April 25th, 2013
Race and religion form the third rail of Singapore politics. They lie in the deep, dark recesses of our national life, ready to strike the reckless and the ignorant with an untamable force. Most Singaporeans – even many liberals – believe that freedom of expression should not apply in the vicinity of this third rail. As a result, they not only accept the laws that govern racially or religiously offensive speech, they have even been known to push for strong enforcement.
Now, a 37-year-old cartoonist Leslie Chew is under investigation for a possible breach of the Sedition Act. One of the cartoons that apparently earned the authorities’ attention attacks the “racist government” of “Demon-cratic Singapore“, including a leader who “abhors Malays”. No reader would have the slightest doubt that this is a criticism of the Singapore government’s race policies, so protestations that this is a purely fictional strip are unlikely to impress any judge.
However, let’s hope that the case doesn’t get that far. While the law gives the authorities the green light to take forceful action, that does not mean they have to go all the way.
The test shouldn’t simply be how angry a community feels– or even less how angry government officials feel– about offending words, even if those words are untrue and unfair, and even if the offence is deliberate. There are at least two other commonsense tests that should be applied.
First, we should ask whether the speaker is in a position of leadership or great influence, which would increase the likelihood that his words would have an effect. Going by this test, a political party office holder or the leader of a religious community would be held to the highest levels of accountability, while a teenaged blogger– or a cartoonist– can usually be ignored.
Second, we need to assess, case by case, whether there is enough time and opportunity for the allegedly bad speech to be defeated by better speech. If there is, then political debate doesn’t need a lot of help from the law. Instead, reserve the law for volatile situations when a temporary calm needs to be imposed so that society can catch its breath, free from the polluting effect of incendiary speech.
The Leslie Chew case doesn’t meet either test. First, he has no special influence. Second, his criticism can be countered by the government and other citizens, long before it corrodes our institutions or our ethnic relations, if that is the fear.
Singapore’s insult laws are often used symbolically, to declare the kind of society we are or want to be. The authorities should be mindful of what signals they’d be sending if they prosecute Chew for sedition instead of simply taking him on politically (or just ignoring him– but it’s too late for that now).
In effect, legal action would suggest that the government lacks confidence in defending its record in race management. Such a signal would be ludicrously and unnecessarily self-injurious, doing more harm to its reputation than Leslie’s cartoons ever could.
It is noteworthy that the arrest was made under Section 4(c) of the Sedition Act, and not under the Penal Code. Section 298 of the Penal Code is designed to curb the “deliberate intent to wound the religious or racial feelings of any person” while 298A addresses “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion or race”.
While these recently enacted provisions are worded too broadly, they are at least an improvement over the archaic Sedition Act. What the Sedition Act contains that Sections 298/298A of the Penal Code does not is a prohibition against actions or expression that have the tendency “to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the Government”.
Many Singaporeans pragmatically accept the need for tough laws to protect ethnic communities against insult– partly because, rightly or wrongly, they fear that their fellow citizens will run amok if provoked. It is harder to see the need for equally tough laws against insulting the government– it is not as if offended officials will start a riot.
Eventually, Singapore needs to review its over-broad legislation governing race and religion. The relevant laws need to be more narrowly worded and more precise, to prevent stifling the legitimate airing of important issues, even if those views are expressed in ways deemed offensive or tasteless. In the meantime, though, the authorities should act with more discretion and let Leslie Chew go. Sliding the law back in its sheath would be sign of strength, not weakness.