Freedom of expression – a struggle by us, and with us

People walk past mock gravestone during protest against new licensing regulations in SingaporeBy Howard Lee

The recent lecture and discussion featuring journalism professor Cherian George, blogger Alex Au and film-maker Ken Kwek, “Deliberating the Freedom of Expression in Singapore”, could not have brought together a panel that is more experienced on the subject matter, and clearly their animated take on this nagging issue was well placed.

As a strong advocate on the need of a free press and even laws that protect our right to information and free speech, I needed very little convincing from the panel. However, I could not help feeling at the end of the session that we have not really made much progress, in spite of the good brains we have on the matter.

None of this foreboding had to do with George’s remarkably succinct lecture, which opened with a clear outlook that immediately set the context right: The need to put an immediate end to the popular misconception that freedom of expression is a “selfish and irresponsible right” and to instead think of ways where the conditions under which we navigate this freedom can be managed sensibly, rather than choke it to death.

Neither has it to do with the accounts of the panellists, who willingly poured out their valid concerns, stripes earned by navigating the treacherous civic and political landscapes in Singapore, had their noses bloodied and lived to help point the way forward.

In fact, George’s excellent wrap of the event pointed to both the urgency that face Singapore, as well as on whom the responsibility of securing freedom of expression lies: All of us. George likened freedom of expression to a muscle that all of us have to exercise or risk losing altogether. The more we defer to the authorities to manage our public sensibilities and decorum, the less we will have of it left eventually. As such, “why not give the public sphere a chance?” challenged George.

Perhaps the question has less to do with why, but who.

LKY media freedom quoteThe panel had rightly picked up two current examples that typified Singapore’s dismal standing in freedom of expression. Both Roy Ngerng and Amos Yee have had their freedom of expression curtailed, and both suffered it at the hands of the State.

However, the reason for their demise – members of the public who have so bought into the government’s narrative of irresponsible free speech that they became complicit in denigrating them or handing them over to the authorities – is slightly at odds with what actually happened to them.

Ngerng’s libel suit, brought upon him by one Prime Minister, also bore witness to a ground-breaking crowd-funder that saw him reach out to hundreds of Singaporeans, who helped him raise more than $100,000 for his legal fees in a matter of days. Yee, charged with crimes of obscenity and insulting Christians for posting a video that castigated the late former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, had no less than 30 police reports made against him, yet had thousands of Christians sign a petition claiming “no offence” and calling for his release.

Hence, the view that Singaporeans need to protect their freedom of expression by letting go of their reverence of the government is actually not proven in the examples cited.

Instead, what we see are the poles of society slugging it out. Those who would defend to the death the primacy of the government would continue to face off with a growing number of those who would not take lightly what they perceive to be the bullying tactics or social injustice wrought by the government. It would be naive of us to think that we can convert the first group, who are nevertheless not that numerous, even if the potency of their actions are a concern.

freedom of speechIndeed, what could have saved Ngerng and Yee is not getting a bunch of hyper-sensitive people to pull back and think straight. Rather, what is needed is a fair bit of level-headedness among regular folk, a culture where it is okay to speak up even for extreme views.

In cases of transgressions to freedom of speech, the issue is not that too many Singaporean side with the authorities, or too few side with those who seek change. The issue is that too many don’t care.

It could be out of fear, indifference towards that which bring immediate economic prosperity, or simply a lack of awareness about the issue. Or it could even be reluctance among those in society who are in positions of power to influence a change, who for their own reasons do not see it as something critical for them to champion.

But its natural flow, freedom of expression in Singapore will not become a reality unless the laws of repression are removed, which will not happen unless the political elite is motivated to do so, which again will not happen unless the public motivates them to or give them any reason to believe that a compromise I acceptable.

Yet, the public will only do so when they feel the threat of some loss, to galvanise them into action. That has been the basis of Singapore’s progress, and that remains our stimuli.

What loss can there possibly from losing our freedom of expression? It is not just about losing our right to speak or to hear others speak. It is about losing our right to know.

Without freedom of expression, there would be only one, if any, source of information. There would be no alternative view, no differences in opinion. You would not even be able to check with your neighbour if a particular government policy feels right – there would be no point in discussing, as all that you both know come from the same source. The scariest bit is that you might not even know the difference in such a dystopian society, nor know of any other rights you deserve.

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.

Fantasy, or does it sound familiar already?

We can either just hope that it remains a fantasy, or do something to make sure it will never come to pass. It is a task that only we can execute, to which we cannot entrust even the most benevolent of governments.

As such, defending free speech is not just the job of activists, journalists and content creators. It is the job of every individual in society to share such information, to keep every single door to information open, for as long as possible. It is a battle by us, but also a battle within us, to care more than we think we possibly should about our right to know.

Fighting for freedom of speech is such that, if we keep thinking it is someone else’s problem, eventually it will become ours, and ironically we won’t even know it is a problem.

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