The 22-year-old, who several Singaporean media outlets named as Brisbane student Ai Takagi, was arrested along with a 26-year-old Singaporean-Chinese man, named as Robin Yang.
Their arrests appear to have stemmed from a letter from a reader published on Singaporean citizen journalism website The Real Singapore detailing alleged police brutality during Thaipusam, a symbolic Hindu festival celebrated by the country’s Tamil community.
The article alleged the brutality occurred after a Filipino family asked police to enforce an existing ban on musical instruments because a nearby drummer was upsetting their child.
It provoked a long stream of comments in which several people voiced their anger at Filipinos and foreigners in general.
A police statement issued later said it was festival organisers who had approached police.
Singaporean police refused to comment but pointed Fairfax Media to a Channel NewsAsia article about the arrests.
In that article police said the pair had been released on bail after being arrested for posting remarks online “that could promote ill-will and hostility among the different races in Singapore”.
It’s believed police are still investigating but no charges have been laid.
“The Police take a stern view of acts that could threaten social harmony in Singapore,” a police spokesman is quoted as saying.
“Any person who posts remarks online that could cause ill-will and hostility between the different races or communities in Singapore will be dealt with in accordance with the law.”
Singapore is notorious for its lack of press freedom. It ranks 150 out of 180 on Reporters Without Borders’ latest Press Freedom Index.
Curtin University Head of Media, Culture and Creative Arts Dr Joseph Fernandez is an expert in Malaysian and Singaporean media.
He said Singapore’s Sedition Act was used quite regularly to restrain free speech, a view echoed in a 2011 Singapore Journal of Legal Studies article.
The article detailed several cases since 2005 where the laws had been used to constrain the free speech of bloggers and other citizens, particularly surrounding race and religion.
Dr Fernandez said while the Singaporean government argued the laws were necessary to maintain social harmony in a diverse society, the reality didn’t stack up.
“Sedition law goes back hundreds of years,” Dr Fernandez said.
“You could find it in the United States, you could find it in the UK but essentially it has fallen into disuse.
“Sedition law has no place in a modern democracy. Ordinary laws provide adequately to deal with the kind of mischief presented in cases such as the TRS story that led to the arrest of an Australian woman.”
The former Malaysian newspaper editor said the arrests were likely in response to fears of social disharmony provoked by racist comments on the article or a warning shot aimed at other media organisations.
“I know all too well how these sorts of things send a shudder down editors’ spines,” he said, adding that would be the case even more so in Singapore than Malaysia.
Singapore’s Sedition Act provides for a fine of $5000 or up to three years in jail.
Dr Fernandez said the act was a “very outdated, very crude” tool to use to promote social harmony.
“We don’t know yet whether these two are going to be charged but pretty clearly the government is not lacking in power to stifle this sort of debate,” he said.
“You can ask what really was so hot on this topic? What really was so controversial or contentious about this topic that it deserved the use of such a draconian piece of law?
“I am baffled, other than to say well ‘no surprises there because that’s how it’s done in Singapore.”
Ms Takagi declined to speak to Fairfax Media.
Her and Mr Yang’s exact relationship with The Real Singapore website is unclear.
An article posted on the site said one of its editors had been “called up for investigation” by the police along with about four others in relation to the article but didn’t name anyone involved.
“Some time in the future, we will be publishing a full story and explain clearly everything that we can share,” the article said.
“This may also include how we work and who is behind the website but currently, as investigations are ongoing, such a full response would be inappropriate.”