Blogged down by free speech

December 2, 2005
Singapore Democrats

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Stanislaus Jude Chan
Asia Times (1 Dec 05)
02 Dec 05

While maximizing Internet access is a global concern, this net-savvy island nation is grappling with problems arising from attitudes and behavior considered incompatible with a wired world.

Last month, two ethnic Chinese bloggers (authors of web logs) were sentenced under the Sedition Act for posting remarks offensive to the minority Muslim-Malay community on their websites.

Benjamin Koh Soon Huat, 28, was jailed for a month, while Nicholas Lim Yew, 25, was imprisoned for a day and fined the maximum penalty of about US$2960.

“It was the first time I had seen that word sedition,” Koh reportedly said after the sentencing. “I didn’t know what it meant until my lawyer explained it to me.” While posting racially prejudiced comments on the Internet is deemed to be socially disruptive and gratuitous, some argue the sentences were a step backward for freedom of expression in a city-state already accused of playing “nanny” to its people.

“Using sedition charges for an instance of racial speech is like using a nuclear bomb to get rid of ants in the kitchen,” commented blogger Curt on his site, “Committee to Protect Bloggers”.

“Singapore has four climates,” wrote Lee Kin Mun, more popularly known as “Mr Brown”, cheekily echoing the sentiments of the blogging community in Singapore. “Climate of hot. Climate of hotter. Climate of hottest. And climate of fear.”

“A part of me is fairly exultant at the fact that two people who made extremely racist comments are being punished,” wrote blogger “MercerMachine”. “The other part of me is sick at the fact that there isn’t even a pretence of free speech now.”

Online journals have become vastly popular among young Singaporeans in the country, with more than 65% of the 4.2 million population are wired to the Internet and at least a million thought to be active users.

However, over the past few months, several incidents involving blogs have raised concern over what can be said and what cannot.

In May, a Singaporean student was threatened with legal action by a government agency after it found defamatory statements that “went way beyond fair comment”. Chen Jiahao, a former Public Service Commission scholar, was forced to shut down his blog and post an apology.

The 23-year-old later apologized again because the Agency for Science, Technology and Research was not satisfied with his initial apology and demanded he retract his alleged defamatory statements and “apologize unreservedly”.

In August, five junior college students who posted derogatory remarks about their teachers and vice principal on their blogs were suspended from school for three days; and a secondary school student was ordered to remove remarks about a teacher on her website.

“As long as someone is able to identify the teacher, and it is an untrue statement that affects his reputation or livelihood, then the student is liable,” lawyer Doris Chia of Harry Elias and Partners told the Straits Times newspaper.

“A lot of [Singaporean bloggers] will be looking at their blogs and wondering if they made any seditious remarks,” said Singaporean blogger Benjamin Lee, also known as “Mr Miyagi”. “I think because of the way this will be played up, it’s negative publicity for the Singapore blogging community.”

While some are concerned with censorship and a lack of freedom of expression in Singapore, several prominent bloggers are calling for a sense of responsibility and self-regulation in remarks made on the Internet.

“The Internet does create a false sense of anonymity,” said Steven McDermott, a former sociology lecturer in Singapore. “With the fear of terrorism being seen as a reason to undermine hard-fought-for civil liberties, bloggers and Internet posters need to regulate each other.”

His current affairs blog, “Singabloodypore”, was initially set up to host articles that were not published in the local press.

Meanwhile in the case of the jailed bloggers, debate rages on about transgressing the boundary between freedom of speech and social irresponsibility in the multicultural city-state.

“Callous and reckless remarks on racial or religious subjects have the potential to cause social disorder, whatever the medium or forum on which they are expressed,” warned Senior District Judge Richard Magnus. “One cannot hide behind the anonymity of cyberspace to pen diatribes against another race or religion. The right to propagate an opinion on the Internet is not, and cannot be, an unfettered right.”

However, some activist groups feel that Singaporeans have lost their right to freedom of information in exchange for social harmony and economic prosperity.

“Bloggers are often the only real journalists in countries where the mainstream media is censored or under pressure,” said Reporters Without Borders, an international association dedicated to defending media freedom. “Only they provide independent news, at the risk of displeasing the government and sometimes courting arrest.”

With more than a third of the world’s people living in countries where there is no media freedom, the group has published in five languages the Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-Dissidents, dispensing advice to Internet users on preserving their anonymity on their blogs.

Offline, Singapore’s culture of restricted expression has been evident in apprehensive participation in the Speakers’ Corner set up for people to “speak freely” about politics and other local issues, on the lines of London’s famed Hyde Park venue of the same name.

The tightly controlled area turned out to be a farce, attracting just 140 speeches in the nine months since its opening in 2000. The recent flurry of clampdowns on bloggers threatens to similarly eradicate free speech.

Local blogger, Merv Kwok, likened blogging in Singapore to Monopoly, the classic board game: “Each square is like a blog post. Roll the dice, take a chance, make a post, and if anything inflammatory is said, you stand to win a free trip to Changi Prison!”