Rising debate over free speech

Rising debate over free speech
Teen blogger Amos Yee (right) arriving at the State Courts building on April 17.

When local cartoonist Leslie Chew was arrested in 2013 for a comic strip that suggested the Government was suppressing the Malay population, public reaction was starkly divided.

Although the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) ultimately chose not to charge Mr Chew in court, the incident revealed a deepening conflict between freedom of speech and Singapore's OB markers of race and religion.

Mr Chew, 37, was the creator of a comic strip featuring what he said was a fictional country called "Demon-cratic Singapore", with fictional characters and events.

But many of them resembled real people and events in Singapore.

The AGC arrested him for offences that included promoting feelings of ill-will and hostility between races, which is forbidden under the Sedition Act.

In this and other cases, including multiple incidents of thoughtless teenagers posting racist remarks on their Facebook pages and blogs, the Singapore Government has come under criticism both domestically and internationally for over-reacting.

In Mr Chew's case, where his strip was satirical art and entertainment, the Government's actions amounted to clamping down on free expression, many argued.

But the Government's position is that Singapore's history of violent racial tension mandates that it must vigilantly prevent any such elements from entering the public domain.

This debate is raging all over the world, but with greater urgency in many countries.

In France, for example, the terrorist attack on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo earlier this year ignited emotive debate over where the limits to free speech are.

While condemning the attack, many argued that the magazine, in its cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, had gone too far in offending Muslims.

But the uniquely Singaporean reliance on law enforcement to police the boundaries of free speech has worried observers.

Mr Chew was arrested after a police report made by a member of the public, and that has been the case as well for almost all the other individuals charged with race-related offences since 2005, including teen blogger Amos Yee.

Journalism academic Cherian George, who lectures at the Hong Kong Baptist University School of Communication, wrote that this default reaction of petitioning the police reveals "Singaporeans are over-dependent on the authorities for maintaining social peace".

That speaks to an immaturity on the part of the body politic. Also, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies sociologist Terence Chong said the over-reaction - and the willingness of the authorities to act on it - would ultimately result in a certain cultural bankruptcy.

If censors take their cue from the most conservative or sensitive members of the public, then "art in Singapore is done for", he said.

Silencing or writing off anything that contradicts or challenges the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural precepts of Singapore society is over-compensation, he said.

"There does not seem to be room... to openly discuss our contradictions and prejudices in a frank and adult manner. And we are the poorer for it."


This article was first published on May 11, 2015.
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