By Aloysius Chia
In lieu of the recent contempt of court case regarding Alex Au, a prominent blogger who has written many articles about social issues, some might say that this is another blow to socio-political discourse. Such incidences are always significant for their ability not just to assert the authority of the judiciary, which says it is doing it on the basis of defending its legitimacy, but also acts as a symbol for the boundaries of speech.
But why should we feel piqued that such cases are still recurring, among others such as Leslie Chew and other political figures and newspapers?
Legal details aside, there are many levels in which a particular speech or outline of text may be interpreted as being within the conditions of legality. However, such cases cannot be viewed as merely in the context of the cases or the courts alone.
Like any law that has its prescriptions relate to outside society, such as the laws that govern punishment for criminal offenses or businesses, it has larger repercussions that affect the societal function or guidelines concerning its values. What judgement are decided upon the outcome of cases asserts expectations of what it can do in the future, which in turn affect the perceptions of the general public.
Although the value of freedom of speech are still very much debated, and highly controversial in countries where liberal democracy is not the prevailing political system, there is very good reason to think why any democracy will need it for it to function properly.
Without a diverse polity of voices, there will not only be the obvious problem of instances where the internal feelings of different people are hidden, there is the more important problem of public conversations being skewered in a certain unnatural manner. This, even as society becomes more fragmented by economic change, with its increasing specialization and diversification.
Even among people who seem related in terms of education or profession may have very different points of views. The computer scientist will see things very differently from a doctor, and the taxi driver different from the hawker. The purposes of having a diverse landscape for varying discourses is that, as much as having an uncharted media or public landscape is messy and untidy, it helps to allow all the dirty resentments and unreasonable parts of speech be mediated by rationality.
Although this does not always happen, it is always better than having these resentments float and seen than being kept beneath the perceived system, which will foster accusations of unfairness, overhanded-ness and ineffectiveness. It diminishes the perception of justice in the eyes of the public.
Each time a rabid advocate is addressed in reply it strengthens the ability of the government to deal with the most seemingly rational but biased critics, and to show that its efforts to address the general resentment are examples of how it takes its policies seriously and how confident it believes in it.
In stretching the allowance of the political landscape to extend itself to its most ardent voice or opposition, it allows it to be able to be flexible and malleable to changes as the social landscape changes, while allowing for more opportunities for discourses to check themselves, debate the most unreasonable proponents, allow for more people to participate for what they feel is at stake.
For let’s look ahead, there is no guarantee that the current order of ‘consensus’ will continue to hold true in the future. Things may change, the political landscape may change. If the political landscape changes judicial appointments will shape the decision making process and interpretation of legal matters. In that situation the public will be faced with a different set of basis on which to perceive what they hold to be objective.
Disclaimer – This letter does not represent the stance of TOC or of any editoral position.