'Clear markers for free speech in Singapore'

'Clear markers for free speech in Singapore'

The Singapore Government draws clear boundaries around freedom of speech, and that is the approach most of the country's population wants, Foreign Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said in a panel discussion broadcast online this week.

Defending Singapore's strict laws prohibiting racial and religious agitation - which would have outlawed the publication of cartoons of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo - he said: "You can't run ahead of what our society wants."

"These are not laws, conventions and mores that the Government or the people in power can do anything about. It's got to be what the society is comfortable with," Mr Shanmugam added.

Staff at the French magazine were murdered by terrorists in Paris earlier this month in an incident that shocked the world and sparked debate on the limits to freedom of speech.

The panel discussion, organised by new socio-political website Inconvenient Questions, featured Mr Shanmugam, Nanyang Technological University sociology professor Kwok Kian-Woon and cultural and humanities lecturer Nazry Bahrawi. It was moderated by former Nominated MP Viswa Sadasivan, who founded the site.

Mr Shanmugam noted that every country draws its own boundaries on the extent of free speech, citing how denying the Holocaust is a crime in France. "We all agree across the world... that the attacks were completely unacceptable," he said. "But that does not make what Charlie Hebdo did right. A lot of commentators have come forward and said, How can you gratuitously insult religion?"

He noted that Charlie Hebdo is well-known for being offensive to Christians, and its illustrations would be unacceptable in many places as well.

Asked for Singapore's position on the matter, Mr Shanmugam said Singapore has strict laws, and wants a society with racial and religious harmony but also mutual tolerance and acceptance.

"In order to do that, we take a very strict view on offending somebody else in terms of race or religion in the name of freedom of speech. We draw the boundary. You have full freedom of speech but it doesn't extend to offending somebody else."

He noted that the latest edition of the Economist magazine printed here has a page blank, as it would have had a picture of Charlie Hebdo's latest cover.

"That would not be acceptable to us," he said. "In fact, the printers who were going to print it said they will not print it in Singapore. So, that is our approach."

rchang@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Jan 23, 2015.
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