Freedom of Speech in Singapore: What Does It Entail?

Under Article 19 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Succinctly, Article 19 details that everyone has the right to freedom of speech.

But this concept has become a contested one in Singapore in recent years. Predominantly, the narrative has been that Singapore cannot be considered a democratic society due to the country’s restrictions on the freedom of speech.

Singaporean novelist and political commentator, Catherine Lim, had said of Singapore, “A democratic society is one that allows for opinions to be debated freely. Corporations and individuals should not feel criminalised for speaking against the government. However, when you consider the control that the government has over political associations, the Law Society and the use of political tools such as lawsuits against individuals with a different opinion, we cannot say our society is truly democratic.”

Many examples appear to support this narrative, such as the clampdowns on peaceful demonstrations calling for greater support for transgender students in Singapore institutions, the usage of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), and Singapore’s dismal ranking on the World Press Freedom Index (158 out of 180 countries, below countries like Russia and Myanmar).

But why does this matter? Why is it important to allow citizens freedom of speech? Our writers Kellynn and Ming En weigh in.

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1. What does freedom of speech mean to you? 

KELLYNN: For me, freedom of speech indicates the right for citizens to express their opinions without fear of reprisal. I’ll also add that there’s a distinction between freedom of speech and hate speech, which is speech that incites ill will, violence or discrimination on the basis of specific aspects of social identity (e.g. gender, sexuality, nationality, ethnicity, etc).

Of course, who gets to make this distinction –and the sort of punishment that should be meted to people who transgress this boundary, then comes under question. There’s a lot of talk nowadays about ‘cancel culture’, and how the anonymity afforded by the internet creates a mob that blots out alternative voices. 

Jon Ronson wrote a book about this topic, titled, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. It was about the people who have been pilloried on Twitter for insensitive tweets, chronicling the repercussions that have echoed through their lives, such as their difficulties in finding jobs or dates.

Ronson argues that people are disproportionately punished for what they say online, but I’m not so sure. Popular blogger Xiaxue came under fire for making racist and transphobic comments, but has legally pressured her main accusers into silence and retraction. She also continues to enjoy a significant platform. And male celebrities in Hollywood who have faced sexual assault allegations continue to be hired and featured in our entertainment landscape.

Any understanding of the entitlement of particular people to say particular things must also be connected with the distribution of power in society. What happens online is one facet of our discussions on freedom of speech, but it is the relationship of the citizen to the state that I’m more interested in. Xiaxue might have lost sponsorships, but she hasn’t been arrested, jailed, or fined for what she’s said – the way that people like activist Jolovan Wham has.

MING EN: While I generally do agree with Kellynn’s definition of freedom of speech, I also believe that freedom of speech has to happen within certain boundaries and parameters, as ironic as that may sound.

I’m of the mind that what individuals say should not be censored or controlled (hate speech aside), but how and where they say it should be to some extent. Proper avenues of discussions should be set up for individuals, especially those of minority groups, to voice their concerns and be heard.

Of course, how these boundaries are to be drawn and who should have a say in setting these boundaries are all points of discussion that need to happen between the state and its people.

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2. What do you think about Singapore’s current measures with regards to the freedom of assembly? (i.e. Rallies can only be held at the Speaker’s Corner with a permit) 

KELLYNN: I suppose free speech and freedom of assembly are related, though not the same thing.

Freedom of assembly in Singapore is an odd thing: a single-person demonstration, such as was organised by Seelan Palay in 2017 (who held up a mirror in front of Parliament House as a performance art piece), can be cause for arrest and/or imprisonment. And I learnt, from Kent Ridge: An Untold Story edited by Kelvin Y.L. Tan, that the National University of Singapore was built without any open spaces in order to suppress potential student demonstrations, so it goes beyond applications to protest at Hong Lim Park.

That we have to apply for permission to assemble peacefully is unusual, to say the least. Pink Dot has made it work, but that has taken mammoth effort and hard work, and the organisers have faced extensive restrictions and measures of surveillance despite the fact that Pink Dot is a well-oiled and very amiable machine at this point.

And the limits of peaceful assembly are shown with the #FixSchoolsNotStudents protest, which was a short-lived demonstration of five individuals standing outside the Ministry of Education holding placards to draw attention to how LGBTQ students have been failed by the school system.

When asked why they hadn’t used other avenues to register their discontent, the protestors responded that other avenues had not been successful. And it is true that the avenues available for political participation in Singapore are limited. The preferred style, from what I understand, is that of consultation with government bodies, the establishment of committees, and the reframing of broader issues of social inequity and inequality as that of isolated problems to be fixed.

While this is also a valid way for citizens to participate in political processes, it cannot be the only option available to campaign for change, because it doesn’t always work. It gives too much power to state institutions to set the limits of what citizens should or should not be concerned about.

MING EN: Freedom of assembly, while related to the freedom of speech, also comes with its own set of nuances and concerns.

While I acknowledge that Singapore’s laws regarding the freedom of assembly may be excessive, I can also understand why authorities opt to err on the side of caution. On the surface, peaceful demonstrations do no harm. However, this can still become a cause for concern if demonstrations end up disrupting the lives of Singaporeans.

On a smaller scale, this can be in the form of simple things like traffic disruptions, but it also has the potential to extend to business operations that are vital to the economy. By restricting protests to one area in Singapore, the Government is able to minimise potential disruptions that can have larger implications on the economy.

Kellynn also mentioned having to request permission before being allowed to protest. I’m on the fence about this issue; admittedly, this gives an immense amount of control to state institutions. But this also gives the authorities a way to predict and prevent any potential sources of unrest.

Singapore has always prided itself for its stable governance and political landscape, and this factor has drawn foreign investors into our country, boosting our economy. To relax our restrictions on the freedom of assembly would also mean putting this stability at risk.

That’s not to say that nothing needs to change. I believe that any change we make needs to be calibrated and measured.

More avenues do need to be provided for the public to have their voices heard, especially that of minority groups who may struggle to get visibility without being able to assemble, but following the models of other countries may not necessarily be in our best interest. It is up to us to decide on where we want this line to be drawn, to maintain the harmony in our society, while still ensuring that no voice is left unheard.

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3. How does social media play a role in allowing individuals to make their voices heard?

KELLYNN: I think platforms like Instagram have been critical in the communication and distribution of knowledge, as well as in mobilising politically. And people are very sophisticated in how they communicate their knowledge online: It’s not just about content, which is important in awareness-raising, but how it is tailored for shareability, aesthetic attraction, and emotional appeal.

This is so crucial because we’re parsing so much information when we scroll through a feed, so the ability to make someone stop, sit down, and read something that might be difficult or unsettling or challenging to one’s worldview takes significant skill.

I recently followed @theweirdandwild, an Instagram account that talks about climate change in Singapore. Qiyun uses illustration to communicate her points, makes slide decks to be shared on Instagram Stories, frames the process of political participation (e.g. raising questions in Parliament) in a simple Q&A format, and follows Parliament livestreams on her stories in real-time to understand how the climate motion is being debated. Her tone is chatty, earnest, breezy. It’s hugely approachable and engaging.Twitter is another platform that I think is really interesting. Twitter conceals status and encourages repartee, irony, and mockery. You might be a Minister, a celebrity, or an anonymous everyman. Everyone just has an @.

The conversations on Twitter are fractal, not linear – they go everywhere and it’s impossible to guide them the way you want them to go. It’s basically the opposite of a feedback session, where moderators and speakers are able to dictate the flow of conversation and only one conversation is had at once. Twitter is like overhearing six strangers’ conversations at once, and you’ll get interactions between citizens and people in power that you wouldn’t elsewhere or otherwise.

MING EN: Social media has completely changed the game when it comes to self-expression and the distribution of knowledge. In fact, it has also provided a platform for people to congregate as one voice, and garner public visibility otherwise hindered by Singapore’s strict regulations against the freedom of assembly.

We’ve seen the power of social media in recent outcries against the potential redevelopment of Clementi Forest and Dover Forest, both of which had led to the government making statements of clarification and extending the duration of public feedback respectively.

Social media has also been pivotal in allowing for contrarian voices that might otherwise not be heard. It has also seen a rising trend of youths gaining interest and taking part in conversations surrounding social issues.

Even so, the proliferation of social media has brought with it its own set of dangers, such as the spread of misinformation and falsehoods. In response, the Singapore government has implemented POFMA.

While POFMA has received much critique for being overarching and potentially restricting free debate, the essence of the policy is sound –misinformation does indeed have the potential to fester and sow unrest, and needs to be addressed. The problem therein lies in the broad and overarching reach that POFMA allows for, which has been criticised for being a weapon hindering the freedom of speech here in Singapore.

Ultimately, the spread of misinformation online does need to be controlled, whether in the form of POFMA or other initiatives. How that is done is a complex matter that will involve the cooperation of multiple stakeholders, but it is my belief that freedom of speech should not mean the freedom to spread falsehoods or mislead without consequence.

While I am by no means a politician or lawyer, perhaps POFMA will be best-served if its wording was clarified to clearly state the instances in which it can be used to intervene.

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4. What are some changes you would like to see in Singapore with regards to the freedom of speech? 

KELLYNN: Singapore has done a sterling job in educating its citizens, but there should also be room to empower them. I’ve met so many people and activists who are thoughtful, critical individuals profoundly invested in the future of the country, and it’s often frustrating to see their concerns dismissed by politicians and policymakers, who are eager to set the terms of any kind of debate.

I think that Singaporeans can be trusted to think and talk aloud, without upsetting the peace. The bigger question is whose peace are we upsetting? Who gets to define this sense of peace? What gets hidden or silenced to maintain an apparent sense of order? Should we at least have the freedom to talk about it?

MING EN: While I largely concur that there should be more room for individual’s voices to be empowered in Singapore, I think that some of these terms and restrictions are necessary. How much of it we should ease, and to what extent freedom of speech should be allowed – these are all questions I do not have definitive answers to.

I lie on the conservative end of the spectrum, and believe that Singapore has managed to build a (relatively) peaceful and stable society because of the unrelenting control of the government.

Still, Singapore is a far cry from what it was in the past, and I agree with Kellynn that a vast majority of our citizens are informed, educated, and capable of holding discussions and debates in a reasonable manner.

And while Singaporeans should have more autonomy and freedom to speak out about issues, even those that might be deemed controversial, I stand by my point that these changes need to happen with the utmost care and consideration, and I would prefer to err on the side of caution.

Join the conversations on THG’s Facebook and Instagram, and get the latest updates via Telegram.

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