Saturday, October 08, 2005

Preventing a mess

Whoa, what a sentence. Jail for the two who wrote inflammatory and racist remarks on the Net. The one who posted these remarks on his blog was sentenced to a month in jail; the other, who wrote his comments in a forum, to a nominal day in jail. I say they asked for it.

I was expecting more of a huge fine and a severe warning. If anything, the jailing sends a stern message to folks who write stuff online (like myself) to stay clear of certain issues that are “eternal truths” as PM Lee Hsien Loong commented, like race, and it shows the very high premium the authorities place on such touchy issues. Whether online or offline, a very succinct point made during this watershed case in Singapore’s freedom of expression history was by the Senior District Judge Richard Magnus in his explanation for the ruling:

The right to propagate an opinion on the Internet is not, and cannot be, an unfettered right. The right of one person’s freedom of expression must always be balanced by the right of another’s freedom from offence, and tampered by wider public interest considerations. (ST, 8 Oct 2005, p. H7)

We are living in a very unique part of the world - whilst being surrounded by largely Muslim-majority nations, we have succeeded in creating a balanced multi-racial nation that has, to a large extent, been successful in seeing harmony, through the multiple discourses of meritocratism and “Asian values” of harmony and peace. Seeing examples of failing, anarchy-led societies where sectarian violence is the norm of the day (eg. Tutsis and Hutus in Africa; Muslims and Hindus in India; Sunnis and Shi’ites in an already war-torn Iraq; Arab militiamen and Sudanese in Sudan), what we have is priceless. Stability and peace are taken for granted in Singapore. So we need to balance our cries for freedom of expression with cries to maintain this rare peace.

Does this mean race matters, and politics for that matter, cannot be discussed online now? Not at all. The Internet is the final frontier (for now) in matters of expressing opinions that cannot, or will not, be heard in the offline world. So our blogs and our forums are very important tools in getting our views across – it’s how you get your opinion that is the issue. There have to be certain considerations when doing so, as for any argument, but more so for sensitive topics, which I will explain in a minute.


Will there be a ‘chilling effect’, which is the “thinking twice before venturing an opinion” nature of one who’s been bitten by such punishment, among the online community? Yes: among those who think they can get away with any vile, senseless things they want to say about others. No: among those who truly believe in voicing opinions in a logical, reasoned manner. If anything, the jail sentence reinforces the line drawn on how issues such as race should be tackled.

What the two who posted racist comments did something more along the lines of “flaming” – it was insulting, one-directional (giving no allowance for any dialogue) and showed total disrespect for the affected religion and race. So how should one go about presenting his or her point of view of a sensitive topic without bringing any potential harm to him or herself and avoid looking like a complete ass?

The point made about a touchy topic has to be –

Informed: If there’s an issue, it has to be thoroughly researched, backed up with facts and reasoned out, and has to pose a problem to public well-being.

Constructive: A solution has to be suggested to the issue raised at hand, or further points to look into. This would add value to the point raised, instead of being just another unhappy rant that helps no one and worse still, offends many.

Inviting dialogue: This is vital. Any party that is mentioned or zoomed in in any issue has to be given a right-of-reply or a chance to clarify and give its own interpretation of events.

So in trying to balance freedom of expression with consideration of societal harmony, these three broad considerations should be made by anyone wanting to raise thorny issues online, or offline, for that matter. Of course, all the above assumes the user of the internet to be educated, able to have a sense of responsibility in providing a balanced view, and proficient in articulating his/her thoughts. Is this too much to ask? I don’t think so. The Internet wields great power in the rich world. With great power – you know the rest.

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