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How far can we really go?

In this essay from Singapore Angle many years ago, I discuss the limits of freedom of speech.

Last Saturday, I attended the forum “Freedom of Speech – How Far Can We Go?” organized by the NUS Democratic Socialist Club. While you may have read a detailed transcript [1] and various reviews [2-5] from various bloggers to what transpired in the event, my intention is to provide a perspective drawn from the forum and make an honest attempt to answer the question, “How far can we really go?”.

To answer the question, we examine the untenable positions in the freedom of speech debate in Singapore. The extreme positions can be either you have the right to make any statements and not take responsibility or you do not give or entrust others the right to make any statements at all. Let’s start from the second position and work backwards. The establishment has established several out of bound (OB) markers, from politics to racial and religious issues where free speech cannot transgress. The play “The Campaign to Confer the Public Star on JBJ” by Eleanor Wong was open to public viewing last year. In fact, nothing happened to her and there was a public forum discussing this issue in the National Library Board. If that is the case, can we negotiate to expand the boundary? The answer is yes and it depends on whether people can abandon their fear and apathy to put the money where the mouths are.

Once you established that you have the capacity to challenge the boundaries of the OB markers, we can look at the first position in perspective. Recent articles on the “No Pork” podcast in Singapore Angle by my fellow colleagues have brought up this question about moral responsibility exercised by our community. Are our community prepared to stand up and take responsibility in condemning controversial remarks, unjustified smearing or bullying and intimidation of others’ views who may or may not agree with yours?

The key word and answer to the question we posed is responsibility. It is the social responsibility of the community (for example, bloggers) to keep each other in check on issues which we are free to speak. The community I spoke of is not a lynch mob and must offer reasonable and valid reasons to why they cannot condone someone for making remarks that cross the OB markers. If we can look after ourselves, we would stop providing the State free ammunition and excuses to find ways and means (e.g. counter-insurgency tactics) to police us.

How far can we really go? If we are not ready to challenge the boundaries of free speech because of fear and apathy and be prepared to take responsibility to keep each other in check in the midst of crisis, the landscape will always be remain in the current state.

I thank Huichieh for helpful comments and reasoning behind this commentary.

[1] Agagooga, NUS Democratic Socialist Club: “Freedom of Speech – How Far Can We Go?”.
[2] Aaron Ng, Freedom of Speech – How far can we go?
[3] Charissa, Review: “Freedom of Speech – How Far Can We Go?”.
[4] Kitana, Freedom of speech, prejudice and the ambit of the law
[5] Xenoboy Proposed Free Speech Curbs Helps Speechless & Grows Economy