Since 2000, laws against offensive expression have been among the most frequently triggered speech restrictions in Singapore. Most of these cases have been initiated by citizens taking offence at racially or religiously provocative online content. How to deal with such cases continues to be debated. Like in most societies, there’s growing alarm about online incivility and how this may affect social cohesion. But there’s also concern that prevailing laws and norms — which prioritise order over deliberation — are silencing voices and viewpoints that need to be heard in order to build Singapore’s multiculturalism on broader foundations, instead of always requiring punitive interventions to prop it up. In 2020, there was some official acknowledgement that it might be time to widen the space for more open discussions of race and religion. The government remains wary of doing so. This selection of readings offers in-depth discussions of various issues connected to the debate.
International human rights law distinguishes between incitement to hatred (calls to action that directly cause harm, and which states should prohibit) and speech that offends (a more subjective category that, if it does not cause any additional harm, should be protected). These norms are grounded in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Singapore and a small number of other countries have not signed but which is the most globally accepted human rights agreement.
A quick overview of the harm/offence principle:
- Bestgen, Benjamin. “The Right (Not) to Be Offended.” Scottish Legal News, September 23, 2020.
A defence of prevailing international norms:
- Mendel, Toby. “Does International Law Provide for Consistent Rules on Hate Speech?” In The Content and Context of Hate Speech: Rethinking Regulation and Responses, edited by Michael Herz and Péter Molnár, 417–29. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights General Comment No. 34 – Article 19: Freedom of Opinion and Expression.” United Nations Human Rights Committee, September 12, 2011.
- “Rabat Plan of Action on the Prohibition of Advocacy of National, Racial or Religious Hatred That Constitutes Incitement to Discrimination, Hostility or Violence.” Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2012.
- Article 19. The Camden Principles on Freedom of Expression and Equality. London, UK: Article 19, 2009.
Challenges to human rights norms
Some argue that offensive speech is more harmful than international law assumes. This line of argument has come from two very different camps. First, governments of majority-Muslim countries and other traditionalists have argued that “defamation of religions” should be restricted as it promotes discrimination. Although this lobby did not succeed in changing international law, the question continues to be debated.
- Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “What’s Wrong with Defamation of Religion?” In The Content and Context of Hate Speech: Rethinking Regulation and Responses, edited by Michael Herz and Péter Molnár. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- Bonotti, Matteo, and Jonathan Seglow. “Self-Respect, Domination and Religiously Offensive Speech.” Ethical Theory & Moral Practice 22, no. 3 (June 2019): 589–605. doi:10.1007/s10677-019-10000-2.
- Cox, Neville. “The Ethical Case for a Blasphemy Law.” In The Handbook of Global Communication and Media Ethics, edited by Robert S. Fortner and P. Mark Fackler, 263–97. Oxford, England: John Wiley & Sons, 2014.
- Langer, Lorenz. Religious Offence and Human Rights : The Implications of Defamation of Religions. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Second, scholars and activists in liberal democracies coming from the tradition of Critical Race Theory say that even if it doesn’t cross the threshold of incitement, abusive speech causes psychological harm to historically disadvantaged groups such as women and persons of colour, discouraging them from participating as equals in society. Terms from this discourse, such as “microaggressions” and “deplatforming” have entered the public debate in many countries. There is large and growing literature, mostly American, examining whether and how unregulated speech can be costly for social justice. Below is just a sampling.
- Etzioni, Amitai. “Allow Offensive Speech, Curb Abusive Speech?” Society 56, no. 4 (August 2019): 315–21. doi:10.1007/s12115-019-00373-6.
- Matsuda, Mari J. “Public Response to Racist Speech: Considering the Victim’s Story.” In Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, And The First Amendment, edited by Mari J. Matsuda, Charles R. Lawrence III, Richard Delgado, and Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, 17–52. New York, NY: Routledge, 1993.
- Peršak, Nina. “Pathways to the Criminalisation of Emotional Distress: An Offence- and Harm-Based Typology.” International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice 63 (December 1, 2020): 100416. doi:10.1016/j.ijlcj.2020.100416.
- Williams, Monnica T. “Microaggressions: Clarification, Evidence, and Impact.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 15, no. 1 (January 1, 2020): 3–26. doi:10.1177/1745691619827499.
Regulating offensive speech in Singapore
Speech deemed offensive to racial or religious groups is regulated mostly through the Sedition Act, the Penal Code (Section 298/A), and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act. The following list comprises perspectives from legal studies, political sociology, history and anthropology. They include analyses of prominent cases such as the Maria Hertogh Riots and the Amos Yee Affair.
- Aljunied, Syed Muhd Khairudin. “Rethinking Riots in Colonial South East Asia: The Case of the Maria Hertogh Controversy in Singapore, 1950–54.” South East Asia Research 18, no. 1 (March 1, 2010): 105–31. doi:10.5367/000000010790959866.
- George, Cherian. “Religious Harmony Act: Subtle, Significant Improvement in Handling of Religious Insult.” The Straits Times, September 11, 2019.
- George, Cherian. “Managing Religious Diversity in Southeast Asia: How Insult Laws Backfire.” Southeast Asia Research Centre Working Paper Series, City University of Hong Kong, no. 175 (2016).
- Ibrahim, Nur Amali. “Everyday Authoritarianism: A Political Anthropology of Singapore.” Critical Asian Studies 50, no. 2 (April 3, 2018): 219–31. doi:10.1080/14672715.2018.1445538.
- Lai, Ah Eng, and Mathew Mathews. “Navigating Disconnects and Divides in Singapore’s Cultural Diversity.” In Managing Diversity In Singapore: Policies And Prospects, edited by Mathew Mathews and Wai Fong Chiang. London: Imperial College Press, 2016.
- Neo, Jaclyn Ling-Chien. “Regulating Pluralism: Laws on Religious Harmony and Possibilities for Robust Pluralism in Singapore.” The Review of Faith & International Affairs 18, no. 3 (July 2, 2020): 1–15. doi:10.1080/15570274.2020.1795414.
- Neo, Jaclyn Ling-Chien. “Seditious in Singapore – Free Speech and the Offence of Promoting Ill-Will and Hostility between Different Racial Groups.” Singapore Journal of Legal Studies 2011 (2011): 351.
- Radics, George Baylon, and Yee Suan Poon. “Amos Yee, Free Speech, and Maintaining Religious Harmony in Singapore.” University of Pennsylvania Asian Law Review 12 (2017 2016): 186.
- Thio, Li-Ann. “Relational Constitutionalism and the Management of Religious Disputes: The Singapore ‘Secularism with a Soul’ Model.” Oxford Journal of Law and Religion 1, no. 2 (October 1, 2012): 446–69. doi:10.1093/ojlr/rws004.
- Zewei, Zhong. “Racial and Religious Hate Speech in Singapore: Management, Democracy, and the Victim’s Perspective.” Singapore Law Review 27 (2009): 13.
Offendedness in political contestation
Singapore’s approach to offensive speech was largely inherited from the British colonial era, via India. Studies of India and other societies are therefore illuminating.
- George, Cherian. “Hate Spin: The Twin Political Strategies of Religious Incitement and Offense-Taking.” Communication Theory 27, no. 2 (May 1, 2017): 156–75. doi:10.1111/comt.12111.
- George, Cherian. “Regulating ‘Hate Spin’: The Limits of Law in Managing Religious Incitement and Offense.” International Journal of Communication 10 (June 15, 2016): 2955–72.
- Nair, Neeti. “Beyond the ‘Communal’ 1920s: The Problem of Intention, Legislative Pragmatism, and the Making of Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code.” The Indian Economic and Social History Review 50, no. 3 (2013): 317–40. doi:10.1177/0019464613494622
- Tripathi, Salil. Offence: The Hindu Case. London: Seagull Books, 2009.
- Viswanath, Rupa. “Economies of Offense: Hatred, Speech, and Violence in India.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 84, no. 2 (June 1, 2016): 352–63. doi:10.1093/jaarel/lfw031.
The most active area of research, not surprisingly, is on the effects of and possible solutions to online hate and offence, including massive investments in algorithmic methods of detecting and removing hate messages. These articles provide more critical overviews of internet regulation and moderation.
- Cohn, Cindy. “Bad Facts Make Bad Law: How Platform Censorship Has Failed So Far and How to Ensure That the Response to Neo-Nazi’s Doesn’t Make It Worse.” Georgetown Law Technology Review 2 (2018): 432–47.
- Williams, Mark, Michelle Butler, Anna Jurek-Loughrey, and Sakir Sezer. “Offensive Communications: Exploring the Challenges Involved in Policing Social Media.” Contemporary Social Science 0, no. 0 (January 3, 2019): 1–14. doi:10.1080/21582041.2018.1563305.
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“Social media, of course, has facilitated the airing of grievances, and making unintentional or intentional remarks that can be constituted as racist, as well as being informed of what is happening elsewhere.”– How to talk about race in Singapore: a conversation with Mohd Imran Taib