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CHERIAN GEORGE

Published in The Straits Times on 3 December 2011.

With the power to release private thoughts into public space in a heartbeat, the internet has allowed individuals to share ideas like never before. That, unfortunately, includes some thoughts that would have been better kept leashed in the backyards of people’s minds. 

In recent weeks, a series of offensive online messages violated the spirit of mutual respect that is rightly cherished as part of Singapore’s multi-religious identity. 

It is not the first time that hateful online speech has made headlines, and it won’t be the last. Religion matters deeply to most Singaporeans – both those who want their faith to have a greater role in their private and public lives as well as those who believe that some religions have grown too powerful. People will want to speak out on these issues, and the internet provides an undiscriminating forum for all to do so. 

Globalisation complicates the situation: instead of expressing themselves in ways that are sensitive to local norms, people find it convenient to copy-and-paste words and images from other contexts, causing unnecessary offence. 

Contending values

Singapore is not alone in grappling with such issues. Globally, there has been a protracted debate over how best to balance freedom of expression with freedom from discrimination. Hate speech grows out of the former and threatens the latter, which is why it poses a unique challenge for democratic societies – we are dealing with two values, liberty and equality, that are equally precious. 

Freedom of speech and freedom from discrimination are both enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as in most democratic constitutions. Different societies tend to attach different weights to them. 

The most extreme form of hate speech – incitement to genocide – poses no legal dilemmas. There is a broad consensus that speech that instigates mass killing can claim no free speech protection. Indeed, international law requires the state to protect minorities from such incitement.

Thus, after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, two directors of the RTLM radio station that had directed violence against Tutsis were sent to jail by the international criminal tribunal. Free speech groups welcomed the action.

What is more contentious internationally is whether governments should intervene long before the final straw breaks the camel’s back. Ethnic violence takes years to develop, gradually escalating from reasonable-sounding racism to the point where people follow orders to kill their neighbours.

American First Amendment jurisprudence is so protective of robust public debate that it refuses to let the government restrict free speech except when this is necessary to prevent imminent physical harm. European courts are not so insistent on a tight causal link between speech and violence. They tend to allow governments to intervene to protect a culture of tolerance and non-discrimination, provided they can show that such restriction serves a legitimate social purpose and is necessary and proportionate. 

For example, one member of the extreme-right British National Party was convicted of a public order offence after displaying in his window a poster with the words, “Islam out of Britain – Protect the British People”, over a picture of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. In 2004, the European Court of Human Rights stated that the British courts’ ruling did not violate the European Convention. The poster’s content was incompatible with the Convention’s values of “tolerance, social peace and non-discrimination”, the European Court said.

In general, though, the European Court has upheld the liberal principle that no group in a democratic society, including any religious community, should expect legal protection from shocking or offensive speech. 

For more than a decade, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) tried lobbying for just such protection. It sought support from the United Nations General Assembly for “defamation of religion” or blasphemy to be added to the categories under which states could legitimately restrict free speech under international law, along with national security, public order and so on. The idea has intuitive appeal for those who believe that religion is not to be trifled with.

Counter-productive

But banning religious insult is ultimately counter-productive. First, it puts governments in the untenable position of ruling on theological matters. One group’s creed is another’s heresy. Fierce conflicts have tended to occur between different branches of the same religion, over what to outsiders seem like minor doctrinal differences. 

A secular state in a multi-religious society that tries to decide on what constitutes blasphemy would quickly demolish its own legitimacy. Even the OIC changed tack this year, tabling a UN resolution on combating religious intolerance that dropped its previous calls for laws to prohibit defamation of religions. It was passed by the UN Human Rights Council.

Second, those most likely to cry “blasphemy” are the least tolerant members of each religious community. Very quickly, such laws would allow the most dogmatic and extreme spokesmen to set the tone for the rest.

Note that if giving offence is sometimes part of a deliberate campaign of hate, so is taking offence. Often, what looks like spontaneous and visceral reactions to hate speech – angry demonstrations and so on – are orchestrated by activists who spot a political advantage in an outpouring of religious rage.

This has happened next door in Malaysia, where mobs have succeeded in getting the police to stop peaceful inter-faith meetings, claiming that such dialogue has outraged their religious feelings.

Such subjective laws can also be wielded as handy weapons in political conflicts. Consider Thailand’s lèse-majesté law. It was intended to protect the revered monarchy, but since anyone can lodge a complaint, the law has been used by political operatives to hit out at their foes. Almost 500 cases were brought before the lower courts last year.

While Singapore’s political scene is nowhere as contentious as Thailand’s, it is worth noting how swiftly the recent incidents were politicised. Much was made of the political party allegiances of two of the players involved – one linked to the ruling party and another to the opposition. It would be naïve to think that everyone who jumped on the bandwagon to debate these incidents was motivated solely by the need to protect Singapore’s inter-religious harmony. 

At least, though, the recent incidents suggest a vigilant online community. This is reassuring, since public watchfulness is ultimately the best protection against any pollution of Singapore’s culture of tolerance. 

More worrying is the public’s automatic reliance on the police – making police reports has become the standard response to offensive speech. When even cyberspace – normally the last place you would expect to see calls for strong government – is full of postings asking the police to investigate, you have to wonder if Singaporeans are over-dependent on the authorities for maintaining social peace. 

It is reminiscent of one of the more pathetic sights in professional football: players surrounding the referee after an opponent has committed a foul, imploring him to wave the red card. It is a practice that does nothing to cultivate a spirit of sportsmanship.

After last year’s case of the Christian pastor who insulted Taoist and Buddhist beliefs, the government was asked in Parliament to give “a stronger and clearer signal for every breach”. The Home Affairs Minister at the time, Mr K. Shanmugam, demurred, noting that disagreements should be “mediated or resolved on the ground through common sense, and moral suasion using the collective efforts of the community, grassroots and religious leaders”.

Singaporeans’ weak civic responses and an over-reliance on the law may be an unintended consequence of successful inculcation of a key government doctrine: that only a strong state can deal with the visceral pulls and permanent fault lines of race and religion. Distrusting citizens’ ability to talk through differences, some Singaporeans seem trigger-happy in their zeal to police the frontiers of religious harmony. 

Many posts that criticise a religion are probably not worth bothering about, especially if they come from random individuals with no standing in the community. The need for whistle-blowing increases in proportion with the speaker’s influence, with community leaders and public officials requiring the most careful scrutiny.

If the editor of a website or the head of an organisation engages in insensitive speech, there are many ways to enforce societal norms without resorting to the law. One could simply publicise the breach or organise a boycott until the speaker grovels in contrition – or explains his pure motives to the aggrieved party’s satisfaction.

Regardless of how the law responds, Singaporeans can expect to see more instances of religiously offensive speech online. We should think of more creative ways to respond than to rush to the referee, flapping our imaginary red cards.