Freedom of expression

Letter to The Economist by K. Bhavani, Press Secretary to the Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts (Mica).

SIR – Contrary to your article about politics on the web, no bloggers have been jailed in Singapore for “posting materials that those in power dislike” (“Blog standard“, June 28th). There is no such offence under Singaporean law and many websites post highly critical views of the government. However, two bloggers have been jailed and another put on probation for posting virulently racist remarks that could damage racial harmony. Singapore is a multiracial, multireligious society, yet its threshold as to what is objectionable in such matters is higher than in some European countries, which make it an offence to deny the Holocaust.

Another blogger currently faces charges for writing that a female High Court judge had “prostituted” herself in a case that she was trying. Unless we uphold the standing and reputation of the judiciary, there is no basis for the freedoms that citizens expect, either on the internet or in the real world.

K. Bhavani
Press secretary to the minister for information, communications and the arts


I actually agree with most of what Ms Bhavani (a key player in the MrBrown saga for all of you with long enough memories) said. There are plenty of blogs and websites containing much that is critical of the government, TOC included.

Now, some of you out there might side with the American view on the freedom to paint judges as scum with little basis for that conclusion – there are discussion boards out there calling Justice Antonin Scalia a “corrupt lying mafia shill”. I would have to side with Ms Bhavani on this one. I don’t think judges should be accused of being corrupt unless there is either sufficient evidence to justify such an accusation, or if they’ve broken some existing rule on judicial bias.

That is because it is all too easy for the general public to believe that legal judgments are essentially political statements. That just isn’t the case, even in all those defamation cases. From a legal point of view, I disagree with the essential reasoning running through all those notorious political defamation and freedom of speech cases – basically the judiciary thinks that allowing the powers-that-be to be slammed with little or no evidence backing up such a claim is going to lead to a loss of confidence in the government and the non-functioning of government services.

I think we Singaporeans are a slightly more politically sophisticated bunch than either the judiciary or the ruling party give us credit for. But you can’t really say that the judiciary’s thinking on why we do not allow for judges to be called whores if they haven’t actually whored themselves is completely out of line, to be fair.

Whereas Ms Bhavani (and her boss, the MICA minister) are just plain wrong on our supposedly tolerant standards on racial and religious offence as compared to “some European countries”. This is a country where the police will come knocking if you’re a Christian evangelist trying to preach the Gospel to a Muslim. That is not a restriction you would find in most European countries – not even Germany.

Do we then seriously believe that nothing will happen if some preacher goes around telling his flock that the Holocaust was a fraud? The answer is no. There are after all, some Jewish Singaporeans, even if there are not many of them.

We are just not that liberal when it comes to matters of race and religion – and unlike Ms Bhavani and Dr Lee Boon Yang, I don’t see why the government needs to be defensive or apologetic on this point in front of an international audience.

Koh Jie Kai


Life jackets

Levin Angsana was a 22-year old SMU undergraduate who passed away on the 4th of July 2008. I did not know him personally but it is never easy when you read about lives lost, let alone that of someone from the same school.

Quite a fair bit has been said in the press that the sailors should have put on life jackets, and then there are those who feel it was unnecessary. Member of Parliament Dr Teo Ho Pin, chairman of the National Water Safety Council said anyone taking part in water sports, especially in the open sea, should put on a life jacket. In addition, Mr Andrew Tan, senior manager of the Singapore Management University‘s office of student life, said the students training out at sea were not told to put on life jackets “because the life jackets are bulky and it will be dangerous if they get caught in the boat’s boom (a pole which controls the sail) and hooks”.

Safety is definitely of paramount importance. A person may quickly draw parallels between this incident and that of the dragon boat tragedy in Cambodia, seeing as to how they were all not wearing life jackets. However, it must be noted that the dragon boat crew were not wearing life jackets as it impeded their performance.

On the other hand, sailors do not wear life jackets because the jackets may get caught in the boat’s boom and hooks, which is more of a safety issue. In both cases the athletes chose not to wear life jackets in spite of guidelines that suggested that they did so in adverse weather.

Hence while one can conclude that they should have worn life jackets and that everyone taking part in water sports should now wear life jackets, I feel each sport is unique in its own way. In some sports where the wearing of a life jacket merely affects performance, I think we can all agree that sometimes we just have to sacrifice some performance to ensure safety. However, if wearing a life jacket itself causes a safety issue as mentioned by Mr Andrew Tan, then we will have to tread carefully. It doesn’t make any sense to increase risk in one area just to reduce risk in another, for ultimately our common goal is to ensure that those who engage in sea sports do not compromise on any aspect of safety.

Bearing in mind that hardly any studies have been done to show the risk incurred by donning or not donning life jackets, we will be jumping the gun if we were to now “decree” in the aftermath of these two tragic accidents that everyone doing sea sports should wear life jackets regardless of the weather. Certain comments may have been made in the heat of the moment and we should take this opportunity to take a step back to look at the full picture before making any further conclusions.

Tan Jian Wei

Read also: Dragon boat tragedy: Victims’ families seek apology. (Straits Times)


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