Whither free speech?

Speakers Corner Hyde Park

A Christian and a Muslim debating at the Speakers Corner, Hyde Park
The speech police were nowhere to be seen

Lorong Cat - Singapore's Literate Feline

Guest post by Lorong Cat with Void Decker

Back in September, a Californian man pulled together an anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims” and posted it on YouTube. It contained blasphemous scenes making fun of the Prophet Muhammad. This video sparked anti-American riots across the middle east and culminated in the murder of the U.S. ambassador to Libya in a mob attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.

The filmmaker was subsequently arrested but for minor offences not directly related to the video. U.S. President Obama was quick to release a statement condemning the video as crude and inappropropriate but went on to defend the decision not to ban the video in the country.

“I know there are some who ask why don’t we just ban such a video? And the answer is enshrined in our laws. Our constitution protects the right to practice free speech. Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian and yet we do not ban blasphemy.”

Now contrast this with the debacle in Singapore last week, when an NTUC employee posted a disparaging message on Facebook about Muslim weddings held at HDB void decks.

Singaporeans were outraged and went up in arms over this racially insensitive display. It is heartening to observe such unity and togetherness in the defence of cultural practices of a fellow racial group in our society. The indignation is just and reflects our strong community spirit.

What happened next is a cause for alarm. This NTUC employee was dismissed from her job the next day. There were mixed sentiments to this but some netizens seem to find the dismissal a suitably just punishment.

What happened to all those crusading for freedom of speech in Singapore? And why was this NTUC employee dismissed from her job when her anti-social act was done in a personal capacity? Is there sufficient and acceptable evidence that her ability to carry out her duties for NTUC was compromised?

NTUC said that the dismissal resulted from “a violation of a clause in the terms and conditions of employment which states that staff must observe proper decorum in all forms of communication.”

This is clearly pushing the boundaries of interpretation and would probably not hold up in a court of law in a hearing for unlawful dismissal in many countries.

Furthermore, if we do not question the validity of the dismissal vigorously, Singaporeans would be deemed to have given implicit approval to the authorities for punishing freedom of speech – even if it is made with bad taste and in the wrong spirit. Some may say that this has nothing to do with free speech because what she wrote was plainly wrong, but by saying so is in itself denying the right of opinion of those whose views don’t conform to those generally accepted by society.

It should be a matter of principle for us to extend tolerance even to those who make assertions we disagree with. For me, it is also to adopt a consistent stand on free speech in Singapore and not apply it only to opinions conforming to populist sentiments such as dissonance against the government.

The same detractors of the Sedition Act should also be concerned with how loosely this law can be applied to the most casual assertions born out of insensitive but benign minds.  We do not want to be living in an Orwellian world constantly fearful of persecution. Different people have different tipping points for what’s considered mildly offensive and what’s extremely racist and hatred inciting. Tolerance extends to both ends of the spectrum.

Free speech is often a double edged sword. Having it both ways would raise questions as to what exactly can be said and what is forbidden. If we honestly believe in a free reign of expression in Singapore, we have to be ready to accept the wide ranging negative consequences, difficult as it may be. While freedom of speech in the American style is too extreme for adoption in Singapore, one can’t help but wonder just what the proponents of free speech in Singapore have in mind in terms of enforcing a toned down version of it? Where do we stop in terms of our tolerance for anti-social voices?

With the show of zero tolerance, as Minister Lim Swee Say said, through sacking and even police investigations instead of mature debate and reasoning, the message is sent not just that racism is unacceptable but that opinions contrary to societal ways of thinking are best kept to oneself. Self-censorship is perhaps already evident in the many blog posts, news articles and letters written on this episode so far where most are quick to condemn the insensitive remarks. One can’t help thinking that this is not so much what the commentator truly believes, but rather that we are all conditioned to say the correct thing.