26 November 2006

Hate speech law badly drafted

The government has proposed to broaden the scope of the law against wounding religious feelings. It intends to add "race" to it, but what about other hate targets? Full essay.


YCK said...

An interesting speculation you made:

What our Penal Code does is to stay silent on the punch but come down hard on the counter-punch.

But we cannot know for sure unless someone tests it. Not knowing about legal matters, I would think it reasonable for a person to argue that a provoked retaliation is reasonable and the provoking party should not be allowed to go free.

I have a rather more pessimistic view about the matter. I think the government may be trying to create a bright line to deter people from openly discussing such issues all together. Maybe they were taking a page from what UMNO learnt from PM Abdullah's dabling with openess.

Teck Soon said...

I think hate speech should be legalised. I completely disagree with both Yawning Bread's and the government's proposed laws. They are much too broad, and end up making every Singaporean a criminal. Other countries with as much racial and religious diversity as Singapore, such as New Zealand, the US, Canada, get by just fine allowing hate speech. When someone makes racist rants, the newspapers report it, and people rant back, ruining the reputation of the racist. The free market of ideas produces cosmopolitan, tolerant, and kind people. People don't make racist comments because they know that to be seen as a racist is not good for one's future.

If Singapore truly needs such laws to regulate hate speech, it indicates to me that there must be a huge number of racists in Singapore that need to be put down. It also indicates that Singaporeans must not disapprove of racist comments, since the government is needed to punish racists (as opposed to the public). All that pent-up hatred is ready to come pouring out the moment Singapore attains free speech. Singapore is not really a place of religious and racial harmony. If it were, then laws protecting religions and races would not be necessary.

It really seems like Singapore deserves the authoritarian government it has. People debate on what to regulate, not whether there should be regulation. People debate what drugs should merit the death penalty, not whether the death penalty should even exist. People debate who should be caned, instead of whether caning is barbaric.

Chris said...

Hi Teck Soon,

I disagree with what you say about letting people make racist rants. Although, you say that newspapers can report the racist and shame him, you're just assuming there is no collateral damage.

People from that racist's religion, race or any other association may become the target of an angry backlash. That person can also contribute to an underlying wave of racist tendencies, or worse, it simply isn't underlying anymore.

What you're saying is that Singapore has probably a large number of racists, which is why such laws are needed. Where did you get that information from? Is that what you think? Or what you have heard? I don't think it's a very good representation.

It's illegal to murder someone in Singapore (as well as anywhere else). Does this mean Singapore has a large mass of murderers lurking amongst us, waiting to kill someone the moment the law is abolished? Of course this is hypothetical. Even if only one murder occurs every decade, it is one murder too many. One death affects the people related to the deceased. Same for racist remarks, unless you are willing to bet the racist and the recipient are the only two parties that will be affected.

recruit ong said...

Teck Soon, i agree with you 200%.

1 more thing about the Penal Code review, i am wondering why aren't they reviewing white white collar crimes??

Teck soon said...

Hi Chris,
Actually I am unhappy if such hate speech laws are needed in Singapore. I am not entirely sure how many racists there are in Singapore, because in our closed society where hate speech is illegal, it is impossible to tell. This is unlike the US, for example, where the number of racist websites, publications, broadcasts, etc., can be subjected to statistical analysis for an answer.

I am unhappy because if Singapore has such a high degree of religious and racial harmony as our government advertises, then such hate speech laws should not be necessary. After all, they are not necessary in most Western countries, yet doesn't our government always harp that in the West are all racists and troublemakers, while we are the harmonious ones? If we are truly harmonious, then shouldn't we also not need hate speech laws?

If they ARE needed, then we have to admit that we have a problem. The first problem is that there are too many racists that are dying to spew out their racism/religious hatred, and that the rest of the population won't condemn it. They may even join in! If this is our fear, then we have a problem. Our other problem may be that we are too easily offended by racist remarks, such that we would rather cart someone off to jail rather than respond to the remarks in a civilised way. The harm from murder cannot be equated from the harm from words. Murder kills, but words only offend. And in Singapore, one dare not offend anyone! You may be sued, jailed, fined. But you can be sure that there will be no action taken to solve the underlying societal problem. Better to keep the racists shut up with harsh laws, rather then actually address the underlying problem.

Anonymous said...

Given the kind of judicature and the legal fratenity in Singapore, the changes proposed to the penal code is largely moot. After all as you pointed out, the case involving the racist bloggers could somehow contort the sedition act suggest that existing code was no legal hinderence.

It is worth noting that the legal system in Singapore has departed so much from the common law as in understood in England and Wales, and the US, it is hard to see where there could be any safeguard against politically motivated judgement. The key point about common law is that, whilst it allows for prosecutorial discretion and judicial independence, it allows for consistencies in judgement. This seemed to be lacking. Like you, based on the material I had on the bloggers case, I saw no prior case law for the court to reached the judgement it did. It seemed that the judgement were made on the hoof.

Also in other legal jurisdiction it is a practice to interpret statutes narrowly. So on the basis of the wording which relates to race under the sedition act, the bloggers would not have been found guilty. The defendent could also, in those jurisdiction, raised a "second order" violation under free speech consitutional provision. In Singapore, an the example of recently concluded Chee Soon Juan case, this route of defence is clearly not available. In that case, the Judge kept closing the route by ruling it as "irrelevant" even when the route was obviously opened by the prosecution witness.

All in all, I really don't see how the change as proposed would really have any impact on jurisprudence as practice in Singapore. What I do see with the changes is that law only serves, ironically, to protecting religious bigotry.

Setting aside my reservation, my personal opinion of the sedition act is that it should be rewritten totally. I particularly take issue at the wording "Promoting emnity". How does one come to a determination, with any degree of objectivity, that one is promoting emnity?

For example, if a non-racist was genuinely concerned with the educational achievement of people from a religious group and he/she statistically show that there was a colloration, can one say that the person is promoting emnity?

Of course, one could argue that the statistical study could be highjacked by a racist for a racist end. In which case, should the law apply equally to a racist and a non-racist using the same set of argument?

My view is that issue of religious and racial bigotry can only be best dealt through open and frank dialogue. So I would not have keep the Seditious act as it stands and for that matter in the proposed changed form. If any legal instrument is to be used, I would have craft one on the basis of incitement and deprivation. I would have an act which might, roughly say,

"that any words or act that incite the deprivation of any class of person of life, liberty, religions believe and means of economic well-being shall be punished"

So, if we return to the point about educational statistic. If a person, we to use the statistic to suggest action to help the poorly educated better their grades than it is not an incitement. If a person use the information to bring about elimination of a group than that is incitement.

Chris said...

Hi Teck Soon,

So what do you expect to achieve if hate speech is allowed? Maybe you can get research statistics to how many people have racist tendencies in Singapore *shrugs*, or suppose your hypothesis is correct and that these laws are in place because we have a problem we're unwilling to come to terms with.

Lets not kid ourselves, if you live, breathe and work in Singapore, you know exactly whether this problem exists or whether it doesn't. I shall leave my own personal opinion out of this not because of fear, but rather, its a forgone conclusion.

So Singapore likes to paint a picture of racial harmony. You find that hypocritical since we such laws. Fine, you do have a point. But we're all adults, we can judge for ourselves whether it's true or not. Why be so affected?

Anonymous said...

Could this all be part of a political plan to lure wealthy Islamic countries to bank in Singapore? If one notices, senior Ministers have been travelling to the Middle East.
The legal drafting is bad?- that gives the government 'wiggle room' for their own legal interpretation.