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Singapore struggles with free speech

“Oh here’s Crommunist, harping on free speech again!”

Yes. Here I am. Harping on free speech. Again.

Despite the fact that it perhaps isn’t as sexy as racist beatings or mockeries of religion, I reassert my commitment to highlighting issues of free speech. I don’t talk about it because it brings a whole shit-ton of traffic my way (it really doesn’t) or because the ladies think that a man with an obsession with Charter rights is sexy (they really don’t), I do it because free speech is the cornerstone of free society. Without the ability to freely criticize the government or powerful non-governmental groups (churches, corporations, labour unions, etc.) we lose the ability to spur the kind of public support that can enact changes by these groups. Democracy is designed to be self-limiting – a sufficiently large group of people can create legislative changes to protect safety or preserve freedoms (or, in some cases, do some really stupid things, but that’s why we have courts). Without free speech, that’s the ballgame – no free society.

Singapore is learning this lesson:

“Once A Jolly Hangman – Singapore Justice in the Dock” is a critique of the way the death penalty is applied in the city state. It alleges double standards and a lack of impartiality. That has prompted Singapore’s attorney general to charge the 75-year-old Briton (author Alan Shadrake) with contempt, arguing that passages of the book “scandalise the Singapore judiciary” and “undermine the authority of the courts”.

Singapore is a rare success story in continental Asia. It has modern technology, cleaner streets than Canada, and a top-notch health care system (notable for being almost entirely private – a rare success story of this type). The country has achieved this at the price of civil liberties – police have broad powers, misdemeanor offenses are punishable by jail or whippings, and the government heavily censors dissent. Alan Shadrake is a high-profile (by virtue of being European) example of where free speech ranks on the priorities list in Singapore.

But critics say there is a price to be paid. People are expected to conform. It is as if there is an unspoken but clearly understood deal between citizen and state: the system will look after you, as long as you do not question it

There are few issues, it seems, that the political left and right can agree on (especially since the right’s position seems to be to undermine whatever the left thinks is important – must be nice not to have to bother with ‘principles’ or ‘justice’, just resort to ‘fuck the other guy’). However, we can all get together under the banner of free speech. Free speech is what allows gay rights activists to hold parades and rallies. Free speech is what lets Ann Coulter publish books. Free speech is what lets me go online and talk shit about Robert Mugabe (who, incidentally, masturbates to pictures of shirtless, hairy, obese men.

Not so in Singapore. In Singapore, criticism of the government lands you in jail. For the moment, it seems that the government is taking good care of its people – perhaps a benevolent dictatorship. The problem comes when the will of the people stands opposed to government interest, as it is for bloggers like Seelan Palay (featured in the story) and authors like Alan Shadrake. When you can be imprisoned, without trial, simply for the act of criticizing the ruling policy, it retards change and progress in your society. Abrogation of human rights is too high a price to pay for high-speed trains, hospitals and litter-free streets.

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