Singapore, Let’s Talk About Free Speech – Divya Maniar, Singapore

The late founding father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, famously said:

“I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters – who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.”

These words, to some extent, reflect the government’s attitudes toward individual autonomy in Singapore. Essentially, it’s stressed that government intervention in personal matters is necessary for economic progress and development.

A highly divisive topic that comes up as a result of these attitudes is that of free expression. It is no secret that there’s censorship in Singapore. The Press Freedom Index, an annual report compiled by Reporters Without Borders, has ranked Singapore 154th out of 180 assessed nations. In terms of media freedom, Singapore finds herself placing below most other developed nations.

However, Singapore, as many would argue, has reasons for its approach to free expression. Take, for instance, the monitoring and censorship of comments and stories that involve race and religion. These measures prevent triggering remarks aimed at a race or religious group, and to this end, punish those who seek to offend. This, on one hand, could most definitely be seen as a curtailment of freedom of expression. Yet, this policy has had some visible positive effects. Before these government policies, Singapore had experienced racial and religious riots that threatened domestic safety and security.

However, things have changed. Singapore has arrived at a sustainable peace, having only had one race riot since 1969. This state of peacefulness is partly owed to policies that interfere with individual sovereignty, including policies that many would call “An attack on the freedom of speech”, and the freedom of assembly.  Freedoms can be abused, and free expression can birth slander. Similarly, free assembly can bring about violence. The law has done its part in curtailing such abuse.

The boundary Singapore sets on freedom is a double-edged sword. It allowed for the development of a more cohesive society, while taking away the right to speak completely freely, in order to weed out those who would abuse their right to freedom.

In recent years, however, Singapore’s approach has been called into question.

Amos Yee, a Singaporean teenager, is now a household name in the country for all the wrong reasons. Shortly after the death of Lee Kuan Yew, Yee uploaded a video entitled “Lee Kuan Yew is Finally Dead”. Understandably, this caused a bit of an uproar, and aggravated already emotional Singaporeans grieving the death of their founding father.  Yee was arrested later that month, and charged for remarks against Christianity, obscene images, as well as remarks which were “intended to be heard and seen by persons likely to be distressed”. This came after numerous police reports from understandably offended individuals.

His arrest caused a local, and international, media frenzy. The case of Amos Yee opened up a larger political dialogue regarding freedom in Singapore society.

Amos Yee’s predicament was not always met with sympathy and calls for leniency. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong remarked that “ability to exercise the freedom of expression comes with limits”. Indeed, it shouldn’t be forgotten that there were many Singaporeans, including commenters on Yee’s Youtube video, who’ve expressed that they agreed with the government’s decisions. Arguments that support the government’s stance highlight that fact that Yee did act against Singapore law, and must face the consequences of his actions, especially given the crude and malicious nature of Yee’s comments.

This issue, despite being seemingly small, has become a point of contention. It is now more than a debate regarding one boy’s right to making a Youtube video. The tricky issue of freedom streams into many facets of life as a Singaporean.

Amos Yee, after all, is just a teenager with a Youtube account. He should hardly be capable of inciting a race riot. “Yee’s arrest doesn’t just underscore his complaints about Singapore’s backwardness on rights and freedom. It shows the country’s dire need for cultural education through intelligent dissent,” writes Nathan Heller of The New Yorker. Proponents of similar opinions ask the question: should a government really be made insecure by one young boy’s opinion?

A “Free Amos Yee” protest in Singapore saw 500 people gathered to ask for the release of the young blogger. While not everybody agrees with Amos Yee’s opinions, many campaigned for the right to present a dissenting view, and to speak without fear of legal repercussion. (It’s worth noting the irony in this protest for freedom. It had to happen at Hong Lim Park, which is “the only venue in Singapore where public protest is allowed”, another instance of the nation’s curtailment of liberties.)

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Legislation regarding free expression made sense in the past, when tensions were high, and stability had not yet been achieved, in the small island nation. Now, Singapore is an educated and cosmopolitan society. One that, hopefully, should not be baited into disarray by the expression of dissenting views, even those as offensive as Yee’s.  

Has the time come for us to reopen the dialogue on freedom of expression?

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