Racial and religious offence: why censorship doesn’t always cut it

Melissa Aw

By Cherian George

The internet has provided a public platform for the best of human characteristics to be displayed, but also for the worst. It bypasses the traditional gatekeepers of the mainstream media, which means that the journey from thought to private utterance to public statement is almost instant. As a result, xenophobic, racist and religiously-offensive speech has been surfacing regularly on the internet in Singapore.

There are two possible ways to respond to these breaches. People can reach out horizontally and repair the damage by persuading fellow citizens to reject harmful ideas. Or, people can reach up vertically to government, getting the authorities to act against irresponsible speech by using the law. The latter is a seductive remedy because it seems more efficient, punishing those who cross the line of acceptability and deterring others from doing the same. The horizontal approach works through persuasion rather than the law, so it is slower and not foolproof.

While all societies use a mix of approaches to address offensive speech, there is a growing consensus in international human rights law that state interference should really be a last resort and only used for the most extreme speech — speech that incites violence in a very direct way, or that is part of a campaign that violates the rights of minorities to live free of discrimination. In contrast, simply insulting and offending others, even if feelings are very hurt, is not seen as something that should invite a legal response. Using the law to protect feelings is too great an encroachment on freedom of speech.

Singapore draws the line differently. Our laws are written very broadly, such that any sort of offence, even if it does not threaten imminent violence, is seen as deserving of strict regulation. This probably reflects a strong social consensus that race and religion should be handled delicately. So, the state protects racial and religious sensibilities from offence, using censorship when there's a danger of words and actions causing hurt.

Thus, for several years now, we have seen many examples of offensive online speech prompting police investigations. In 2005, three young bloggers were convicted under the Sedition Act for racist comments. There have been several other cases since then where the police have been called in to investigate offensive speech.

These cases are striking in two ways. First, in almost all cases that we know of, state action was instigated by complaints from members of the public. This is quite unlike political censorship, where action is initiated by the government, usually with great resistance and opposition from netizens. In a string of cases involving racial and religious offence, however, netizens have tended to demand action, sometimes acting like a lynch mob.

Second, it's interesting that, in many cases, the offensive messages were spread further by those reporting the offence. In one case late last year, a blogger posted a religiously offensive image on his own Facebook wall to warn others that this image was making the rounds internationally. One of his so-called friends took offence, made a police report against the blogger — and at the same time circulated the image more widely on the internet. In one case involving a Christian pastor's offensive sermon, most Singaporeans who saw the video did not do so on the church website where the video was originally found, but via Hardware Zone, one of Singapore's most popular forums. It was put there not by the pastor himself or his church members, but by someone who wanted action taken against the pastor.

This pattern is paradoxical. On the one hand, the supposed justification for strong police action against any form of speech is that it is not enough to counter bad speech with good speech in free and open debate. This could be because the bad speech is perceived as so dangerous that it can cause immediate harm; or because we don't trust the public to respond rationally, so we don't know if good speech would indeed triumph in open debate. If we call in the authorities, it must be because we have a mental picture of offensive speech being like lighting a match in a combustible atmosphere: there's no time to debate the merits of that match — we just have to put it out.

On the other hand, people who were in one breath demanding police action, as if the offensive messages were explosive, were in the next breath repeating the offensive messages for all to see and hear. It was like helping to spread a fire while calling for the fire brigade.

Unless these complainants were just plain irrational or irresponsible, which I don't think they were, their act of spreading the offensive content probably means that they did not actually believe that it would provoke violence through reprisal attacks or riots.

In reposting the offensive words or pictures, they showed that they actually trusted the public — they had faith that enough people would add their voices to the outrage that they themselves felt when they saw the offensive images or videos or words. And they were right: in every case, when these offensive messages were publicised, the overwhelming sentiment was that these messages were wrong. Thus, the public debate reinforced our multi-racial and multi-religious foundations.

This then raises the question, why the need to involve the police at all? If Singaporeans are grown-up enough to defend their society against most forms of offensive speech, why have calls for prosecution and censorship become the automatic response?

I wonder if this is an example of the well-known habit of unthinkingly relying on government to solve all our problems even when, with a little bit of effort in the form of grassroots action can do the job. Ironically, we see this same government-dependence in cyberspace, which many netizens proudly claim to be free of such strictures.

One problem with the culture of expecting police action whenever we feel insulted or offended is that this mechanism can be overused and abused. Those most likely to complain against any expression are the least tolerant members of each religious or ethnic community. Very quickly, therefore, the most dogmatic and extreme spokesmen set the tone for the rest of society.

Another problem with the vertical approach — of reaching up to higher authorities — is that it perpetuates a dependency on government and doesn't do much for building trust among citizens. Such trust is ultimately the best defence in a world where we will never be able to control 100 per cent of the messages 100 per cent of the time, even if government regulators were given more powers.

Horizontal trust is important, because that is what helps us put things in perspective when we face provocations. Most offensive messages are not, by themselves, threatening. As with a lighted match, whether there is an explosion depends on the surrounding environment. It is mistrust that acts like an accelerant, like combustible gas in a confined space. We cannot control the text — the match. But we can influence the context. By building horizontal trust, our society will become more resilient against the inevitable frictions and frustrations of living among people of different cultures.

In many cases, Singaporeans may be making police reports when they encounter offensive speech not necessarily because they want the speaker to be punished, but because they want a strong public signal to reaffirm our multi-racial and multi-religious principles. They want reassurance. They want to bring the weight of moderate public opinion to bear on a dispute, plus perhaps a clear signal from the authorities as to what constituted acceptable speech. If so, why not just demand such statements, instead of legal action.

Swift responses from credible and respected civil society groups, bloggers, Members of Parliament, and other ordinary citizens would probably suffice in most cases. If the speaker doesn't get the message, organise boycotts, for example, and give him or her the clear message that our society isn't going to take such offence lying down. The more we can respond ourselves through open debate and grassroots action, without the need to ask government to step in and censor or punish, the stronger our society will be.

This is an edited version of a talk at the Association of Muslim Professionals' Community In Review seminar 2012 on 10 March. The theme of the seminar was "To Post or Not To Post: Multiculturalism in the Social Media". A fuller version of this article is available at www.journalism.sg.

The writer is an associate professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.