Freedom of speech versus the law

October 7, 2002
Singapore Democrats

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This website will carry a 7-part series of articles comprising of excerpts from Dr Chee Soon Juans latest book Your Future, My faith, Our Future. Heres Part II.

Why did you speak in public without applying for a police permit? In Singapore, the constitution guarantees every citizen the right to freedoms of speech, assembly, and association. Singapore is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which requires governments to protect such fundamental freedoms. Since coming to power on the back of the democratic process, however, the PAP has systematically dismantled the framework that underpins the foundation and spirit of democracy. As a citizen of this country and a member of a political party, I am obliged to uphold and defend the constitution.

But doesnt speaking in public without a permit constitute breaking the law? Yes, it does. What is legal, however, is not always right, and what is illegal is not always wrong. Laws are put in place for the good of society and must be obeyed. But laws are also put in place by governments to suppress freedoms in order to buttress their own political power. These laws are undemocratic, unjust, and in many instances, unconstitutional. Prominent examples are the laws that segregated the whites from the blacks in erstwhile apartheid South Africa and in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s, that enabled Western Europe to colonise Africa and Asia, that prohibited citizens from speaking out during the communist years in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and that criminalize the formation of political parties by Chinese citizens.

But mustnt there be order in society, and doesnt the PAP government have a responsibility to enforce the law? This is precisely what I would like to see in Singapore. Ironically, it is the PAP that repeatedly flouts the very laws it imposes on others. For example, although the PAP pulls down and confiscates the SDPs National Day flags and buntings put up in SDP-held constituencies, it allows its own flags to be displayed freely. Although permits are requiredand deniedfor opposition parties to hold public speeches, PAP leaders and supporters routinely hold public rallies. In 1995, Ling How Doong, a SDP member of parliament for Bukit Gombak, was not allowed to give a speech during a National Day dinner he organised in his own constituency and for his constituents. Days later, Lim Boon Heng, a PAP minister, and another official of the Residents Committee came to the constituency and gave two public speeches. PAP members give public addresses to their constituents as a matter of routine. I have enumerated in other sections of this chapter more examples of how the PAP breaks laws willy-nilly. A government that interprets and enforces the law to meet its own political ends shows total contempt for the rule of law. Order and stability derived from such practices are illusory. They cannot be sustained by the selective enforcement of laws.

But wont freedom of speech lead to riots like those the 1960s? Why should they? The election rallies that we have been having for the past thirty to forty years have been very peaceful. The two speeches I gave at Raffles Place amply demonstrate that Singaporeans can gather for political rallies in a peaceful manner. It is altogether a poor excuse on the PAPs part to prevent its opponents from speaking to the public by citing the possibility that public disorder will follow. The use of such scare tactics, anachronistic as they are, is not new to the politics of autocracy. As I mentioned, PAP leaders routinely hold public political talks. Why should speeches and events held by the PAP be different from any others? If the government is concerned about the potential for public disorder, why not ban soccer games? Many football matches have witnessed unruly behaviour among the spectators that has deteriorated into open riots. The vast majority of people who attend soccer matches are peace-loving folks who dont want any chaos or violence. How is this different from political gatherings? Granted, there may be a minority who, for whatever reason, would like nothing better than to start a ruckus. But should we let a few misfits ruin the majoritys right to assemble for a political event?

Why is freedom of speech so important? A society that empowers its members to assemble and organise ensures that the authorities cannot divide and conquer. Unity is not only strength. It is the means by which society protects itself against state abuses and excesses. The ability of the people to speak freely is the bulwark of democracy and ensures governmental transparency and accountability.

Your Future, My Faith, Our Freedom is sold at Select Books (Tanglin Shopping Center), Kinokuniya Bookstore (Takashimaya Shopping Centre, Orchard Road) and the SDP office (1357A Serangoon Road, Singapore 328240).