Race should not be unthinkingly trotted out to gag free speech

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 July, 2015, 12:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 July, 2015, 12:01am

I refer to your editorial on the recent jailing of a Singaporean teenager for online posts critical of Lee Kuan Yew ("Amos Yee case not cut and dried", July 10).

It cautions against under-appreciating Singapore's racial and religious minefields.

When debating free speech, it is important to draw a clear distinction between, on the one hand, race and religion, and on the other, politics.

Singapore and many other countries have laws that make it illegal to say or do anything that may incite racial or religious hatred. Few dispute the need for such laws.

This is, however, quite different from making it illegal to criticise politicians and their actions or policies.

Race and religion should not be unthinkingly trotted out as justifications to constrain free speech, if the speech in question is essentially political in nature.

I have watched the Amos Yee videos that landed him in hot water. While his views may come across to many as immature and disrespectful, it is hard to construe them as posing any real danger to racial and religious harmony in Singapore.

In essence, Yee was convicted on technicalities. There are millions of web pages accessible from Singapore that are more pornographically obscene than the cartoon Yee created of Lee Kuan Yew and Margaret Thatcher. And his rant against Christianity, while foolish, should not be considered religious hate speech by any proportionate measure. Many Christians have come out to say as much.

The question then is whether 16-year-old Yee has, for all intents and purposes, been persecuted for offending Singaporean political sensibilities.

The state could have decided not to prosecute, as it generally does in other areas such as Singapore's law criminalising male homosexual acts. Why did it choose to enforce this case? Possibly it felt societal pressure to do so.

As you say, every society has different conceptions of what constitutes acceptable free speech. Singapore draws the line where it sees fit.

A global audience can, while respecting differences, objectively analyse what is truly being punished in a particular case, and why.

We should not confuse racial and religious minefields with political minefields.

Steven Pang, Sha Tin