Feb 17, 2005
By Jamie Han Li Chou
AS SINGAPOREANS of all races and religions enjoy the Chinese New Year festivities, we are again reminded of the multiracial and multi-religious make-up of our society.
I have always taken for granted the many advantages of living in such a society, such as being exposed to different ideas and values, being more sensitised to the cultures of others, not to mention the many public holidays!
Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's message during the recent Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum about not taking the stability we enjoy for granted thus came as a timely reminder for me.
Having looked at racial and religious conflicts in other countries, I have grown to appreciate our Government's enlightened policy of promoting racial and religious harmony through education, and encouraging dialogue between different religious and race-based communities.
However, this does not mean more cannot be done to promote unity in our society. One way to do so would be to allow people more freedom to express religious and racial views in public.
I have to admit that The Straits Times has opened up more in recent years, as can be seen by the increase in the number of articles about race and religion in Singapore. Still, the fact that it is the only major English newspaper in Singapore means that there is limited publishing space for people to air their views.
Some would argue that the reading public here is too small to support more than one major newspaper. This may be true. But we must also take into account the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, which gives the Government the authority to grant licences to publishing firms.
At present, the criteria for approval is not transparent. Applications can be rejected without the need to give explanations. The Government may also choose not to renew the licence the following year without any justification.
Any honest person would admit that the Act has a part to play in the dearth of newspapers in Singapore.
The Government justifies the Act on the grounds that it prevents people from using the press to raise sensitive racial and religious issues that may shatter the fragile unity of our society.
If we are to accept this justification, then we must also accept the two main implications that can be drawn from it.
First, that Singapore as a society has progressed so little since the chaotic days of the 1960s racial riots that we still need laws such as the above-mentioned one in order to maintain a veneer of unity.
Second, that our citizens are so immature and uncritical that they would readily lap up any racist or religious propaganda that surfaces should the Act be removed or revised.
If we are to accept these implications, then we have to acknowledge the immaturity of our society.
Before people label me as an arm-chair critic, let me propose a way in which we can have more press freedom without running the risk of encouraging racial and religious conflicts.
Instead of focusing on controlling who can or cannot publish newspapers, we can instead focus on making people responsible for what they say or publish in public. An example would be the laws already in place that allow people to sue those who slander them in public.
By doing so, only people with views that stand on strong foundations not based on racial or religious prejudices, but on the firm ground of reason, would air them in public. Fanatics and demagogues would not get away with irresponsible use of free speech in such a system.
A free press need not necessarily imply an irresponsible one.
As much as we would like to think otherwise, racism and religious differences exist in our society, just like in any other. To censure open discussion of such issues is like burying one's head in the sand and wishing that the problem would go away.
It would be a shame if Singaporeans do not make full use of the stability we are enjoying now to bring out such sensitive issues into the open. Do we really want to wait until times of crisis before tackling such issues?
The Government can help encourage such discussion by relaxing the publishing laws so that more avenues would be made available for people to discuss these and other important issues that affect our society.
Is there no right to offend?