Dou­ble stan­dards

Singapore's hate speech laws could be do­ing more harm than good

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - By Kirsten Han

The tra­di­tional Chi­nese Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Tem­ple, sit­u­ated near the city cen­tre, is one of Singapore’s most vis­ited. Peo­ple flock to it daily in the be­lief that pray­ing to the God­dess of Mercy brings good for­tune. Many devo­tees also stop at the Hindu Sri Kr­ish­nan tem­ple right next door to light joss sticks; it hap­pens so of­ten that the Hindu tem­ple’s man­age­ment have erected an al­tar to the God­dess of Mercy by their en­trance.

It’s a scene that’s sym­bolic of the re­li­gious di­ver­sity among the 5.7 mil­lion peo­ple of dif­fer­ent races, re­li­gions, na­tion­al­i­ties and back­grounds crammed onto a tiny is­land. In 2014, the Pew Re­search Cen­tre ranked Singapore as the most re­li­giously di­verse coun­try in the world.

Mak­ing sure that ev­ery­one gets along presents unique chal­lenges, and in Singapore the gov­ern­ment and courts have a broad set of tools os­ten­si­bly fit for this pur­pose, in­clud­ing laws meant to pre­vent hate speech and even hurt feel­ings. How­ever, sim­mer­ing ten­sion over how those laws are ap­plied – or not – came to a boil in March when teenage blog­ger Amos Yee was given po­lit­i­cal asy­lum in the US af­ter a court there ruled that he had been sub­jected to po­lit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion.

Yee first shot to fame in 2015 when, shortly af­ter the pass­ing of Singapore’s first prime min­is­ter and found­ing fa­ther, Lee Kuan Yew, he re­leased a YouTube rant tar­get­ing the rev­ered el­der statesman – with swipes at Chris­tian­ity thrown in for good mea­sure. He also pub­lished a blog post with a car­toon of Lee in an ex­plicit sex­ual po­si­tion with the late Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Margaret Thatcher. All this got the then-16-year-old ar­rested, kick­start­ing a process that ended with a sen­tence of four weeks’ im­pris­on­ment for “wound­ing re­li­gious feel­ings” and distribut­ing ob­scene con­tent.

Shel­ley Thio, a hu­man rights ac­tivist who has sup­ported Yee dur­ing both his prose­cu­tions, told South­east Asia Globe that while she didn’t al­ways agree with his ac­tions, she felt it was im­por­tant to up­hold the prin­ci­ple of free speech.

“He shouldn’t have been charged to be­gin with,” she said. “When he was charged it wasn’t for hate speech, it was po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated be­cause of Lee Kuan Yew. And they gave him very heavy penal­ties for a first of­fence.”

The whole saga re­peated it­self the fol­low­ing year, when Yee was con­victed once more for mak­ing com­ments against Chris­tian­ity and Is­lam, such as: “With all due re­spect, Chris­tians, you can shove that faith up your ass. Faith! Faith! I’d be damned at this re­tar­da­tion of hu­man­ity. F**k you, Chris­tian shits.”

The state has not shied away from tak­ing on cases where it deems speech to be ‘di­vi­sive’ or hate­ful. An imam from In­dia was fined about $2,900 and de­ported in early April for mak­ing con­tro­ver­sial com­ments about Chris­tians and Jews dur­ing one of his Fri­day ser­mons. Stern warn­ings were also is­sued to univer­sity pro­fes­sor Syed Muham­mad Khairudin Alju­nied, who ex­pressed sup­port on Face­book for the ser­mon, and to Ter­ence Nu­nis for putting the video of the ser­mon on­line. The po­lice said that Nu­nis had bro­ken the law by mak­ing the video pub­lic, rather than re­port­ing it to the author­i­ties.

Yee’s case, how­ever, drew new lev­els of crit­i­cism from hu­man rights and freespeech groups around the world; crit­i­cism that was val­i­dated when a US im­mi­gra­tion court judge granted Yee asy­lum at the end of March.

The re­sponse from the Sin­ga­porean es­tab­lish­ment was one of de­fen­sive out­rage. The US “al­lows such hate speech un­der the rubric of free­dom of speech”, the Min­istry of Home Af­fairs said in a terse state­ment. “Singapore takes a very dif­fer­ent ap­proach. Any­one who en­gages in hate speech or at­tempts to burn the Qur’an, Bi­ble, or any re­li­gious text in Singapore, will be ar­rested and charged.”

The gov­ern­ment was backed by both the Law So­ci­ety and the As­so­ci­a­tion of Crim­i­nal Lawyers of Singapore (ACLS), groups who rep­re­sent the le­gal fra­ter­nity in the coun­try. “Sin­ga­pore­ans jeal­ously guard the mul­tira­cial, mul­ti­cul­tural and multi-re­li­gious har­mony that we have. When an­ti­so­cial mis­cre­ants share their views with a view to in­cite hate, we fully back the ef­forts of the At­tor­ney-Gen­eral’s Cham­bers to pros­e­cute and hope­fully re­ha­bil­i­tate such in­di­vid­u­als,” Su­nil Sud­heesan, the pres­i­dent of the ACLS, wrote in a let­ter pub­lished in the

Straits Times.

Yet many ar­gue that Yee’s ac­tions did not meet the stan­dard def­i­ni­tion of hate speech, which usu­ally re­quires the speaker to en­cour­age caus­ing harm to oth­ers. The teenager was charged un­der a sec­tion of the Singapore Pe­nal Code that deals with the “de­lib­er­ate in­ten­tion of wound­ing the re­li­gious or ra­cial feel­ings of any per­son” – a far lower bar than in­cit­ing vi­o­lence or dis­crim­i­na­tion against any par­tic­u­lar group.

“The post-hoc claim that Yee was guilty of ‘hate speech’ – com­ing not just from the gov­ern­ment but, more dis­ap­point­ingly, from a crim­i­nal lawyers’ as­so­ci­a­tion – may score po­lit­i­cal points with con­ser­va­tives, but it’s not dis­pas­sion­ate le­gal anal­y­sis,” said Che­rian Ge­orge, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Hong Kong Bap­tist Univer­sity and au­thor of Hate Spin: The Man­u­fac­ture of Re­li­gious Of­fense and its Threat to Democ­racy.

While Singapore has laws specif­i­cally crim­i­nal­is­ing in­cite­ment, there is also leg­is­la­tion out­law­ing a wider range of speech through broader terms such as pro­mot­ing “feel­ings of ill-will and hos­til­ity be­tween dif­fer­ent races or classes”, as writ­ten in the Sedi­tion Act. In 2015, a hus­band-and-wife team were charged with sedi­tion for ar­ti­cles on their web­site The Real Singapore. One ar­ti­cle, for ex­am­ple, falsely claimed that a scuf­fle that took place at a pro­ces­sion dur­ing the Hindu fes­ti­val of Thai­pusam had been sparked by a Filipino fam­ily, play­ing on anti-im­mi­grant sen­ti­ments in Singapore.

When such cases get to court, de­cid­ing what has or hasn’t crossed into il­le­gal ter­ri­tory can get fuzzy. Dur­ing the trial, the pros­e­cu­tion pro­duced on­line com­ments from peo­ple who were in­fu­ri­ated by the ar­ti­cles, ev­i­dence that they said sup­ported al­le­ga­tions that the cou­ple had caused “feel­ings of ill will and hos­til­ity”.

“When it’s so broad, how do you prove it?” asked Priscilla Chia, who as­sisted the cou­ple’s de­fence team as a trainee lawyer. “It’s a very fine line and you don’t know when it’s ac­tu­ally crossed.”

The ex­is­tence of such broad leg­is­la­tion means that the sys­tem is vul­ner­a­ble to abuses of power, said Thio. “We can see from their past ac­tions that they have used leg­is­la­tion against peo­ple who op­pose or crit­i­cise their poli­cies. I strongly ad­vo­cate for free speech, be­cause I think gov­ern­ments in power can abuse these in­stru­ments against its own peo­ple.”

While there are those who say all these laws are nec­es­sary to pre­serve so­cial har­mony be­tween the many groups rep­re­sented in the city-state, there are other seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tion ask­ing why the laws don’t seem to ap­ply to them.

“It is not un­usual for the LGBT com­mu­nity in Singapore to ex­pe­ri­ence hate speech in dif­fer­ent con­texts, most no­tably on so­cial me­dia, through com­ments made by in­di­vid­u­als, and in pub­lic state­ments by in­flu­en­tial newsmakers, such as politi­cians or re­li­gious lead­ers,” said Leow Yangfa, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of coun­selling or­gan­i­sa­tion Oo­gachaga.

In 2014, the afore­men­tioned univer­sity pro­fes­sor Syed Muham­mad Khairudin Alju­nied pub­lished a Face­book post liken­ing ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity to “dis­eases”, adding: “We will stop these can­cers in their tracks!” While

The post-hoc claim that Yee was guilty of ‘hate speech’ – com­ing not just from the gov­ern­ment but, more dis­ap­point­ingly, from a crim­i­nal lawyers’ as­so­ci­a­tion – may score po­lit­i­cal points with con­ser­va­tives, but it’s not dis­pas­sion­ate le­gal anal­y­sis”

his more re­cent re­li­gion-re­lated com­ments led to his sus­pen­sion from the Na­tional Univer­sity of Singapore and a stern warn­ing from the author­i­ties, his com­ments about ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity only re­sulted in him be­ing coun­selled by the univer­sity for “provoca­tive, in­ap­pro­pri­ate and of­fen­sive lan­guage”.

In Novem­ber 2016, Bryan Lim Sian Yang, a 36-year-old cor­po­rate con­sul­tant, was fined $2,500 for threat­en­ing to “open fire” on the LGBT com­mu­nity in the af­ter­math of the shoot­ing at a gay club in Florida. It was a rare case of pros­e­cu­tion for vi­o­lent speech against LGBT peo­ple in Singapore but was seen by many as largely sym­bolic, as he dodged a far more se­ri­ous charge of en­cour­ag­ing vi­o­lence, which could have earned him a five-year prison sen­tence.

“Within the lo­cal LGBT com­mu­nity at least, there seems to be an un­der­stand­ing that there is no avail­able pro­tec­tion against ho­mo­pho­bic and trans­pho­bic hate speech,” said Leow.

Rev­erend Miak is the ex­ec­u­tive pas­tor of the Free Com­mu­nity Church, which op­er­ates un­der the slo­gan “Wel­come Home”, en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple from di­verse back­grounds to join in its ac­tiv­i­ties. For him, Singapore’s tight grip on speech does the op­po­site of pro­tect­ing so­ci­ety.

“By putting har­mony as the ul­ti­mate goal in so­ci­ety, we have only quelled or si­lenced the dis­agree­ments but not re­solved them,” Siew said. “And that builds a very in­se­cure so­ci­ety.”

“How do you in­oc­u­late peo­ple from bad ideas?” he added. “You teach them how to rea­son, you teach them dif­fer­ent ar­gu­ments, you let them see things in a cer­tain way,” he added. “Al­low­ing all these things into the pub­lic square ac­tu­ally al­lows peo­ple to see more than one per­spec­tive, and gets them trained to weigh things against each other. But by ban­ning it, you’re driv­ing it un­der­ground.”

As a pas­tor and LGBT rights ad­vo­cate, Siew is fa­mil­iar with how a lack of re­course has pushed LGBT Sin­ga­pore­ans to rely on other meth­ods out­side of­fi­cial re­course to deal with prej­u­dice and dis­cord: “Maybe it’s be­cause we have no choice but to live with it,” he said. “Well, we learn to en­gage in other ways. We learn to en­gage in di­a­logue or de­bate.”

Ge­orge, whose book ex­plores the reg­u­la­tion of hate speech in the US, In­dia and In­done­sia, points out that Singapore isn’t alone in hav­ing laws that go be­yond hate speech to crim­i­nalise in­sult. “In most coun­tries, such pro­hi­bi­tions in­vari­ably back­fire, be­cause the hurt­ing of feel­ings is in­her­ently sub­jec­tive,” he said. “So the law gets weaponised by the most in­tol­er­ant seg­ments of so­ci­ety – the op­po­site ef­fect of pro­mot­ing tol­er­ance and har­mony.”

Ul­ti­mately, Thio feels there should be more trust in the peo­ple to make up their own minds: “We are in­tel­li­gent peo­ple, and we can de­cide what’s right and what’s wrong if we’re fully in­formed, in­stead of be­ing fed the in­for­ma­tion [the gov­ern­ment] wants to feed us.”

Within the lo­cal LGBT com­mu­nity at least, there seems to be an un­der­stand­ing that there is no avail­able pro­tec­tion against ho­mo­pho­bic and trans­pho­bic hate speech”

Op­po­site page: Amos Yee leaves court with his par­ents af­ter his sen­tenc­ing on 16 July 2015 (top); rep­re­sen­ta­tives of var­i­ous re­li­gious faiths bless the race­track of the For­mula 1 Grand Prix in Singapore on 12 Septem­ber 2013 (bottom)

Op­po­site page, clock­wise from top left: rev­erend Miak Siew de­liv­ers a ser­mon at the Free Com­mu­nity Church; the view from the bal­cony at Dorothy’s, a bar in Chi­na­town; an ad on the wall of a bar; a man lights in­cense in prayer out­side the Sri Kr­ish­nan...

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