Saturday, February 16, 2008


Freedom of expression, although recognised as a right in Singapore’s Constitution, has never really been held in high regard here. It is treated as a highly conditional right, which in effect means that it is not a right at all, but a kind of privilege or favour extended by the state to certain types of communication that meets whatever standards it chooses to impose. In Singapore, unlike liberal societies, there is certainly no wish to provide “freedom for the thought we hate” (to borrow the title of a new book on the First Amendment by Anthony Lewis).

The shenanigans of cyberspace have only served to harden conservative values. The alleyways of the internet reveal the vile, vulgar and venomous instincts that lie within human beings. Is any more proof required that a peaceful, harmonious society cannot afford to let these passions loose? Here, however, I would like to offer a counter-intuitive view: socially irresponsible expression on the internet is precisely what should nudge Singapore towards a rights-based perspective on free speech. There are three main points in this argument.

First, the internet means that the practical policy choice is no longer between freedom and non-freedom. The government has made it clear that censorship is no longer an option. Therefore the real choice is between freedom taken and freedom given. At present, Singapore falls squarely in the former category. Singaporeans know that the space they enjoy was not provided by socially recognised rights. Instead, they have simply seized the freedom provided by technologies that they acquire.

Second, freedoms seized in this manner are not burdened by any sense of social responsibility. Singaporeans exercising their freedom on the internet can tell themselves that it is their own individual cleverness that earned them this freedom. They bought their computers, subscribed for the internet, downloaded the programs and mustered the gumption.

It could be argued that the government contributed the infrastructure for internet access and the high quality education that makes Singaporeans so clever. However, the government has repeatedly said that such investments are primarily for economic development. It considers a more vocal population to be an unintended negative consequence of Singapore’s development. Therefore, members of such a population cannot be blamed for seeing their expression as private accomplishments, achieved in spite of their society, not because of it.

In contrast – this is the third point – societies with a deep tradition of free speech constantly remind their members that this individual human right is secured for its value to society. It is said, for example, that free speech has to be protected because “civilized society is a working system of ideas”. In the political culture of liberal societies, the moral basis of free speech is a profoundly social one. This is why, in the field of journalism, it is the free societies that have generated the most meaningful professional codes of ethics. Today, when journalists and journalism students in unfree societies need guidance on thorny ethical issues concerning, say, respect for privacy or dealing with children, they turn to literature developed by professional associations and news organizations operating in free societies. Their own industry is ethically untrained because they traditionally outsource moral judgments to the government.

Government dogma has divorced Singapore from a rich international current of discussion about free speech, its role in society and its limits. Singapore positions itself as an exceptional case that can learn nothing from this wider debate, yet none of Singapore’s concerns – about racial harmony, for example – are unique to Singapore, and all feature in the on-going global discussion. In the rhetoric that passes for debate in Singapore, the choices are polarised as “individual versus collective” or “freedom versus responsibility”, implying that free speech is inherently selfish and irresponsible. The danger now is that this may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By failing to enshrine free speech has a fundamentally social good, young Singaporeans are growing up seizing that freedom on their own terms, impervious to being lectured about their social obligations.