Responsible Free Speech and The Development of the Thinking Person

Voice, or the expression of ideas, opinions, and countervailing arguments have always existed in the entire gamut of political structures and societies.  In a democracy, free speech or unencumbered voice is one of the most important threads in the meshwork of a fair and just society. In a “guided democracy” such as Singapore, feedback channels, citizen focus groups, town hall exchanges and speakers’ corners are scoped with a litany of rules and procedures. Those in power put free speech on a long or short leash based on considerations of self-interests and their perceived societal good.


Singapore is a former British colony that inherited the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy. At its independence 56 years ago, the multicultural local populace knew neither human rights nor political participation. In this sense, the Singapore of 1962 is similar to the New England of the 1600’s.  


In the Singapore race riots of July 1964 that saw 56 dead and 556 injured, opinions and perspectives expressed by Malays and Chinese, without fact-checking swirled into a tsunami of rumors, fueling three days of widespread damage and casualties. Four years ago, some 300 foreign migrant workers destroyed 30 emergency vehicles and over a million dollars of public property. But in truth, a drunk foreign worker was forced to disembark since he was actually intoxicated and had met with an accident. Without fact-checking, the rioters made emotionally-charged calls for revenge.


Control of the media, the Sedition Act, and the Internal Security Act, and administrative rules and procedures for tightly controlled demonstrations and public speech-making are used by the Singapore administration. They justify these draconian measures under the guise of preventing future race riots and to ensure law and order. In the past three years, some racist postings on social media have been stopped dead in their tracks by these laws.


However, the same media curbs and security laws have been used to imprison citizens, without a trial or conviction. In 1987, 22 Singaporean social workers, performing artists and student activists were accused of forcibly overthrowing the country on grounds of a Marxist conspiracy. This group had continuously highlighted social injustice and wealth inequality through writings and plays. Without an open-court hearing, availability of an independent attorney general, or benefit of laws such as the Freedom of Information Act, it could not be proven whether they were seeking to instigate a Communist revolution or were simply peacefully advocating socialist ideals.


Present Singapore is not a doppelganger of its autocratic, paternalistic previous life.  Each generation of citizens and leaders are better educated, traveled, exposed and engaged. Singaporeans no longer whisper when criticizing their government, nor are there fears of political repercussions and personal safety. Murmurs and calls are now heard to review past government actions. There is an expectation among Singaporeans that civil liberties are the ultimate desires.  The community consensus is on responsibility-taking when making free speech and the development of the thinking person.


Franklin D. Roosevelt argued that the four fundamental freedoms are the freedom of speech and expression, the freedom to worship God in his/her own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. He claimed that these are essential to the preservation of civil liberties for all, and that “the inner and abiding strength… of political systems is dependent upon the fulfillment of the expectations of freedom”.