Deconstructing democracy and freedom of speech

~ By Ghui ~

With the possibility of a by-election looming and indeed after GE 2011, the twin concepts of freedom of speech and democracy have been hotly discussed. Many of the debates have been centred on the repercussions of a lack of democracy and its consequential effect on freedom of speech. But what exactly does democracy entail and what does freedom of speech encompass?


In general terms, democracy is understood as the “rule of the ballot box”. The candidate that wins the most votes is the victor. In its simplest form, this would imply a “winner takes all approach”, no matter how narrow the margin. Is this the true essence of democracy?

Quoting from an article by Jeanette Chong-Aruldoss ("Exploring the Extent of Executive Discretion"), “Democracy is a flawed system, no doubt; but this imperfect system respects the collective voting might of ordinary citizens and makes everyone equal. Whether rich, influential, poor or obscure – each citizen has one vote.”

This encapsulates the spirit of democracy, the idea that it is a system of consensus as opposed to the either “with us or against us” dynamic that has become prevalent.

Democracy is a beautiful ideology that seeks to equalise all citizens and give rich or poor alike a say in how they should be governed. It is therefore a system, which recognises the many shades of grey between black and white.

The assertion that if one party is right then the other must be wrong is therefore the antithesis of democracy. It is my belief that democracy encourages divergent viewpoints, which is why I respectfully disagree with Dr Chee’s declaration ("Chee Soon Juan: We do not have political rights") that “Whether I am right or wrong is the point. If I am wrong then the PAP is right. On this point, Singaporeans must take sides. We must make up our minds about what we want: A free and democratic country with Singaporeans enjoying their rights in a multi-party system or continued one-party rule.”

Is the contrast really so stark?

Singaporeans hold varied opinions on how Singapore should be governed. Many I have spoken to actually do not want a multi-party rule. They feel that Singapore is too small and that multi party rule would lead to instability. This group advocates for a two-party system to ensure accountability without the feared instability. The rightness or wrongness of this view is irrelevant. What is relevant is that this is their view nevertheless and that it must be respected.

Other Singaporeans do not believe in a democracy without limits. They want accountability but yet a firm hand holding ultimate power to lead the way. There are also Singaporeans who are happy with our current one party system as long as there are effective measures in place to hold them accountable. Meaningful engagement and a less regulated press have been cited as possible methods. There are yet others who advocate a multi party system to ensure the widest possible representation and choice.

Some Singaporeans thrive on firebrand democracy and charismatic speeches whilst others prefer a more conciliatory approach. Some advocate confrontation while others prefer a subtler approach. Is there a right or wrong?

Che Guevara and Gandhi both had similar agendas. In their own time, they were both fighting for freedom. One chose guerilla warfare while the other chose civil disobedience. Depending on whom you asked, they were both right and wrong, which then makes the asking of this question futile. The important point to note is that they were both successful in their objectives. Cuba became the socialist country Che dreamed of and India became the independent country that Gandhi longed for.

There are therefore different definitions of the same thing and if we were to embrace democracy and all it stands for, we have to accept the differing values of everyone whether or not we agree with them. Everyone has a say. It is precisely to safeguard the preferences of all citizens that the concepts of proportionate representation and its variants were formulated (see Proportional Representation).

At this point in time, opposition parties in Singapore are very much viewed as the underdog. We are still entrenched in a dominant one party rule, which makes the necessity of proportionate representation moot at present. But as Singapore matures, there will come a time when we would have to protect the interests of those who are neither with us nor against us.

Democracy in its evolved form recognises that there are many ways to reach a goal and seeks to give everyone a voice. More than anything, democracy advocates compromise.

Freedom Speech

Freedom of speech is a loaded phrase. Racists, terrorists and respected activists alike, have cited it. Indeed it has been used in so many varied situations that for it to have any real meaning or practical significance, we have to deconstruct and redefine it.

Does freedom of speech mean the ability to say whatever one wants without regard? That is certainly what Julian Assange believes in but it is by no means uncontroversial. Does freedom of speech mean the right to say whatever one wants within preset boundaries? Many liberal countries the world over permit this form of freedom of speech. For instance, many European countries criminalise anti Semitist speech despite embracing “freedom of speech”. The flipside is that some countries have used preset boundaries as a means to repress the populace.

Personally, I believe that freedom of speech is the right to make responsible statements. If statements are made with malicious intent to stir up racist sentiments or incite violent behavior, this right must be curtailed. Needless to say, “responsibility” should not be misused to curtail robust political debate but should only be limited to speech of the most heinous kind, such as those of religious fanatics who incite murder.

Again, like the concept of democracy, there isn’t a straightforward right or wrong.

We need to be open to the views of our fellow citizens and encourage all forms of “responsible” speech. It is beside the point whether we agree or not. It is only in open discussion that we can achieve the best possible balance.