LIKE most constitutions, Singapore’s promises freedom of speech. Unlike most, it allows the government to limit that freedom with “such restrictions as it considers necessary or expedient” to maintain national security, friendly relations with other countries or public order and morality, as well as to protect “the privileges of Parliament” and to prevent “contempt of court” or “incitement to any offence”. Officials have not hesitated to quell their critics. Opponents of the People’s Action Party (PAP), which has ruled Singapore without interruption since independence, have often found themselves on the losing end of defamation suits regarding accusations that American or European politicians would have shrugged or laughed off.

Singapore’s government has long insisted that such measures are essential to safeguard the country’s hard-won racial harmony and public order. Recently, however, the country’s rulers have begun expounding the virtues of thick skins. In late February Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister, said leaders need to be challenged: “If all you have are people who say, ‘Three bags full, sir’, then soon you start to believe them, and that is disastrous.” On the very same day Kishore Mahbubani, a former diplomat who runs a public-policy institute at the National University of Singapore, said that Singapore needed “more naysayers [who] attack and challenge every sacred cow”. Tommy Koh, another diplomat, urged his countrymen to prize “challengers who are subversive and who have alternate points of view”.

These comments were presumably not intended as a criticism of the Supreme Court. Just two days before it had upheld the conviction and fining of three activists who took part in a protest about the management of the Central Provident Fund, a compulsory savings scheme administered by the government. The three had been marching in Hong Lim Park, home to Speakers’ Corner (pictured), a spot set up for Singaporeans to exercise their freedom of speech without any restriction whatsoever, beyond the obligation to apply for permission to speak and to comply with the 13 pages of terms and conditions upon which such permissions are predicated, as well as all the relevant laws and constitutional clauses.

The three protesters were convicted of creating a public nuisance, for disrupting a public event being held in the park. One of them, Han Hui Hui, who ran for parliament as an independent in 2015, was also convicted of organising a public protest without approval (the authorities said she had applied to give a speech rather than a demonstration). The courts fined Ms Han S$3,100 ($2,199). Anyone convicted and fined more than S$2,000 is barred from becoming a member of parliament for five years—another restriction the authorities must still deem necessary or expedient for the maintenance of something or other.

The upholding of Ms Han’s conviction comes six months after Singapore’s parliament enacted a law stiffening the penalties for contempt of court, to as much as three years’ imprisonment or a fine of up to S$100,000. The law defines contempt broadly: any comment that, in the court’s judgment, “poses a risk that public confidence in the administration of justice would be undermined”. If the prime minister wants to encourage criticism of the government, making more of it legal would be a good first step.