I have been charged with breaching a condition of the Speakers’ Corner by speaking on religion. The prosecution has made the case that because I spoke on the tudung issue, I have contravened the law.
I do not deny that I spoke on the wearing of the tudung by Muslim females. But if that is all it takes to convict me on this charge, then we are little more than machines. You are familiar with computers, Your Honour. The computer can look for and identify keywords but they cannot tell you the context in which a word was used nor, more importantly, tell you the meaning of a text which contains the word.
Humans, some of us anyway, are thankfully more intelligent than that. Unlike the computer we have the ability to not just identify words but to see how they have been used, in what context they have been spoken, and the meaning of the entire text in which they support.
If you follow the prosecutions logic that just because I used these words, therefore I have spoken on religious or religious matters and therefore in breach of the conditions of exemption of the Speakers’ Corner then we, like computers, have fallen into the trap where black can be turned into white, right into wrong.
Yes, words such as tudung, turban, and crucifix were words I used in my speech. It is imperative, however, to ascertain the context in which the words were used and for what purpose that I used them.
The prosecution’s witness, Inspector Tan Mei Far, admitted on cross-examination that I had not made any disparaging remarks that would have caused enmity, hatred, hostility and ill-will about any racial or religious group.
Not only did I not make any disparaging remarks about religion or any particular religious faith, I actually used these words to support the thesis of my speech which was to advocate equality, racial harmony, and social cohesion.
Additionally, the tudung issue had been going on for years. I was not its inventor nor its advocate. I have not commented on the matter in its history. If I were to speak and criticized or praised Islam on this issue, then I would indeed be speaking on a religious topic. Clearly I have no authority nor do I have any interest to do so.
But the minute the government steps in and bans Muslim girls from school for wearing their tudung, the matter becomes public policy and enters the political arena. As the secretary general of the Singapore Democratic Party, an opposition party that is fiercely proud of its defence of non-discrimination and one that views very seriously breaches of the Constitution by the government, I would be derelict in my duty not to address the matter.
My speech on 15 February 2002 was therefore clearly a criticism about the government’s policy of suspending the girls from school and not a discourse on or about religion or religious matters. To say, as the prosecution is saying, that because I mentioned words that had a religious basis and therefore was speaking on or about religion/religious topics, and to completely ignore the fact that I am an oppositionist criticizing government policy, is a tactic that, to put it kindly, compromises the truth.
The prosecution therefore cannot out of context, like a computer, cite words that were used in my speech without simultaneously showing the context in which they were used. The comparisons made between turbans and crucifixes and tudungs was not to disparage between them or saying how the wearing the crucifix is wrong and donning the turban right or vice versa.
It was to show that if the government allows boys to wear turbans and the fact that Sikh boys have been doing so for years without disrupting society and school, why not the tudung for girls? I am not asking for the turbans to be banned in which case it would cause Sikhs to be unhappy. I am not calling for crucifixes to be disallowed in which case it would offend some Christians. I am calling for the government to allow tudungs to be in schools. How would this make Sihks, Hindus, Christians or any other religious group unhappy? It certainly would not make Muslims unhappy. If such is the case, how have I contravened the condition at Speakers’ Corner?
The fact that I have not made a religious speech, a speech on religion, or a speech that was religious in nature is even admitted by the prosecution itself when the Mr Bala Reddy, in an outburst, shouted that there was a difference between making a speech that touched on religious matters versus giving a sermon.
Even if one were to give the prosecution the benefit of the doubt and agree that I had spoken on religious topics, it still has to prove that these words had caused or had the potential to cause enmity, hatred, ill-will and hostility between religious and racial groups.
I have produced witnesses who testified that no one who listened to my speech had acted in a hostile manner towards each other, no one had expressed any sentiment of hostility, ill-will, hatred, or enmity toward any group, nor even that my speech had the potential to create hostility and hatred among the listeners.
If fact, they all testified that the crowd had behaved in a civilized and orderly manner and were generally supportive of what I said. This is also clear from the videotape of my speech. One of the witnesses even testified that many if not most of the audience joined me in reciting the national pledge to call for unity among the various races and religion in this country. How on earth have I broken the law at Speakers’ Corner?
On the other hand, the prosecution has not produced a single witness to show that my speech actually sowed or had the potential to sow racial and religious discord amongst my listeners.
This is crucial because the reason why the condition of not allowing religious speeches to be made at Hong Lim Park was because such speeches could arouse emotions of hatred and hostility. This reason was unambiguously spelt out by the none other than the Minister for Home Affairs, Mr Wong Kan Seng.
On 25 April 2000, when he introduced the Speakers’ Corner he told parliament, and I quote the Hansard:
“Some ground rules will ensure that speakers and audience use the Speakers’ Corner without creating a fracas, or law and order problems. There will be three basic conditions:
(a) The Speaker must be a Singapore citizen;
(b) The speaker must register his intention to speak before he makes his speech;
(c) The speech should not be religious in nature, and should not have the potential to cause feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility between different racial or religious groups.”
For the purposes of the present case, point c. is of relevance. It is apparent that the government says that speeches made at Speakers’ Corner “should not be religious in nature.” We have all agreed that my speech was not religious in nature.
To rule out any ambiguity about the intention of introducing this condition, the Minister went on to elaborate this point in the same speech:
“No speeches that would cause racial or religious enmity. Singapore is a multi-racial, multi-religious society. To safeguard racial and religious harmony, the rules prohibit religious speeches, and speeches that would cause feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility between different racial or religious groups.”
I have demonstrated irrefutably that my speech did not have the potential of causing enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility between racial and religious groups. This is clear from my speech itself, from the response from the crowd and from the witnesses who have testified before you.
If my speech was not religious is nature and did not have the potential to cause feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility between different racial or religious groups, it therefore cannot qualify as a speech that Parliament would have prohibited and therefore cannot be in contravention of the conditions at Speakers’ Corner.
Trying to squeeze something from this case, one of the prosecution tries to make out that there were heated exchanges amongst the audience following my speech. How does this prove or support its case?
The prosecution must show that the heated exchange was: One, an exchange about religious or racial matters. One can have a heated exchange about the CPF system which is a topic not prohibited at Hong Lim Park. From the transcript, there is not a single question or comment from the audience that had been disparaging about another religion or race.
Two, the heated exchange must cause enmity or hatred or hostility. Heated exchanges don’t always end in hostility or hatred. My exchange with Mr Reddy was certainly heated but I do not hate him nor do I bear him ill-will.
Third, was it an exchange in the first place? The prosecution mentioned that there was a comment made by a voice about Sikhs having the right to wear turbans. Was this an exchange? Did anyone respond? Was it a disparaging remark about another religion or was he merely stating a fact? The prosecution didn’t present him as a witness.
Clearly, the prosecution has failed on these three counts. It cannot show, let alone prove beyond reasonable doubt, that the heated exchange or exchanges had anything to do with religion or race, created hatred and hostility, or was in fact an exchange in the first place.
Based on the facts and the law, the prosecution’s case is as solid as ice in hot water. In the name of justice of which I believe that you are a faithful servant, you cannot but see that the prosecution has absolutely no leg to stand on in its case.