“Apologies have never absolved individuals of liability”: Lawyer explains why she declines to retract police report against SMRT Feedback by the Vigilanteh

Apologies have never absolved individuals of liability, as demonstrated in previous cases involving police reports made against high-profile figures who spoke up against discrimination against minorities in Singapore, said lawyer Syazana Yahya on Sunday (23 May).

Ms Syazana, who had recently ended her stint as partner at Eugene Thuraisingam LLP, made her remarks following an apology issued by ‘satirical’ Facebook page SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh over its now-deleted Facebook post published on Friday (21 May).

In the offending post, the page expressed support for the late Singaporean statesman Lee Kuan Yew’s views on being wary of placing Malay-Muslim Singaporeans in sensitive positions such as in the Air Force and Navy.

The Straits Times reported the former prime minister as saying in Sep 1999:

If, for instance, you put in a Malay officer who’s very religious and who has family ties in Malaysia in charge of a machine gun unit, that’s a very tricky business. We’ve got to know his background … I’m saying these things because they are real, and if I don’t think that, and I think even if today the Prime Minister doesn’t think carefully about this, we could have a tragedy.

Putting a Muslim Singaporean “in a sensitive position where he has to deal with Israeli tech”, which “he knows is the same tech that is used to lay siege on Palestine”, said SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh, would put him in a difficult predicament.

“Would he then bin laden with guilt? Would his responsibilities as a Singaporean be overridden by his duties as a Muslim?” the page questioned.

“Lee Kuan Yew wasn’t racist. He just didn’t want our Muslim countrymen to be put in a position where they have to decide between country and god. The best position is not having to decide at all,” SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh added.

Ms Syazana said that the offending post is seditious, as it “casts aspersions on a Singaporean Muslim’s loyalty to its nation”.

“It falsely suggests that when a Muslim person is in a war with a religious element, he/she will turn his/her back on Singapore,” she said.

Countering such an assertion, Ms Syazana stressed that a Muslim’s “primary obligation in Islam is towards his family and country”.

“However, a non-Muslim reading this post (who may not understand Islam) will likely believe this post to be true. That a Singaporean Muslim’s loyalty is questionable in times of war. That Singaporean Muslims are predisposed to be traitors.

“This is a blatant attempt to promote feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will by non-Muslims against Muslims. It is surely an offence under s 298A, Penal Code,” she said.

In her post on Saturday, Ms Syazana, in explaining why she has decided not to withdraw her police report against the page, said that Workers’ Party Member of Parliament (MP) Raeesah Khan “was flamed” during the last general election campaign period for her remarks on the Robertson Quay and the City Harvest Church incident.

The current Sengkang GRC MP, said Ms Syazana, had — in her social media posts that became the subject of police reports — “sought to highlight what she perceived to be discrimination against locals/minorities compared to elite groups”.

“Ms Raeesah put up a sincere apology. Nevertheless, the police investigated her for offences under s 298A of the Penal Code and issued a “stern warning” against Ms Raeesah,” said Ms Syazana.

The lawyer also highlighted an earlier case in which sibling duo of YouTube fame, Preeti Nair — known as Preetipls — and Subhas Nair were investigated over a satirical rap video they made and posted online in response to a racist “brownface” ad by e-payments company Nets.

“The siblings also posted up an unconditional apology. The police investigated this incident and issued a 2 year stern conditional warning to the siblings,” said Ms Syazana, adding that Nets was only given a stern reminder by IMDA and the police had taken “no further action” against them on the Attorney-General’s Chambers’ advice that no criminal offence was disclosed.

Ms Syazana pointed out that many Singaporeans, particularly from minority communities, were outraged by how in both cases, the individuals who spoke up against discrimination were subjected to police investigations for offences pertaining to racism instead.

“Nevertheless, many Singaporeans begrudgingly accepted the decision in hopes that if the tables were turned, and a racist comment was made against minority communities instead, the state machinery will clamp down on them as they did with Ms Raeesah and Preetipls,” she said.

“In my view, the actions of Ms Raeesah and Preetipls pales in comparison to that of SMRT Feedback, which associated Singaporean Muslims to an Al-Qaeda terrorist leader.”

While she was “happy” that SMRT Feedback by the Vigilanteh had apologised for its earlier post, Ms Syazana said that “apologies have never absolved individuals of liability and this case should not be an exception”.

One commenter said that an apology and a retraction are insufficient for a case potentially involving sedition, as “these two wrongs are markedly different”.

“In defamation, the words cause grieve to a person’s reputation. But, seditious remarks hurt a group of people and incite contempt for them.

“Thus, the cure for making any seditious remark cannot simply be an apology and retraction. It has to be more than that,” they said, lauding Ms Syazana’s decision to keep her police report intact.

“It now remains to see if the authorities would act appropriately,” said the commenter.

SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh’s apology receives further backlash from commenters

In its apology to the Muslim community in Singapore on Saturday, SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh said that its earlier offending post was not meant to “question the loyalty of Muslims in Singapore but to reaffirm a Muslim’s commitment to his religion”.

“The religion of Islam obligates the Muslim to obey the laws of the land and to stand up for the oppressed. This also means that even if Indonesia and Malaysia attacks, it is an obligation for Singaporean Muslims to protect their homeland and fellow Singaporeans,” said SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh.

Bringing into the picture a “religious and moral dilemma” of Singapore hypothetically ending up in the position of the oppressor, the page questioned: “[W]hat then becomes of the Singaporean Muslim?”

“Perhaps it was wishful thinking for me to think that the purported restrictions of Muslims in classified military units would absolve them of making the difficult decision to choose between God and Country.

“But I have come to realise that it is not fair to burden only the Singaporean Muslims with such a question because if Singapore is the oppressor, then in its precedent, the citizens (Muslims and Non-Muslims) are the ones responsible to change the system,” said SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh.

The follow-up post, however, garnered backlash from many commenters, stating that SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh’s views merely serve to perpetuate the same kind of prejudice against Malay-Muslim Singaporeans that has enabled policies restricting them from holding sensitive vocations in the Republic’s air force and Navy for decades.

“You masqueraded racism as a “balanced”, rational take, and your followers lapped it up as “hard truths”. You incite hatred and distrust, and you expect to be let off easy?” one commenter wrote.

Management consultancy firm founder Mohd Khair Bin Mohd Noor questioned why SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh must “cast aspersions” on Singapore’s closest neighbours when the city-state has built up “years of regional cooperation” with Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as other ASEAN countries.

“Being suspicious of our neighbours is a mindset whose seeds were planted by the Israelis when they became our military advisors, consultants and trainers,” he said.

While one commenter said that SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh’s post “held up a good argument for people to ponder on”, many were critical.

“It will no longer be an argument but a question of integrity to those working in the public sector, civil servants that are manning the borders, foreign embassies or those that are entrusted to deal with multi (million) dollar equipment right now,” said one commenter.

Another said in response to the original commenter: “Our lives are not thought experiments for people to ponder on. We have actual, lived experiences of distrust and hate. Of course it wasn’t unfair to *you*; this is a mere hypothetical argument to you.”

One commenter said that SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh’s now-removed post is unfair “not just to those who served” the nation in the armed forces, but also to “those who wanted to serve but were pushed aside because of this nonsense talk about our loyalty”.

One commenter concurred, saying that his father and some of his father’s friends were disappointed about not being allowed to enlist for National Service when they were young.

One commenter said that years ago, he was personally subject to such prejudice during a youth flying club interview with a panel of interviewers from a division of the armed forces, in which he was asked questions such as “are you a Muslim” and “would your religion prevent you from carrying out your duty” if he were to join the Air Force.

“Point is, even if the post did not surface, such mentality is still around in 2021,” they said.

In her Facebook post on Friday on why she had filed the police report, Ms Syazana also criticised the page’s attempt to link Muslim Singaporeans to terrorism in times of war through the reference of “bin laden”, which would objectively be understood to be a reference to the Al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden.

“Muslims already face unfair discrimination in many aspects of their life in Singapore. We have had our loyalty questioned many times, and we have had to fight hard to dispel the unfair assumptions that underlie these questions. Will Singaporean Muslims be loyal towards their country in times of war? Will Muslim nurses be impartial towards all patients if they start wearing the hijab? Does Islam support terrorism?

“These are questions based on erroneous assumptions of our religion, which advocates peace, loyalty and excellence in discharging our work responsibilities. This is our home, and is the only home we have ever known. Yet, many times it feels like we have to fight hard to justify our right to live and how we fit into the fabric of Singapore society,” she said.

 

The issue of the Singapore government harbouring suspicions towards the loyalty of its Malay-Muslim citizens was previously explored by academician Lily Zubaidah Rahim in her book Singapore in the Malay World: Building and Breaching Regional Bridges.

Dr Lily, a senior lecturer in Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney in Australia, observed that this perception germinated as early as the 1960s through the 1980s in the exclusion of Malays from even National Service.

Even when Malays are made to serve NS after the 1980s, Dr Lily noted that “recruitment of Malays into the SAF was virtually halted after 1967, even though Malays made up 80 per cent of volunteers in the armed services”.

Existing Malay officers were “systematically transferred from field command to logistics and support sections while others were retired or shut off from promotion”, she added.

Dr Lily also affirmed that “Malay participation in sensitive areas in the SAF such as armoury and tank units, frontline combat infantry and the airforce have been restricted”.

The first Malay pilot in the Air Force, noted Dr Lily, was only appointed in 1992, while the first Malay fighter pilot was only appointed slightly over a decade later in 2003.

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