Australian jailed in Singapore for sedition over website

SINGAPORE: An Australian woman whose website published made-up stories about foreigners that prosecutors said incited racial hatred was jailed in Singapore Wednesday after falling foul of colonial-era sedition laws.

Law student Ai Takagi was jailed for 10 months, the stiffest sentence ever imposed for the offence in strictly governed Singapore, which clamps down hard on any activity seen as promoting racial and class hatred.

Takagi was the Australia-based editor and owner of "The Real Singapore" (TRS), which enjoyed huge popularity but was shut down after she and her Singaporean husband were arrested while visiting the island last year.

Prosecutors said Takagi, 23, posted fabricated stories to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in online advertising revenues for her site.

Court documents said the TRS website had close to 13 million views a month while its Facebook page had more than 400,000 likes.

District Judge Salina Ishak said a strong sentence was needed.

Calling Takagi a "shrewd businesswoman" motivated by financial gain, the judge noted that the language used in the posts in question was intended to provoke "unwarranted hatred against foreigners in Singapore".

'Vitriol and hatred'

"From the comments posted in response to the articles, it was clear that the articles had in fact engendered vitriol and hatred from the readers of TRS," the judge said.

Posts on TRS' Facebook page often attracted hundreds of comments, many of them profane, with some calling for severe curbs on the intake of foreign workers.

Takagi, who is eight weeks pregnant with her first child, read an apology in court before the sentence was handed down.

"Before this case started, I was not fully aware of the level of sensitivity needed when dealing with topics related to racial and religious issues in Singapore," she said in court.

"I sincerely apologise for the harm I have caused through my actions," said the Japanese-Australian, who expressed hope that she would someday be allowed to settle permanently in Singapore.

After the sentence was handed down, she was seen wiping away tears while in the dock.

Takagi was given a month to settle her personal affairs before serving her prison sentence. She will have to surrender herself to the court at noon on April 22.

Singapore's sedition laws make it an offence to promote hostility between different races or classes in the multiracial society, which is mainly ethnic Chinese with large Malay and Indian minorities.

Huge foreign presence

But critics say sedition laws, dating back to British colonial rule, can be used to clamp down on free speech.

About 40% of the labour-starved island's 5.5 million people are foreigners, many of them from China, India and the Philippines.

Singapore has also cracked down on foreigners for sedition.

Last September Filipino nurse Ello Ed Mundsel Bello, 29, was jailed for four months after insulting Singaporeans online and calling on his countrymen to take over the city-state.

Takagi had pleaded guilty to four counts of sedition lodged against her and her Singaporean husband, Yang Kaiheng, 27.

The cases included a fabricated article which said that a Filipino family instigated a fracas at a Hindu festival, and another alleging that a Chinese woman made her grandson urinate into a bottle inside a metro train.

Yang, however, is fighting the charges and has pleaded not guilty.

They were also charged with withholding from police information on the website's advertising revenues, which were estimated at SG$473,000 (RM1.39 million) over a 17-month period.

Each sedition charge carries a penalty of up to three years in jail and a maximum fine of SG$5,000, or both. — AFP