Saturday, February 16, 2008

"GIVE ME FREEDOM OR ... I'LL TAKE IT ANYWAY"

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.

45 comments:

jonty said...

The speech privacy system used in Singapore reflects towards societies with a deep tradition of free speech which remind their people that this individual human right is secured for its value to society. The young Singaporeans now a days are coming out with their own thoughts and new ideas. Looking forward to listen a lot about speech privacy again and again.

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Melissa said...

Cherian,

While I find your blog to be mainly accurate and share the same views with you, I somewhat disagree with your take on the capabilities of the Internet in Singapore. I’d like to agree with you when you say “Socially irresponsible expression on the internet is precisely what should nudge Singapore towards a rights-based perspective on free speech”, but I think the word “nudge” might be too strong.
In an interview regarding the state of democracy in Singapore, Garry Rodan (a professor in politics and international studies at the School of Social Sciences and Humanities) was asked whether he thought the Internet could bring political change. He replied:
“Unless the Internet is being harnessed by or to the development of collective organisational activity it will have a limited significance for political change. Individuals may be able to criticise the Government or raise some good ideas. But without a capacity to convert this into political mobilisation in support of concrete reform programmes it will pose little threat to the ruling party.”
Between both of your opinions, I find my own. Yes, the Internet provides a great means of expression, but saying that it can have such an effect on the actual government we see in Singapore may not be so realistic. Using the Internet is a form of political participation that, to be honest, the majority of Singaporeans will not partake in. How many will access the thousands of blogs and articles posted by the hundreds of people who are legitimately concerned enough with the PAP’s censorship? What percentage will look towards the Internet as a form of emotional release or even possible action? And with the recognition of how unthreatening the Internet currently is, the Singaporean government attempts to use the freeness of the Internet in their favor, to make them look more liberal and fair. As quoted from your previous blog, Mr. Lee KY says in his shallow claim to legitimacy, “"We have created a society which is totally educated. You are all able to go on the Internet. So all this censorship and so on makes no sense to me. You are on the Internet 24 hours, broadband. We’re going to have Wi-Fi throughout the whole city. We cannot stop this. If we stop this, we stop the progress. We are marginalised.”
So yes, like you previously stated, the increase in the vocal population may be an “unintended negative consequence” of being technologically advanced, but that’s not something you will here the Singaporean government openly state anytime soon. As for the Internet being an eventual gateway to a new and fair Singapore, I think it’s more likely to be used as the government's claim to be have more democratic and liberal values.

murugesan said...

Hi Cherian

Not so much a comment but a series of queries.
Is more room given to free speech when it adds value?
Is the nation-state a relevant entity in defining those values?
Is the nation-state the only definer?
Are liberal values the optimal target?
Does fair, open and democratic mean a mirror-image of a neo-liberal capitalist model elsewhere?
I'd argue that the internet may devalue the role of mainstream media if the concept of multilateral governance is not taken seriously in S'pore. Change is inevitable, just not the form and shape that adheres to a particular model. Change to local laws will come through transnational agreements (eg FTA and the need to ratify Rights) but via monitoring mechanisms like Human Rights Watch too. Finally, I am reminded of a line former president Devan Nair (I think) used: Socialism we can use. Perhaps it's essential to ask what do we really want to be before we embark on a debate of what we are not.

Melvin Singh

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For me this is the first time to read a Singi blog.

Heavens, do you in Singa always get such a lot of spam in responses? I've never seen that before (in Malaysia and Indonesia).

So much for "free speech".

One could hypothesize that the spam was government orchestrated to frustrate calls for free speech. Would they really bother to go that far?

I am often amazed by how far governments in Asia go in trying to stop the unstoppable. I'm also quite amazed by how effective they are in doing that.

But!

Freedom of speech in Europe and the US is not doing well either. Apparently guns and knives are still needed by people to make their point. Reason isn't what drives a lot of people, but instead emotion is very powerful.

In fact, democracy isn't doing well.

Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia supposedly are democratic countries. They are only single loop democracies where the majority vote determines what the minority should do. In double loop democracies, minorities are just as powerful, perhaps even more powerful. In such cases, majorities take care of minorities because they are minorities, not despite of...

Double loop democracies aren't doing well. They require a lot of patience and heavy sharing, lots of trust in government and media. Few countries seem to be able to maintain that trust, although economically they are richer than ever ever EVER before.

In short, I understand the Singapore government's position. It is fully based on a single loop democracy. The "Father-Child" model, rather than the community model.

Ironic that countries like Malaysia and Singapore are so vehemently anti-communist, considering that their media policies are anti-community.

Then again, a lot of your media strategies are developed by media spin doctors like Weber Shandwick and the likes. Media strategies? Hmmm, what about your country strategies?

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