Integration not just about fitting in

Integration not just about fitting in

Part of my job is to survey the climate of opinion on any number of current issues, and make a judgment call on what commentaries to run in The Straits Times, what thoughtful perspectives from which contributor to solicit and what new issues to highlight.

I've been following the evolving discussion of the Charlie Hebdo incident with fascination, ever since news broke on Jan 7 that 12 people were gunned down by two French Muslims in the Parisian office of the satirical weekly magazine.

As always, as a true-blue Singaporean, part of my mind is engaged on what this all means for Singapore.

Every society has to strike a balance between free speech and responsibility to others.

Laws against libel and laws proscribing disclosure of secrets for national security reasons are common fetters on speech. In many countries, including France, there are laws against hate speech that incites racial hatred or discrimination against a racial group.

Austria and Germany have laws against denying the Holocaust. France has a 1990 law that makes it illegal to question the existence of crimes against humanity (such as the Holocaust).

In France, even the iconic 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man, abridges the right to free speech thus in Article 11: "The free communication of ideas and of opinions is one of the most precious rights of man. Any citizen may therefore speak, write and publish freely, except what is tantamount to the abuse of this liberty in the cases determined by law." (italics are mine)

In other words, even the fiercely independent and revolutionary-minded French recognised limits to free speech and chose not to protect those who abused it.

No wonder an irate Muslim editor, Mr Mehdi Hasan of the Huffington Post UK, wrote an open letter to "free speech fundamentalists", calling them out on their hypocrisy for championing Charlie Hebdo's right to insult Islam, when their societies protect other religions from such insult.

"Did you not know that Charlie Hebdo sacked the veteran French cartoonist Maurice Sinet in 2008 for making an allegedly anti-Semitic remark? Were you not aware that Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that published caricatures of the Prophet in 2005, reportedly rejected cartoons mocking Christ because they would 'provoke an outcry' and proudly declared it would 'in no circumstances... publish Holocaust cartoons'?"

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