Panel deliberates on free speech, insecurity and self-policing in Singapore

L-R: Cherian George, Alex Au, Ken Kwek and moderator Teo You Yenn.
L-R: Cherian George, Alex Au, Ken Kwek and moderator Teo You Yenn.
L-R: Cherian George, Alex Au, Ken Kwek and moderator Teo You Yenn.

By Kirsten Han

Freedom of expression in Singapore is not only repressed by the powerful, but also frowned upon by citizens and policed by individuals, said a panel at a free speech event on Saturday.

Cherian George, an associate professor in journalism at the Hong Kong Baptist University, gave a lecture on freedom of expression in Singapore at the Singapore Advocacy Award’s fundraising event Deliberating the Freedom of Expression in Singapore. He later also spoke on a panel with blogger Alex Au and journalist-turned-filmmaker Ken Kwek.

The event could not have been more apropos to current affairs making the headlines in the city-state; a three-day court hearing to assess the amount of damages blogger Roy Ngerng has to pay to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for defamation closed on Friday, while 16-year-old Amos Yee will likely be sentenced on Monday afternoon after being convicted of wounding religious feelings and distributing obscene material.

George asserted that Singapore “has by far the least freedom of expression” of all advanced industrial nations. Yet this dubious distinction has not been met by public pressure for change, mostly because Singaporeans themselves tend to see freedom of expression as a “selfish and socially irresponsible right.”

The actions (or lack thereof) of ordinary citizens was a common thread throughout the discussion. It was noted that Amos Yee had been arrested after over 30 police reports lodged by Singaporeans. Kwek said that his film Sex.Violence.FamilyValues had been banned in 2012 because of a complaint that led to official action.

“My concern… is the guy next door. He is the scariest to me now,” said Kwek.

Au suggested that the self-policing that many Singaporeans appear to undertake might stem from a feeling of deep insecurity. “When we feel insecure, whether as an officeholder in the state, or whether just ordinary people in communities in Singapore, when we feel insecure, we want that security of rules, controls and bans to keep us going,” he said.

In response to a question about trends related to defamation cases, George argued that the People’s Action Party traditionally went for the “big guns” such as international media and opposition politicians, and only takes serious action against lower-profile bloggers when they don’t “play ball”, as most commentators would generally comply with demand letters to take down posts and publish apologies.

Au felt that there has been a “tremendous amount of response to defamation suits” among Singaporeans, but that this response has manifested in the perpetuating of self-censorship.

He later argued that Singapore had got it backwards in defamation cases by maintaining that powerful individuals in positions of influence should receive higher damages over libel.

“The more powerful that person is, therefore the more levers he has to correct what damage, what injury he has suffered,” said Au. “And therefore the compensatory damages should be less, and therefore the bar should be set very high before defamation kicks in.”

In considering what can now be done to advance freedom of expression in Singapore, Kwek felt that this was a question everyone has to “keep agonising” over, and that it is only by practice that the principles of free speech will be instilled in society.

Speaking about the “freedom to hear”, Kwek emphasised that Singaporeans need to learn how to allow for the existence of different views, including those that one might not agree with.

“The political culture of Singapore is not entirely in the hands of the political leaders, but also in our hands,” George added, encouraging Singaporeans to talk and engage rather than appeal to the state apparatus to deal with unpopular opinions and content. “We can show the restraint we don’t see from our leaders.”

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