decision–making processes. In contrast, the government has also objected to and rapped the knuckles of political commentators who it has deemed as undermining the moral authority of the government. Since the economic recession of 1997, the government has wavered between opening up the society and in conforming to its predictable routine of prosecuting its political opponents and critics. The token gestures of opening up the Singapore society have been perceived as being superficial and confined to rhetoric without concrete or manifest actions or policies.

The civil society organisations in Singapore come under both overt legal pressure as well as latent censure from the authorities. There are strict guidelines to both the formation and assembly of these organisations and often the licensing protocols governing public talks and activities for civil society organisations and the level of scrutiny frustrate societies from furthering their cause. These measures have also had implications for their survival and growth in the Island. Thus the government mediates and controls civil society organisations through heavy legislation and bureaucratic protocols (ranging from registration to assembly) but more fundamentally the PAP government also has a policy of courting civil society organisations and co–opting them into its machinery and apparatus. Some civil society organisations have had members serve as Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs). These gestures of accommodating dissenting voices within the political framework dilutes the energy and autonomy of civil society organisations especially those which have pledged to provide and expand the spaces available for civil engagement in politics. The result of the close monitoring of politically inclined civil society organisations has resulted in the rapid dissolution and disappearance of groups and the will to survive in a punishing political environment. The sustained surveillance and persecution of political dissent has also resulted in a climate of self–censorship.



Press Freedom and the Offline Media Environment

In a 2005 poll by Reporters without Frontiers, Singapore was rated 140 out of 167 countries in terms of press freedom. The government controls all the major language dailies as well as the broadcasting in the country. Various laws such as Seditions Act, Undesirable Publications Act, Newspaper and Printing presses Act, Penal Code, ISA, Public Entertainment Act, Trade Unions Act, Mutual Benefit Organisation Act, etc., also restrict freedom of expression. The recent Film Act of 2005, for example bans the making, distribution and showing of films containing ‘wholly or partly either partisan or biased references to or comments on any political matter’ [3] and a failure to comply provides for a two–year jail term or an S$80,000 fine. Over the years, the ruling party has been invariably reducing the spaces and formats for political articulation.

In view of this, the Internet was seen as a panacea for political societies with limited spaces for political articulation in the physical world. Many had also predicted that the virtual spaces would present a challenge to those in power as forbidden discourses and new forms of social movements emerge in the electronic environment. This is partly attributed to the nature of the electronic environment which allows for various types of communications to take place (i.e. one–to–one as well as one–to–many) and being both synchronous and asynchronous. It can also provide for a degree of anonymity and the ability to appropriate new forms of identity (i.e. the formation of ‘avatar’ culture). It is a dialectical platform which can invite both dubious activities as well as credible discourses and engagement with the offline world. The preoccupation with regards to political empowerment and the Internet has often been rooted to whether the online activities visibly impact the offline environment. The ability to in some ways measure evident changes in the offline society has led to a mood of reservation perhaps even pessimism in acknowledging the forms of political empowerment that can occur on the Internet. An implicit expectation that virtual resistance must be manifested in an overt change in the physical space and governance often devalues the intangible degrees of political empowerment that can occur on the Internet. The iconoclastic role of the Internet in challenging the social norms and ideological constructs (like the OB markers) and the incremental changes it can effect on societies like Singapore needs perhaps a re–examination of the empowering role of the Internet. The occurrence or the re–occurrence of another ‘Tiananmen’ or even the role of the Internet in the overthrow of Suharto in Indonesia may have been visible evidences of how the Internet can affect politics, nevertheless the Internet as a vehicle and site of resistance can play a symbolic role in challenging power structures and breaking the taboos of politically repressed societies. More importantly it can be enmeshed with the offline political environment in complex and subtle ways and can be a site for new forms of mediated historicity.



Internet Regulations and the ‘Code’

Before I examine how the Internet provided spaces for resistance against capital punishment, there is a need to examine Internet regulations in Singapore and to analyse how it mediates political articulation in the island. The Media Development Authority of Singapore (MDA) requires that all political content providers register with the authorities. It bans material which can incite ‘racial and religious violence’ or bring disrepute to the ‘government’. The ‘code’ of practice issued in 1996 was a broad and vague piece of legislation which left various questions unanswered and in principle relied on the discourse of ‘wiring up the island’ or fulfilling an economic objective of complete Internet penetration of the country. Additionally it hinged heavily on the notion of ‘self–regulation’ [4]. While self–regulation may nominally allude to the self–governance of a community, in the cultural platform of Singapore, many observers believe that it primarily relied on the well–developed Singaporean habit of self–censorship.

The vagueness of the code was deemed as part of the government’s endeavour to present the island as a haven for foreign MNCs who wanted to invest in the IT industry. The ambiguities inherent in the code were a double–edged sword as it allowed the government a wide berth to step in when it desired or deemed a Web activity undesirable. The need for political Web sites to additionally register with the authorities despite being subsumed by the Code of 1996 raised many anxieties among the Web community which had pinned its hopes on using the platform for unfettered political discourse. In addition to this, the ISPs were not only controlled through regulation but also state ownership. The government also set up proxy servers to ensure that censorship was closer to the source of transmission of the content (rather than reception) and the government also banned 100 pornographic Web sites as a statement of societal values. The Internet was also not immune to laws already imposed on the offline society like the Internal Security Act (ISA) or the Sedition Act.

The existing government in Singapore has consistently used defamation laws to control and eradicate its critics both domestically and externally.

The initial anxiety on part of the government with regard to the Internet meant that it set up a unit to patrol cyber–corridors for unacceptable Web behaviour. When this was accepted as a sheer impossibility in view of the vastness and expanse of the Web and its interlinked nature, the debates in Parliament concluded that existing defamation laws will be an effective deterrent to unacceptable discourse on the Internet. The existing government in Singapore has consistently used defamation laws to control and eradicate its critics both domestically and externally. The government over the years has also successfully sued both its political opponents in the country as well as foreign critiques especially foreign media firms for transgressing into the internal politics of the nation. In particular reference to the Internet environment, the government sued and reached an out–of–court settlement with Bloomberg in 2005 for suggesting that the government may be nepotistic in its top–level appointment in a Government–led Company (GLC), Temasek Holding. What is notable about the Bloomberg case is that the report was produced in the U.S. and not in Singapore but it was available in its portal site world over. The government has made it apparent to the public that it will take action against any material it deems as objectionable. A case in point is the warnings issued to a Singaporean blogger who had criticised a government–managed research agency and in another instance, it took action against two Internet users for what it alleged as ‘racial slurs’ [5]. In November 2005, it barred its national servicemen from posting unauthorised accounts and pictures of military life on the Internet [6]. Such blogs now need official clearance.



The Internet as a Cultural Artefact

In examining the Internet as a political tool in a landscape like Singapore there is a need to reconcile the political culture, the degree of appropriation and usage of a technology for political ends and the characteristics of the virtual platform which may facilitate, augment or diminish political agency.

According to Hine (2000), the Internet can be investigated in two ways: either as a culture in its own right or as a cultural artefact. From the former perspective, researchers observe the forms of communication and identity, which are produced and sustained in the online setting as a space in its own right. Analysing the Internet as a cultural artefact, however, entails studying the Internet as an entity that could be shaped by its offline social context. This involves locating and observing how a means of communication is used within an offline social setting or context while reconciling and acknowledging the limitations posed by this spatial embedding.

Miller and Slater (2000) also put forth a case for studying the Internet within its social, political, economic and cultural context of usage and appropriation. They argue that the ‘virtual cannot be disembodied from the real’ and hence the Internet cannot be analysed without suspending it into the offline society. Miller and Slater (2000) define ‘virtuality’ as the capacity of communicative technologies to constitute rather than mediate realities and to constitute relatively bounded spheres of interaction. However, this is neither new nor specific to the Internet. Discourses on the Internet can interact with happenings in other media. As such, various online interactions can be embedded in disparate ways in the larger social structures, such as professions and social movements. The dynamics of these interactions may be difficult to comprehend except through this embedding (Friedland, 1996; Miller and Slater, 2000; Slevin, 2000: Wynn and Katz, 1997; Slater, 2002).

In Singapore, the discourse of keeping the Internet open and uncontrolled has in various ways intensified the climate of ambivalence because the virtual borders cannot completely erase the cultural common places of the OB markers; an ideological construct carefully crafted and held in check by the government. There are also ample examples of several political Web sites abandoning their virtual presence and at least one online producer being forced to leave the country in view of government’s legal prosecution [7]. The Internet or rather the spaces on the Internet which can be controlled by the government are governed by the same offline laws and tacit rules with regard to political discourse. There is a consensus that the Internet alone cannot alter political behaviour and in a large scale study undertaken by the Nanyang Technological Institute (or NTU) in 1999, it was found that the Internet was useful as a political tool for those who were already politically initiated as opposed to enticing more people to participate in political activities on the Web [8].

The marginalised and the exiled of Singapore have reconnected to the nation space and reconstructed the narratives of the nation through the spaces on the Web.

In recent years, the Internet, despite new regulatory controls by the Singapore government, is a space that is catering to various types of resistance and virtual movements from the gay lobby to human rights’ activities (Ho, et al., 2002). It has also become a platform for counter–discourse for both political opponents and laypeople. It is a space where criticisms about policy and governance are vocalised. The narratives which cannot be articulated in the mainstream papers have also found new avenues on the Internet. The marginalised and the exiled of Singapore have reconnected to the nation space and reconstructed the narratives of the nation through the spaces on the Web. Furthermore, weblogs have become new avenues of expression for critics with no moderators, system administrators or Web content managers for Singapore authorities to monitor, filter or warn [9].

There is a need to make a distinction here nevertheless between spaces on the Internet that can be controlled directly by the government (i.e. spaces in which the government has a direct jurisdictional control) and spaces where its desire to control may be thwarted, where the jurisdiction of more than one state may apply or where the legal precedents may not be set and are open to long legal battles and world scrutiny. These spaces of grey on the Internet (i.e. spaces which may be beyond the reach of the government) provide citizens with an avenue to express their critical viewpoints although it may not completely eradicate the fear of being monitored or watched by the government.



The Withering of Civil Society Organisations

The Singapore society as a result of heavy laws lacks a culture of protest and such activities are often labelled as ‘social deviance’ and ‘disruption to social unity’ by the government. In view of this even non–violent and peaceful protests are discouraged by the authorities. The handful of people who turned up in front of the American embassy to protest against the Iraq war, for example were swiftly handled by the police and taken away for questioning.

Recently, the high court in Singapore ruled in December 2005 that Singaporean citizens had no right to stage protests because this would undermine the ‘singularly stable and upright stature Singapore has managed to uphold ’ [10]. This judgement was delivered two days after protesters had taken the Minister for Home Affairs and the Commissioner for Police to court for unlawfully dispersing a peaceful protest against a government body responsible for administering public funds in Singapore. The four protesters had staged a silent protest in August 2005 outside a government building in Singapore calling on the government to be transparent in the handling of public funds. The police had sent a riot squad to arrest four protestors unless they dispersed immediately [11]. Under Singapore’s constitution five or more people gathered in public to protest is unlawful assembly and are subject to imprisonment [12]. The judge dismissed their application on the grounds that the protest was ‘incendiary’ and amounted ‘to a grave attack on financial integrity of key public institutions’ [13].

It is in this climate of scrutiny and censure that civil society movements and citizens have to voice dissent. In particular relevance to protests against capital punishment much of the discourse migrated to the online environment and there was a measure of silence in the local papers about the two death penalty cases mentioned earlier in this paper.



Capital Punishment and Death Penalty in Singapore

In Singapore, two recent hangings generated much attention in the virtual community. One was the hanging of Shanmugam Murugesu who was arrested on the causeway and the other was Melbourne resident Nguyen, 25 who was arrested in Changi Airport on transit to Australia carrying almost 400 grams of heroin. All pleas for clemency were rejected in both cases and in the case of Nguyen even the interventions of the Australian Prime Minister John Howard, Pope John Paul II and his successor Pope Benedict XVI, did not alter the outcome of the judgement meted by the Singapore courts.

Singapore imposes a mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking, murder, treason and certain firearm offences. With regard to drug related offences, laws enacted in 1975 stipulate death by hanging for anyone aged 18 or over, convicted of carrying more than 15 grams of heroin, 30 grams of cocaine, or 500 grams of cannabis or 250 grams of methamphetamine. According to Amnesty International, Singapore executes more prisoners than any other country worldwide relative to its size. According to its official figures 340 people have been hanged in Singapore between 1991 and 2000. The organisation has called on the authorities to ‘end the secrecy about the use of death penalty and to encourage public debate’ [14]. In April 2005, the government barred an Amnesty International researcher from speaking at a public forum about the death penalty saying it did not need to be lectured on its criminal justice system [15]. In the offline community, local anti–death penalty activists also filed a complaint with the U.N. [16].

In the offline environment, the activists faced various challenges from the authorities. In May 2005, the Think Centre had to obtain licences for a ‘vigil’ against the death penalty for an indoor gathering. This candlelit vigil which was held the night before the execution of Shanmugam Murugesu was attended by 100 activists including an opposition politician and it was again surveilled by plain clothes policemen who told the crowd to halt the speeches at the ‘open mike’ sessions [17]. The police in Singapore also banned the Think Centre from using Shanmugam’s pictures on posters and information at a concert organised to remember Shanmugam Murugesu in August 2005 [18]. The Singapore government also ordered a theatre company to remove all references to the death penalty on 3 December, a day after the execution of Nguyen. In another play about the hanging of a drug courier, it demanded that all mention of the death penalty or the name of any political leader be removed [19] and it also threatened to not issue a permit to The Fun Stage for the performance [20]. While an anti–death penalty lobby group, called Singapore Anti–Death Penalty Committee, was formed in the wake of Shanmugam’s conviction, it is also revealing that out of the ten people who formed the committee nine opted to remain anonymous due to the climate of persecution [21]. In a further development in an arts college which is heavily funded by the government, the La–Salle Academy withdrew a student’s exhibit on Nguyen’s hanging, and an Australian paper wanting to cover it was threatened with legal action by the government [22]. In contrast, the Internet continued to cover events and inside scoops which did not appear in the local paper, both by circulating foreign newspaper coverage of the events as well as through people’s narratives and commentaries. At once, the Internet became a mirror for the suppression of dissent evident in the offline society as well as a platform for the reporting and articulation of censured activities.

... Singaporeans resorted to the virtual platform to register their protests.

In response to the government’s sustained vigilance of offline activities, Singaporeans resorted to the virtual platform to register their protests [23]. The virtual environment on the Internet was utilised in a number of ways. The Think Centre, a civil society organisation, which is actively involved in abolishing capital punishment by working hand–in–hand with regional and international organisations, used its Web site as site for information. Its Web site carried a vast archive of material against capital punishment. It sustained a narrative and canvassed for the public to get involved in both the cases. It placed an online petition on its site to protest against the death sentences [24]. It also ran polls asking the public whether capital punishment is a cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment. The poll results showed that 135 felt that capital punishment should be commuted to death sentence, 339 said ‘no’ to capital punishment and 147 said ‘yes’ to death sentence.

The Anti–death Penalty Forum organised by the Think Centre in November 2005 received only scant attention in the local press. Internet reports gave detailed coverage by speakers on why capital punishment should be abolished [25]. These included both Web sites hosted from Singapore as well as from abroad. These sites also published letters sent to the relatives by prison authorities with regard to the date of the hanging and subsequent procedures after the hanging and, in the process, highlighted the human tragedy of capital punishment [26].

The Think Centre Web site urged the public to write to the President, Home Minister and the PM and provided direct e–mail links to these government figures. While there were only brief reports or even silence in the government–owned papers on both cases, the Think Centre Web site kept an ongoing narrative on the cases in a number of ways. It circulated reports on the regional papers especially in Nguyen’s case which had grabbed the headlines in Australia for many months leading up to the hanging in December 2005. It gave details of the appeal outcomes in the high courts and also highlighted the struggles of the family. In the Shanmugam case, his twin 14–year–old sons become the protagonists in the tragic tale. Their poignant and valiant attempts to save their father were given space in both the Think Centre site as well other sites which focus on Singapore politics as well as capital punishment. In maintaining an ongoing narrative on the death penalty, these Web spaces resurrected the accused as ‘real’ people rather than ‘drug criminals’ or a faceless statistic in the legal fortress of Singapore. The discourses on the Internet provided a behind–the–scenes look at the circumstances of the accused and in doing so became a stark contrast to the air of secrecy maintained by the Prison authorities with regard to prisoners sentenced to hanging.

Besides the Think Centre, other Web sites like Singapore Window, newsgroups like Singapore Review and forums like Sammyboy circulated similar material on both cases. It is worth mentioning that all three Web entities (i.e. Singapore Window, Singapore Review as well as Sammyboy) are hosted from unverified locations. Both Singapore Review as well as Sammyboy provided spaces for users to express their opinions and in both Web spaces sentiments against capital punishment were articulated vigorously throughout the second half of 2005. The renowned political satirical Web site Talkingcock in its signature style ran a piece suggesting that “hanging should become a tourist attraction and Singapore a ‘hanging hub’” [27]. In addition to these spheres of activity, blogs such as sprung up to post messages on issues such as drugs, human rights and justice [28]. These blogs gave a variety of information from personal opinions to pictures of the convicted drug traffickers as children and their conversations with friends and families who had visited them before the hanging. The hyperlinks between various Web sites meant that those interested in the issue of capital punishment could access a variety of opinions and information from a number of sources through the Internet. There were also reactions from the Web community to Singapore’s stance on capital punishment. For example, a Web site called Putfile, which provides a free uploading service, decided to deny access to Singaporean users via a press statement stating that Putfile prefers not to continue to provide ‘free uploading service to a country that executes prisoners by hanging, a method of execution which can take up to six minutes to painfully execute the victim’ [29].



Internet’s Implications for Empowerment

In Singapore much of the displacement of the discourses on capital punishment from the offline society and the migration to the online spaces in part reflected the restrictive nature of the public sphere. The Internet became an alternative public sphere for the migration of the ‘political.’ Here various discourses and Web activities occurred but more importantly there was a confluence of discourses from the offline spaces (i.e. the local and world media) and the online community. The confluence of the offline and online discourses revealed that the online public sphere is not one that is hermeneutically sealed, nor one in which activities happen in isolation from the real world. These were again reinforced by the intertextuality of discourses happening not just between the traditional media and the online spaces but also through the interconnectivity of the Internet which linked places of virtual protests against capital punishment, thus giving it a degree of continuity and sustained activity. The Internet played an iconoclastic role by breaking the mould of silence and inertia usually characteristic of such issues in Singapore and in contrast became a hub of activity carrying a range of sources from the official reports of the Amnesty International to personal commentaries by laypeople, reflecting the government’s inability to engage in concrete debates on capital punishment in the offline society. The Internet also enabled users to protest again capital punishment by providing different types of places on the platform. As mentioned earlier, there are places which can be directly controlled and governed by the authorities and there are places which fall into ‘areas of grey’ where direct intervention from the Singapore government is much more problematic. The latter includes Web sites which may be hosted abroad and may be run by anonymous persons who are interested in the politics of Singapore. Various forums focusing on Singapore but hosted anonymously abroad provided the spaces for articulation and protest against capital punishment in the island for those who did not want to risk the wrath of the authorities.




The various forms of offline activity organised by the public and the civil society organisations in Singapore were met with renewed resistance from the government. Peaceful overtures as well as creative platforms for protest against capital punishment were highly regulated by the government. In a landscape where such activities are seen as social deviance and menace to public order, the Internet provided firstly a symbolic role in eroding the culture of silence and secrecy attached to capital punishment. Secondly, the plethora of reports on the Internet on the two cases sustained a discourse on the issue. In contrast, the local media provided limited coverage of the two cases and in effect did not provide a public sphere for people’s opinions on the issue. The Internet allowed activists and the common people to open up the debates on capital punishment and to express views which were not published in the local media. In documenting their protests online, the Internet enabled spaces for various types of activities from personal blogs to regional reports to circulate readily to the community at home as well as abroad. The sustained narratives against capital punishment to some measure also contributed to the creation of a more balanced mediated history of Singapore; one that is not purely restricted to the official views of the government and one constructed by the discourses and narratives of the ordinary people. End of article


About the author

Dr. Yasmin Ibrahim is a Senior Lecturer in the Division of Information and Media Studies at the University of Brighton where she lectures in globalisation and the media and political communication. Her main research interests include the use of the Internet for empowerment and political communication in repressed polities and diasporic communities, global governance and the development of alternative media theories in non–Western contexts.



1.Two men Shanmugam Murugesu and Nguyen Tuong Van were separately meted the death sentence by the Singapore courts and were subsequently hung in 2005.

2. See Freedom House 2005 Report. Available at, accessed 20 November 2005.

3. Garry Rodan, ‘Image of Singapore Tarnished,’ Opinion section of The Australian (29 November 2005), at, accessed 14 December 2005.

4. The code which was revised subsequently but without obliterating the points of vagueness as charged by critics is available on the MDA Web site,, accessed 3 December 2005.

5. The two men were accused of posting anti–Muslim messages and persecuted under the Sedition Act which dates back to the colonial times.

6. ‘Singapore: Censors gunning for Blogging Servicemen,’ South China Morning Post (21 November 2005), at accessed 5 December 2005.

7. The producer of the Web site was forced to flee the country when the government threatened to incarcerate him and slap with various legal suits.

8. This Internet survey was undertaken by the NTU in 1999 (Kuo, et al., 2002, pp. 46–53).

9. Garry Rodan, ‘Image of Singapore Tarnished,’ Opinion section of The Australian (29 November 2005), at accessed 14 December 2005.

10. Ibid.

11. In fact 12 anti–riot squad police wearing helmets and knee–high protective gear and armed with shields and batons formed a phalanx in front of the CPF building to disperse four silent protestors wearing t–shirts and carrying placards demanding greater accountability and transparency. They did not violate the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act which requires a permit for a public meeting of more than four people when they were dispersed.

12. 29 July 2005 ‘Under the Miscellaneous Offences (public Order and Nuisance) (Assemblies and Procession) Rules 1989, a permit is required for assembly or procession of five or more persons in any public road, public place or place of public resort intended to demonstrate support for an opposition to the views or actions of any person; to publicise a cause or campaign or to mark or commemorate an event.

13. A complete transcript of the judge’s comments is available at, accessed 23 December 2005.

14. ‘Singapore –top executioner’ 15 January 2004, available at, accessed 28 October 2005.

15. ‘Singapore: choose over rage,’ at, accessed 31/10/2005.

16. Jake Lloyd Smith, ‘Silence over Nguyen’s Hanging,’ Herald Sun (11 November 2005).

17. ‘Activists Vow to Keep Fire Burning Against Death Penalty’ (15 May 2005), at, accessed 3 July 2005.

18. ‘Hung at Dawn; Police Ban Sam’s Face,’ at accessed 14 January 2006.

19. ‘Singapore Bans Death Penalty References from Play,’ at accessed 3 March 2006.

20. ‘Singapore Bans Execution References in Play,’ Reuters (28 November 2005).

21. Clare Masters, ‘Nguyen Hangman Sacked,’ Sunday Telegraph. (27 November 2005).

22. ‘Sensitive….Matja Biloslav’s banned artwork,’ Reuters (28 November 2005).

23. ‘Censored Singaporeans take to the Internet for Free Speech,’ AFP (3 June 2005).

24. ‘Commute the Death Sentences of Nguyen Tunong Van,’ at accessed 9 December 2005.

25. ‘The reason why we’re 140th’ (16 November 2005), at, accessed 21 November 2005.

26.’s Alfresco Coffee Hub, at, accessed 9 December 2005.

27. ‘The Singapore Tourism Board to Become Execution Hangout Hub.’ Web site, at, accessed 30 November 2005.

28. Others include

29. Ibid.



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Editorial history

Paper received 29 August 2006; accepted 15 September 2006.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2006, First Monday.

Copyright ©2006, Yasmin Ibrahim.

Capital punishment and virtual protest: A case study of Singapore by Yasmin Ibrahim
First Monday, volume 11, number 10 (October 2006),

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2019. ISSN 1396-0466.