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Freedom of speech – two views

From the Today newspaper:

A delicate balancing act

Shadrake case sends signal about importance of acting responsibly in the public domain

Letter from Cao Yilun

05:55 AM Nov 15, 2010

I REFER to the court case in which British author Alan Shadrake has been convicted of contempt of court for some passages in his book, Once A Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice In The Dock.

The court case sparked off criticism from some sectors of the local and international online community. Personally, I choose to see this incident not as evidence of Singapore's restrictions on freedom of speech and expression, but a signal of our Government's commitment to the exercise of responsibility in upholding freedom of speech while protecting our social values.

Proponents of political liberalism often support unfettered freedom of speech on the grounds that it serves to protect the individual's right to seek and receive information, or even promote a commitment to truth and heightened political activism.

The famous libertarian John Stuart Mill once argued that "there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered".

However, if we were to push for more freedom of speech and expression, we also have to handle the real risk of having more biased opinions disguised as objective truths to baffle the ill-informed.

More freedom of speech should only be offered when a society is better equipped to fend off its side-effects. Hence, how much free speech should be allowed is often a difficult balancing act which must take into account social realities and values.

Singapore is a communitarian society, which places more emphasis on societal interests over personal rights, pragmatism over idealism. The recent verdict on Shadrake's case supports this fact.

Endorsing Lord Patrick Devlin's views on the justification of legislation, the State reserves the right to pass judgment on matters - such as the integrity of our courts - which threaten social harmony.

Responsibility in exercising of freedom of speech is hence warranted to allow individuals to exercise their liberty without disregarding the greater social values.

The legal development in Shadrake's case is a positive step towards liberalising the law of contempt of court in Singapore, with Justice Quentin Loh deciding that the test of contempt of court is not that of "inherent tendency", but a test of "real risk".

However, until our communitarian value system shifts significantly and decidedly towards individualism, protecting social cohesion and values will perhaps remain the most important consideration in deciding how much freedom of speech and expression is to be accorded.

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Online only - Truth is the best defence

Letter from Khairulanwar Zaini

06:06 PM Nov 18, 2010

I REFER to the recent letter by Mr Cao Yilun ("A delicate balancing act", Nov 15) which argued that the conviction of Alan Shadrake for contempt of court displays our commitment to the responsible exercise of our rights.

The mature exercise of our rights and expressive freedom is indeed desirable. However, I find this method of cultivating responsibility peculiar: Circumscribing our expressive freedom denies everyone the opportunity of exercising it, let alone exercising it in a responsible manner.

In designating certain statements to be beyond the pale of the law, it forecloses the chance for any individual to reflect and consider the implications of his speech. The preclusion of "irresponsible speech" via punishment merely creates dogma, and hardly engenders responsibility.

If Mr Cao were to read John Stuart Mill further, he would find the perfect antidote to false and deceptive speech: Precisely more free speech! The "biased opinions disguised as objective truths" can be effectively countered by enabling more speech to defeat these deceptive claims - the Government would have found the media an amenable platform to comprehensively rebut Shadrake's allegations that they find problematic.

The importance of expressive freedom to clarify falsehoods should not be understated: It is critical and robust debate that allows us to apprehend clearly the truth of the matter, not verbal or legal fiat.

To borrow the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson, "it is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself". If the assertions in Shadrake's book Once A Jolly Hangman were patently untrue, the contempt of court action would, accordingly, prove unnecessary: The Government could furnish its own arguments convincingly without having to rely on the criminal justice system.

Mr Cao makes much of our communitarian values, but I believe that this evinces the importance of unfettered expressive freedom. While we could grant that a particular community could collectively decide how rights are to be exercised, this would precisely require the wide latitude of expressive freedom to determine these parameters. Communitarian values reflect the moral inputs and assertions of the community, and it is precisely through free speech that these inputs are articulated.