AS SINGAPOREANS become more politically engaged, they should feel free to discuss politics and even criticise ministers and policies, provided they do not make spurious allegations they cannot substantiate, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said on Monday.
Responding to law students' questions about Singapore laws and their impact on free speech at a dialogue organised by students from the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law, Mr Shanmugam signalled that the Government was not about to soften its stance on defamation laws, even as he said the laws do not curtail political discussion.
Defamation laws, he said, are not there to stop people from criticising the Government, but exist to protect personal reputations.
"If you make a personal allegation of fact, if you say I took money, I am corrupt, I will then sue you and ask you to prove it. But if you say I am a stupid fool who doesn't know what I'm talking about, and the Government comprises ministers who don't know what they're talking about and you criticise every policy of the Government, no one can sue you," he said.
"By all means challenge my competence, by all means challenge my policies, by all means put forward alternate policies. By all means argue it, no problem. That's not defamation."
For public debate to be honest and meaningful, he added, political discussions should not descend into mudslinging.
Admitting that defamation laws do impact free speech though, Mr Shanmugam said they have to be balanced against protecting people's reputations.
"Every country imposes restrictions on speech, it's a question of where you draw the line and whether you have a clear rationale for it," he said citing the example of how it is an offence to deny the Holocaust in Austria.
During the two-hour question and answer session, Mr Shanmugam, who is also the Foreign Minister, was asked about the Government's responsiveness to popular opinion.