Friday, May 12, 2017

Freedom of speech doesn’t include the right to be bigots

Chirag Agarwal

May 11, 2017

The recent death of Singapore’s first Minister for Social Affairs, Mr Othman Wok — who went against the grain to champion a multiracial Singapore at the time of independence, when racial tensions were at a fever pitch — reminds us that a thriving plural society is not built by accident.

It takes a concerted effort by leaders to unite the populace, and for the different communities to communicate in a bid to understand and integrate with one another.

While some have made the ultimate sacrifice to uphold their society’s liberal values, such as freedom of speech, others are all too willing to abuse this privilege afforded to them by insulting or humiliating others, often the minority.

Those at the receiving end of such abuse are also singled out for things they have little or no control over, such as their race, religion, age, nationality or sexual orientation.

The rejection of hate speech should not be confused with political persecution or the repression of free speech.

Recently, Singaporean blogger Amos Yee was granted asylum in the United States after an immigration judge concluded that he had been persecuted for his political views in Singapore. The Singapore Courts had, in fact, found Yee guilty of indulging in hate speech against particular religious groups.

Singaporeans only have to look at recent developments in neighbouring Indonesia and Malaysia to understand why Singapore must continuously take reasonable steps to shut down genuine expressions of racism and hate, while promoting tolerance and respect between the different communities.

We must never take our racial harmony for granted.

Indonesia, a country with the largest Muslim population in the world, has often been cited as an example of a tolerant society.

This was recently put to the test when the Chinese-Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, otherwise known as “Ahok”, was charged and convicted under Indonesia’s draconian blasphemy laws — actions that polarised the city and contributed to his electoral defeat.

Meanwhile, controversial Indian-Muslim preacher Dr Zakir Naik, who is currently based in Malaysia and wanted by the Indian authorities for an alleged role in a terror case, has caused some friction between the wider Indian and Malay communities in the country.

A minority-Indian non-governmental organisation (NGO), Hindraf, has protested against Dr Naik’s presence in Malaysia, while a coalition of 22 Malay-Muslim NGOs, Bertindak, was formed in response and has warned that Hindraf’s interference in “Islam and Malay rights” could lead to racial riots.

In Australia, where I now live, there have been calls to remove or water down section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act in a bid to allow more freedom of speech.

The section makes it unlawful for a person to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” based on a person’s race, colour, nationality or ethnicity.

The federal Attorney-General, George Brandis, had defended the Government’s proposed (but unsuccessful) changes to the legislation by explaining that “people do have a right to be bigots”.

I disagree. To be treated with respect is a right too, and arguably a more important one. No doubt, it is hard to strike a balance between protecting freedom of speech and discouraging bigotry, but it is crucial to do so.

Regardless of how equal any plural society becomes, it will always be a challenge for the majority to fully appreciate both the overt or subtle discrimination minorities face on a regular basis, and how it can potentially chip away at their morale.

Having lived as a member of a racial minority in Singapore and Australia, two countries that celebrate their diversity, I know life is as comfortable as it will get, but that does not mean it has always been easy.

When I was younger, my dark skin made me the butt of many jokes among my schoolmates.

Even some members of my own north Indian community in Singapore, who were generally of a lighter complexion, would poke fun at other Indian ethnic groups who were of a darker colour. It was one of my first encounters with casual racism.

While I now understand that discrimination based on the colour of someone’s skin is absurd, there is no denying that in my formative years, this behaviour of others towards me made me feel inferior and out of place.

Soon after migrating to Australia, I was told to “go back to where I came from” when I accidentally bumped into an elderly lady on an escalator.

When working as a telemarketer, one respondent said that he “didn’t want any curry” even though I was trying to sell electricity. Sometimes even praise felt like racism, such as when I was told that I “speak very good English” despite my background.

These instances are neither the norm nor have they been traumatic. The overwhelming majority of people I have encountered in both countries are extremely friendly and respectful.

But every now and then, when I hear such insensitive remarks, I am reminded that I am a minority and that I have to be careful when interacting with the majority.

To maintain social cohesion and protect the minority, we all have a responsibility to call out bigotry when we see it.

The Government’s role, meanwhile, is to set the legal boundaries on what can or cannot be said in public, because majority rule works only if you are also considering individual rights.

As Dean of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Kishore Mahbubani incisively observed during an interview: “In Singapore, on some things, we need to widen the out-of-bounds (OB) markers. But on issues involving race and religion, I would say, make the OB markers narrower.

“I actually believe that, because we are too small to afford the kind of ethnic strife that other countries have suffered”.

It should come as no surprise that a recent rise in hate crime in the US has been attributed by some to President Donald Trump’s often reckless, inflammatory and divisive rhetoric.

It is important to note that while race and religion are sensitive issues, other minority groups such as the elderly, the LGBT community and foreign domestic workers in Singapore are equally at risk of being at the receiving end of verbal abuse and discrimination.

Words matter and everyone should be mindful of what they say out loud. It is one thing to disagree, dislike or even dissent but another to offend, humiliate or insult.

Ultimately, an individual’s right to respect and dignity should never be undermined to protect someone else’s right to freedom of speech.


Chirag Agarwal was born and brought up in Singapore as a second-generation PR and an Indian citizen before completing his NS and becoming a Singapore citizen. He is currently based in Australia.

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