Freedom of press and freedom of speech are the hallmarks of democracy. Singapore’s current position in the Press Freedom Index would therefore seem to indicate that Singapore is somewhat lacking in a key component of democracy.
Of course, Singapore is a young country and any new nation needs time to come into its own but is it enough to hide behind the guise of being a young nation? Is it sufficient to cite the oft quoted phrase “Asian values” as a reason to curb the press or free speech?
I do not deny that there can never be total freedom to say whatever one wants on a practical level. There are public policy considerations such as racial harmony or terrorism to consider. However, what falls under the umbrella of “public policy considerations”?
Recently, the Temasek Review Emeritus (“TRE”) has come under fire for alleged defamatory comments on its website. These offending remarks were apparently left by an over zealous reader of TRE.
I can understand why PM Lee is concerned by the unsubstantiated jibes and feels the need to vindicate himself. I fully believe that he has every right to publicly state that the comments on TRE are baseless and false. PM Lee is also completely justified in wanting to clear his name but are the measures he has taken entirely effective? Will the actions taken bridge the growing divide between the rulers and the ruled or do they only serve to further the rift between Singaporeans and the perceived ruling elite?
Are TRE’s transgressions potentially lawsuit worthy? I would think not. Such draconian measures should only be reserved for something that can threaten the security of Singapore of which this is not. There is after all a difference between one man’s reputation and a country’s foundation.
Post GE 2011, PM Lee promised a “lighter touch” on internet regulation. I had interpreted this to mean more engagement with the alternative media. I had thought that this would translate to more open dialogue in response to criticism and questions on the part of the government. I had also imagined that this would mean an end to lawyer’s letters and threatened law suits. This does not mean that members of the government should take to accepting all manner of insults but it does mean that it can tackle perceived criticism head on through discourse rather than resorting to “fear tactics”.
Take MP Baey Yam Keng for instance. Despite some rather rude postings on his Facebook page, he made the effort to defend himself by explaining his side of the story (see HERE). By so doing, he created dialogue and I have no doubt that this will win him some support.
For any government to be effective, there has to be productive communication. Genuine communication is built upon a relationship of mutual trust and respect and such trust and respect can never be fostered through fear. Fear is but a short term measure. Authentic authority is inspired by respect and I believe that it is possible for the PAP to earn that if more of its members follow Baey’s shining example.
It is possible maintain one’s reputation and defend untrue allegations without infringing on a free press or free speech. One can accept that others have a point of view without acknowledging the truth of that view.
As Evelyn Beatrice Hall once wrote: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it"