COMMENT: Setting the bar on acceptable speech

Kirsten Han is a Singaporean blogger, journalist and filmmaker. She is also involved in the We Believe in Second Chances campaign for the abolishment of the death penalty. A social media junkie, she tweets at @kixes. The views expressed are her own.

What would you show your in-laws? A doodle of Lee Kuan Yew and Margaret Thatcher in a compromising position, perhaps? Or maybe not, as Justice Tay Yong Kwang raised just such a scenario in court recently. When one of teen blogger Amos Yee’s lawyers argued that the drawing was not obscene because it did not contain any genitalia, Tay’s response was that an image need not be explicit to be obscene, and that it was unlikely a young man visiting his girlfriend’s parents would show his prospective in-laws such an image.

Following District Judge Jasvinder Kaur’s argument that the graphic of Lee and Thatcher having anal sex would lead to teenagers experimenting, it would appear as if our bar for what should be criminalised as obscene is getting lower and lower. There are, after all, any number of things that I wouldn’t want to show my in-laws, but none of them are punishable by law (yet).

Justice Tay also likened Yee’s use of language to “someone throwing stones at a neighbour’s window to force the neighbour to notice him, come out to quarrel or even to fight.” This comparison also doesn’t make sense, as there is no coercion involved in watching a YouTube video. Yee’s video might have been intentionally provocative, but no one forced anyone to click play, much less watch the entire thing.

Plenty has been made about Yee’s defiance and his use of crude language when determining both his sentence as well as this appeal. But we should be careful of conflating these matters: Yee was not on trial for the use of vulgarities (nor was he placed in the dock for “an attitude of complete disregard for others that is hardly ever seen”), but specifically for spreading obscene material and inciting disaffection between religious groups. Instead of pointing at him as the epitome of difficult teenagers who need to be “taught a lesson”, we should really be looking at what he actually said, and how much harm could realistically have been caused by it.

Opinion is split, even among Christians themselves, over how offensive Yee’s comments really were to the faith. It is unlikely that any real action or violence would ever have been stirred up by Yee’s rant. And even if Singaporean Christians decided that what Yee said was offensive, the question still remains over whether we should criminalise speech merely for being offensive, as opposed to speech that could conceivably cause harm to vulnerable communities.

There is no shortage of contentious issues in this world, and when people discuss such issues it is inevitable that someone will be offended. It is therefore important that free speech is protected even when some offence is caused, so that we can still address controversial matters. And while copious swearing might not be seen as the best way to get an argument across, it’s hardly serious enough to be deemed a crime. (Insensitivity – in relation to the timing of the video – is also thankfully not a criminal offence, or we’ll all be in police stations all the time reporting numerous colleagues, employers and overbearing relatives at Chinese New Year.)

Freedom of speech is not without its limits, but that’s where we have to come in to decide where to set the bar. As it is, the bar in Singapore is currently fairly low, and also uneven: while Yee was taken to task for spouting criticism of Christianity, others are free to make all sorts of xenophobic, racist and homophobic statements with little reprisal. A higher and more consistent bar that protects already-marginalised communities such as racial or sexual minorities while protecting one’s right to express an opinion (even an unpopular one) would do far more for the political maturity of our society than what we have now.

Yee will be remembered as a delinquent child – and have the record to prove it – not because of the crimes that he was actually charged with, but because of his refusal to cooperate and do what he was told. While each of us are free to have our own opinion of the kid, we should think about how our reaction as a society has set the tone when it comes to policing what people can say, as well as how they can say it.

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