COMMENT: Free speech in Singapore should include moral responsibility

COMMENT: Free speech in Singapore should include moral responsibility

Michael Y.P. Ang is a Singaporean freelance journalist. In 1999, he was among the core group of journalists who helped launch Channel NewsAsia, where he covered sports and entertainment events, crime, and the 2001 General Elections. For his commentaries on Singaporean sport, follow his Facebook page Michael Ang Sports. The views expressed are his own.

By Michael Y.P. Ang

Recently there's been much talk about the lack of free speech in Singapore. With socio-political website The Real Singapore being forced by the Republic's media regulatory agency to shut down, fresh concerns about the lack of press freedom have emerged.

Some also take issue with "the fact that in Singapore, you can be reported and arrested for being offensive and annoying and rude and vulgar and disrespectful".

But last week Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong explained why, in our multiracial and multi-religious society, "we cannot afford to take purist positions on the freedom of expression, or the right to be offensive to others". While I largely agree with the PM's explanation, I disagree with his view of press freedom.

Press freedom

Singapore's global ranking in press freedom for 2015 is 153rd, three spots below last year's placing and the lowest since the index began in 2002.

If you are troubled by Singapore's abysmal ranking, don't count on the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) to be on your side regarding this issue.

The PAP government is unlikely to lose any sleep over it, having called Singapore's low ranking 'absurd', while the PM himself has said that "he does not take seriously Singapore's low rankings on press freedom" because he believes the Singaporean media model makes sense for the country.

But I can't help but wonder whether the government is viewing the World Press Freedom Index objectively. Does the PAP also dismiss other global rankings as absurd or just those that give Singapore a negative assessment?

Most would likely agree that the Republic's media landscape favours the ruling party because public opinion is shifted in the government's direction. But it's debatable whether the lack of robust public discourse on major political issues in Singapore's mainstream media is good for the nation.

Political correctness is anti-nation-building. If a government policy is hurting the country more than it benefits the people, should we just highlight the positives, downplay the negatives and hope that somehow everything will work out?

If something isn't working, just say so and start seeking a solution. But on the flip side, if something is already working, don't pretend it's not and call for change to suit one's own personal agenda.

Religious and racial harmony

As much as Singaporeans prefer greater press freedom and fewer free-speech restrictions, we should avoid the kind of freedom that gives rise to Charlie Hebdo (in France) and the Ku Klux Klan (in America), which either taunt others or spread hate based on one's religious background or ethnic origin.

Some find it undesirable that there are Singaporeans who reported Amos Yee to the authorities for posting a video with Christianophobic comments. But why blame those who made a police report when the law specifically prohibits action "with deliberate intent to wound the religious or racial feelings of any person"?

Such blame is silly, as silly as those who point the finger at immigrants (skilled workers from the West and low-cost labourers from the Indian subcontinent, China or ASEAN) for causing Singaporeans' lack of employment or underemployment and overcrowded public transportation.

Immigrants are drawn to Singapore because we offer them what they cannot find back home, even in Western countries with 'greener pastures'. Don't blame them for doing what is a very human thing to do. Immigrants are allowed to work and live on our island because of the PAP's liberal immigration policy.

So why blame people – whether they are recent immigrants or those who made a police report about Amos Yee's video – for doing what government policy or the law facilitates?

It's not that Singaporeans aren't willing to "admit the existence of views we don’t like – even views we find abhorrent". The challenge for our society is how and where we draw the line between accommodating the "bigger principles of freedom and expression" and restricting hate speech.

Should we defend someone's hateful, irrational and derogatory comments about any racial group or foreign nationality in Singapore, by arguing that nobody is forced to hear or read his speech?

If not, why should Singaporeans allow Christianophobic or Islamophobic comments or hateful comments about any religious group to run wild, even if such anti-religious hate speech does not eventually lead to mass rioting between different groups?