September 20th, 2012
The Singapore Government’s order that Google block YouTube viewers here from watching an extreme anti-Islam video is a case of several wrongs not making a right. It also shows, yet again, why dealing with hateful speech is probably the single most fraught dilemma facing diverse societies that aspire to be open and progressive.
It’s obvious to most that Innocence of Muslims is a gratuitous attack on a religion, with no redeeming artistic, scientific or intellectual merit.
It is also clear that the film was cited as the reason for enraged mobs taking violent and deadly retribution against the culture that produced it.
While there’s little disagreement over these two separate statements, things get foggy when you try to add them up. Suddenly, one plus one seems to result in anything but two.
In Singapore, the fog has resulted in the Government – which normally prides itself in consistency – coming out with two contradictory statements in the space of five days.
On 14 September, Singapore’s security czar and deputy prime minister Teo Chee Hean said: “I am confident that Singaporeans will react to this film in the same rational and calm manner as they have done previously.”
But on 19 September, his Home Affairs Ministry said this: “The continued circulation of this film is likely to cause disharmony or feelings of ill-will between different groups in Singapore.”
In between the two statements, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had, on 15 September, urged Singaporeans to stay calm. “It doesn’t matter what happens elsewhere in the world. … These are not our quarrels and we should continue living peacefully, harmoniously together, among ourselves and nurture and preserve our harmony.”
From a position of confidence in the resilience and good sense of Singaporeans, and despite the PM exercising timely moral leadership, the Government has now declared that the film was likely to cause (not “might cause”) ill effects.
The move could lead outsiders who don’t know the country well to conclude that Singapore is no more stable than others that saw it necessary to ban the film.
Worse, it once again puts Muslim Singaporeans on the defensive. Already tired of being stereotyped as people who lose their heads over religion, Singapore Muslims will once again feel pressured to explain that, no, there is nothing in our religion that predisposes us to violence; the scenes you see in the Middle East are really about geopolitics, political opportunism, poverty and ignorance – not religion. It is difficult to persuade others of that when the Government now says that it needed to take the “pre-emptive measure of asking MDA to make the request to Google to block online access to the film to prevent similar violent incidents from taking place here”.
Of course, many Singaporeans will feel that banning the film was the right thing to do – and express disappointment that Google did not remove it of its own volition. The majority will also probably feel that it is better to be safe than sorry.
The fact that Singapore’s neighbours banned it might have been a factor as well. If so, perhaps the Government should have invoked the “Zoolander Principle” instead of claiming that Singapore’s inter-religious harmony is too weak to withstand this provocation.
Zoolander, you may recall, was the Ben Stiller comedy that was banned here in 2002. Although the censors never explicitly said so, the move was probably an expression of solidarity with Malaysia – which had banned the film because it cast a fictitious Malaysian prime minister as a crook.
A show of solidarity with other countries concerned about gratuitous attacks on religion would have been easier to swallow than a statement that expresses doubt in Singaporeans’ ability to react in a “rational and calm” manner to hateful speech. Declaring a lack of trust in the public is hardly the way to build that trust – which is ultimately Singapore’s most powerful defence against global forces that seek to tear societies apart.