Freedom of speech or is it blatant abuse of Internet as a channel for expression?
Just as Malaysian bloggers are getting jittery over seditious commentaries being posted by readers in their blogs, and over their potential legal ramifications, the Singaporean government has decided to charge three bloggers within a week, invoking the Sedition Act.
This had aroused mixed feelings, and some grave concerns, among bloggers on both sides of the strait that separates Southeast Asia's most networked countries. The Associated Press reported that the arrests in had sparked fears of a cyberspace crackdown by authorities in Singapore and neighboring Malaysia, which have similar laws and ethnic sensitivities. The similarity is that the Muslim-Malay communities are the target of racial slur online; the difference is: While Muslim-Malays are a 15% minority in Singapore, they are a 65% majority in Malaysia. That makes bloggers’ reactions starkly varied between the two neighbours.
September 12, the Singapore government invoked the Sedition Act, the first time in 10 years, to charge bloggers Nicholas Lim Yew, 25, and Benjamin Koh Song Huat, 27, with sedition for posting racist comments online.
September 16, blogger Gan Huai Shi, a 17-year old student, was charged on seven counts of promoting ill-will in Singapore under
Chapter Section 29 of the Sedition Act.
It is a known fact that, charged with sedition, the Singaporeans face prison terms of up to three years if convicted.
In the first case involving Nicholas Lim and Benjamin Koh, the bloggers were charged for making anti-Muslim comments on the Internet. The duo were responding to a letter printed in The Straits Times Forum, which asked whether cab companies allow uncaged pets to be transported in cabs. As it is, most Muslims in Singapore are forbidden from coming into contact with a dog's saliva.
Lim posted his comments in an online forum for dog lovers in Singapore, www.doggiesite.com. Koh, who works at a kennel taking care of dogs, allegedly made similar racist comments on his blog, Phoenyx Chronicles, on www.upsaid.com.
According to court documents reported by New Paper, Lim's forum message began with: “The masses are idiots. ‘Nuff said”. He went on to make disparaging remarks about Muslims. Then, turning his attention to the Chinese and Indians, he wrote that listening to the complaints of “Chinese and Indians … was no less irritating”.
Koh was more pointed. According to court documents published by the media, his blog entry was peppered with vulgarities, directing his tirade at Malays and Muslims. His blog carried a picture of a roasted pig's head with “a Halal look-alike logo”.
In the third case involving Gan, he was alleged to have maintained a racist blog, which he called The Second Holocaust, that attacked Christians and homosexuals. He was also allegedly to have hit out at the lifestyle, religion and economic situation of the local Malay community.
Why did the authorities have to step in, invoke the Sedition Act, and initiate action against citizens who ranted about Islam and Muslims online? There had been a variety of speculations.
The online version believed it was an effort to curtail debate in cyberspace which, because of its vastness, is where the authorities have the most difficulty patrolling or imposing control. Others suggested the action was actually a move by the authorities to send an indirect message about the limits of political and other discourse that had taken root in cyberspace.
Both may be true as, on September 17, the government-owned Singapore Straits Times rolled out an Op-Ed piece by its deputy political editor, Paul Jacob, laying a precursor to an official stance. The mouthpiece put the onus of upholding law and order in the cyberspace squarely on the blog and website owners. Quote:
The Internet is not a personal space.
Yet those who air their diatribe do so in the belief that they are not only anonymous, but also that there are no rules and constraints. This perception is reinforced if site hosts and moderators fail in their duty to act, and if fellow netizens don't come down hard and fast on them.
There are thought to be more than one million active Internet users in Singapore, and the maths would suggest there are more people with the ability to do good and police the system than there are those who preach intolerance, ridicule and call others’ beliefs into question.
So rather than question why it is that the authorities had to act, or the merits of which is the more appropriate law to use, or whether this is a prelude to a political clampdown, the Internet's cause will be better served if active users weigh in and do their own clamping down.
The article concludes with a kicker that says:
What these guys have done, as some have already suggested, is to give bloggers and chatrooms a bad name.
And if the community does not want to have Big Brother watching, then it's best that it does the watching itself.
The same day after the Op-Ed was published, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wasted no time in giving a context to the issue. A related ChannelNewsAsia story was swiftly picked up by Beijing (People's Daily Online and Xinhua):
“This is the message, it is not acceptable. It is against the law, and the Sedition Act specifically puts it down that you are creating distrust and animosity between the races, and we will act according to the law.”
The Singapore premier was quoted as saying that Singapore takes multi-racial and multi-religious harmony seriously and the government will take action against anyone who makes racist remarks.
Admittedly, there are Singapore bloggers who say the offenders deserved little sympathy because their remarks were repugnant, but the case had triggered concerns that Singapore's government might be tightening social controls.
“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 pretense of free speech now.”
“Coup de Grace” was another immediate reflection of bloggers’ reaction just hours after the news broke. Admitting that his own blog entries had spoken out against Singapore's version of affirmative action, “does that make me liable to charges?” he asked.
He argued that the legal action would stifle beneficial expression and debate, and described the sections of the Sedition Act under which the bloggers were charged as “disturbing [sic] vague”.
Meanwhile, those curious enough had started looking up the Sedition Act online. Blogger Zeenie said: “The only (other) time I've heard the word ‘sedition’ used was in (the movie) Last of the Mohicans.”
Blogger David, a national serviceman in his 20s, said the fact that people can be arrested “for voicing their opinion” struck fear into him. “People may argue that if I play by the rules, I'll be fine. But, who determines the rules?”
Others questioned if the use of the law was a double-edged sword. Shanghai-based Canadian blogger Myrick observed: “This doesn't solve the problem of racism, it forces it underground to fester.”
On the other hand, Benjamin Lee aka Mr Miyagi, who entertained his blog readers without ruffling racial and cultural feathers, told ChannelNewsAsia the following: “A lot of them will be looking at their blogs and wondering if they made any legally seditious remarks. I think because of the way this will be played up, it's negative publicity for the Singapore blogging community.”
Even satirist Mr Brown had sensed the climate of fear and dished out an advisory: “Publishing race hate in any medium, be it blogs, email, print, tv, radio, or a piece of paper you put on people's car, is a criminal offence in Singapore, and I believe in many countries, like the UK. Something to bear in mind, whether you are a blogger or not.”
As if anticipating an avalanche of pro-free speech hyperbole from other bloggers, Alee J, a University of Bristol law student, echoed Mr Brown, noting that Singapore isn't the only country with limits on free speech.
Also read: Malaysia: Bloggers’ pre-emptive strike