PRISON setences have been meted out to two Singaporeans for racist comments. It has been described as a test case, signalling the state's firm line against people who abuse their right to free speech.
The case may raise public expectations that the state should intervene whenever people encounter hateful speech. While such sentiments are rooted in a healthy disgust for racism, it is worth pausing to ponder whether recourse to the law should be the automatic response.
The alternative is to use social disapproval. If enough Singaporeans express their disapproval of racist statements, this is preferable to using the law, in all but the most extreme cases.
First, the legal approach has limits. Racist expressions, no matter how reprehensible and incomprehensible, will always exist both on and offline. With the Internet, they crop in up in many nooks and crannies of e-mail, blogs, websites and chatrooms. Sometimes ephemerally. Sometimes more permanently.
It is therefore not possible for the police to track every single one of these racist and offensive remarks.
If the laws are strengthened, the Government will have to put more resources into policing the Internet. Not to do so will leave the efficacy of such laws to chance. Passing laws that can be so easily broken will eventually corrode public confidence in the law.
With the Internet, it is just not possible, let alone cost-effective, for the authorities to police such expressions. The only sensible and effective way to police such statements is to use the body of Internet users.
Social disapproval is not a watertight way to uphold social norms, but it has a wider reach than the authorities and it costs the taxypayer nothing. An analogy here is that of parking in spaces intended for the disabled. The most effective enforcement mechanism is not a parking auntie at every disabled parking lot. Except for the most intransigent motorist, a polite ticking off by other drivers is enough to keep the lots free for the disabled.
Furthermore, the law has difficulty drawing clear lines between racist speech and legitimate and necessary discussions of racial issues. In the end it must come down to a judgement call, depending on context and circumstance. In the absence of clear lines, many well-meaning people may pull back and refrain from such discussions. Legitimate questions, which would have generated productive and enlightening conversations, will not surface. Discussions will be driven underground, together with misconceptions that will not be challenged.
Second, government intervention implies that ordinary citizens cannot manage such ruptures themselves, and this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Citizens need practice in judging for themselves, first, whether the expression is racist and, second, the necessary and appropriate response. In doing so, they will have to engage with the multiple perspectives of Singapore's various communities, which will in turn strengthen Singapore's multiracialism. The process will be messier and less decisive, but it is the engagement, the exercise of judgement and application of social sanctions that are ultimately the best bet against racism.
The alternative, of leaving it up to the state, fails to develop a mature society, rendering Singaporeans forever dependent on the Government. When is an expression racist? Only when the Government says so? Only when the judge says so? When should one not make racist statements? Only when a police officer can catch you? The spectre of race riots has been in the case of the racist bloggers. However, one of the key lessons of such events has been underplayed.
When one studies the history of racial conflict here and around the world, one is struck by the role of unscrupulous politicians in fomenting unrest. But one is also left wondering how it was possible for people to believe the instigators when they made outrageous racially charged statements. Firm legal action may be needed when individuals actively spread the seed of violence by instigating their followers to violate the rights of other communities to live in peace. However, society must also tend the soil, encouraging citizens to be more discriminating when confronted with racist speech. This comes with practice, not by delegating the job to authorities.
The law is necessary as the ultimate backstop.
The Sedition Act is best treated like an insurance policy: It needs to be there but one should not hope to collect on it. It is certainly not a substitute for self-control in leading one's own life. In managing racist speech, therefore, the law is best untouched and unused for the most part.
Yes, Singapore society should stand up against racist voices in its midst. But the alternative inaction is not necessarily government action. It can also be the voice of reason from a responsible citizenry.
14 Oct 2005
Social disapproval better way to deal with racist remarks
Ang Peng Hwa, Dean of Nanyang Technological University's school of communication and information and author of Ordering Chaos: Regulating the Internet, writes in and shares his thoughts with the ST on dealing with racism. Why society should hold more responsibility in dealing with racist remarks themselves, and the ineffectiveness and consequences of total reliance on the law to deter racism.