the last gasp?

September 16, 2005

Recently, two Singaporeans were charged with sedition after having posted supposedly racist comments on web forums/their blogs which apparently could have incited and inflamed racist sentiments amongst the general population.

The proper response to this is: what the fuck?

Before we move on, a quick clarification: the media, once again, has been excessively deficient in their coverage of this report. When news of this first broke, it was misleadingly portrayed by Channel NewsAsia (henceforth referred to as Channel Asia, since, as I have tried to point out many times, it’s not actually news), which claimed that two bloggers had been charged with sedition for publishing racist content on their blogs. No mention was made of the forum. Now, even as we move into the third or fourth day after the charges have been made, we still have no inkling of what these two netizens have asserted on their blogs, except for the tantalising comment that either one or both of them made comments that:

a) had something to do with dog saliva and how it is haram,
b) full of expletives,
c) claimed that ‘Muslims ruin[ed] [his] day’.

Therefore any conclusions I draw on this blog must needs be filtered through this paucity of coverage.

I am most of all disturbed by the invocation of the sedition charge, which, as we all know, is deprecated in most modern countries today with any inkling of political progression. ‘Sedition’ is a term redolent of the Nazis, the Fascists and Robert Mugabe. More importantly, ‘sedition’ seems to my mind to be a particularly fluffy term which can refer to almost anything that the government dislikes. Since domestically there is a confluence of party and government, essentially sedition can refer to anything that the ruling party deems unacceptable. Although it has become quite apparent that the two involved are not persons of the highest calibre, nor are their actions highly esteemable, this sets a frightening precedence: what next? Sedition heaped onto the heads of the ? Sedition for the many bloggers who dare to expresss different views from that of the official and accepted norm, because they are inciting unrest? There are things more important than racial sensitivity (which in my opinion was not much disturbed anyway: idiots who shoot their mouths off and say really stupid things will always alienate themselves): for example, the knowledge that we will not be fined and/or thrown into prison for more acceptable forms of behaviour that threaten the position of society or the government at present.

That sedition can be charged for views alone is frightening enough: since no-one can ascertain the full extent of the effect of anyone’s words on the issue of ‘sedition’. In other words, rarely can a precise causal link ever be ascertained between the saying something and something bad happening. E.g. if tomorrow I say that ‘Malays are smelly idiots’ or ‘Indians are fat and useless’ or ‘Americans are just dumb’ and the day after attacks on Malays, Indians or Americans occur, the logical conclusion is not ‘I caused the attacks!’ Instead, the logical conclusion is: inconclusive. That is to say that the racist remarks were not by themselves so much seditious as they were libellous, since no-one will doubt their stupidity and intention to hurt. Therefore it would have made more sense to charge them with libel. That would, in my opinion, be equally effective, and have the double benefit of warning everyone else that one is responsible for one’s own views, for the dissemination of these views. One does not deny that wrong has been done. One merely must come to terms with the fact that there are better ways to deal with the issue than to resort to outdated, rather draconian laws.

More frightening, however, is the fact that the sedition charge is made for remarks posted on the internet, and that so much issue has been made of the fact that the two were bloggers. As I have mentioned in my previous post, the internet is the great mechanism by which the phenomenon of the democratisation of information has asserted itself, and will continue to assert itself. This is truly a great asset. But in such a realm of ultimate freedom there is a need to assume responsibility for the opinions and ideas that are reflected and broadcast for much of the world to access and see/hear. The solution to such problems as this which has arisen is not less freedom, but more: since these two can be properly flamed and chastened, to the benefit of society. Indeed the internet is unexplored territory; many countries have not had enough time or experience to draft up proper laws dealing with internet related issues, and increasingly sentences passed on stare decisis seem increasingly inadequate. Once again, the proper course of action is not to return to draconian laws, but to enact new ones which have to capacity to deal with new situations. I am worried that this may have prompted many bloggers to rein in their own views online, even though many of them may merely be completely reasonable and intelligent. In terms of race and religion, for example, what is acceptable and what isn’t? Is commenting on racialist policies, for example, seditious? Is criticising certain aspects of Islamic law, which in its most fundamental and unimagined formulations can be sexist and unprogressive?

On an ending note, it is, in my opinion, hypocritical of the authorities to have let this happen. In my opinion, Singaporeans are still rather primitive when it comes to matters of race, and perhaps racism is at present still too widespread and ingrained to be uprooted by this mere court case. Perhaps this incident is reflective of a greater tendency of the general Chinese population, which is still rather insular and elitist. Personal experiences inform me that I have not got this wrong: many people I have met are downright racists through and through, some of whom are illogical enough to want not to eat anything from Malay or Indian hawker stalls. What to do? Better education which is more candid and frank rather than jingoistic. Suppression is rarely the answer.


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