Proscribing seditious and hate speech

It is old news now that a couple has been convicted for distributing literature offensive to Muslims, but I didn’t want to comment on it while the case was subjudice. However, it raises issues which Singaporeans should be discussing. What do we mean by hate speech? Is it synonymous with offensive speech? When should the law step in to proscribe hate speech? What about freedom of expression? Full essay.

19 Responses to “Proscribing seditious and hate speech”

  1. 1 sloo 8 September 2009 at 15:06

    With regards to TLA’s speech, it is unfortunate that our laws restrict sedition and hate speech to race and religious areas only. As such her speech against gays is not seditious in the eys of the law. Probably in other countries where laws are enacted to cover the right of minorities (and where LBGTs are classified as ‘minorities’), TLA would probably face actions for her speech.

    As for the couple, mailing those tracts reveals ill – intent and possible ‘harm’ by not only causing offense but also provoking the victim to retaliate inother harmful and voilent ways. So the law has to prevent actions that may inflame harmful actions on the part of anyone – perpetuator or victim. By initiating action against the couple, the authorities are warning others as well as pre-empting any dissatisfaction the victims may feel against an unfair judgement. A very clear case of this can be seen in the Cow’s head protest in Malaysia. Although the portest was a very clear example of a seditious act (inciting and displaying intolerance and hatred towards another religion), the perceived support of the Home Minister for the protestors inflamed tensions.

    • 2 Martha de Beest 8 September 2009 at 23:31

      Technically the Sedition Act is not limited to race and religion, and could apply to incitement to hatred of gays. It doesn’t mention religion so far as I can see, it says in (e) “between different classes” of people. Homosexuals are usually held outside Singapore to be a minority, a class of people, for example in the recent decision in India that s377 was unconstitutional and similar rulings in HK, not to mention the whole of the developed world. It’s perfectly obvious to most people and to most judicial systems that they are.

      Unfortunately the PM (in his 377A speech) appeared to buy into the fundamentalist and irrational view that gay people are not a minority,or class of people, if I understood him correctly.

  2. 3 la nausée 8 September 2009 at 18:48

    One formula I’d suggest for “hate speech” is:

    Hate speech = Words or acts which offend, shock or disturb (1) by virtue of targeting a person’s affiliation with a group, that affiliation being central to his or her dignity and self-respect, and (2) which is motivated by and contributes to systemic discrimination against that group.

    The two additional elements are critical for separating ‘hate speech’ (which is constitutionally proscribable, to use the jargon) from mere ‘offensive speech’ (which is not).

    This raises at least three issues. First, there is the thorny problem of separating group affiliations which are ‘central’ to (or ‘constitutive’ of) a person’s identity and self-respect, and those which are not. Race, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexual orientation seem quite clear-cut examples, but what about age, ideology, political affiliation, one’s book club, etc.?

    Second, we need to accept that discrimination takes on many forms, and that words can rob a person of her self-respect just as much as physical acts. The old bromide about sticks and stones is not quite true; to a marginalized minority, verbal insults and physical abuse blend into a single, undifferentiated experience of oppression.

    Third, it’s nevertheless important to note that a verbal insult, even against a ‘constitutive’ affiliation, can never qualify as “hate speech” unless there is existing discrimination and inequality experienced by that group. Hence, virulent abuse directed against a certain religious group in Singapore might not be “hate speech”, because it’s by no stretch of the imagination historically disadvantaged; in fact, it does a fair share of the oppressing itself, as the recent Sedition Act shows.

  3. 5 Chris 8 September 2009 at 20:10

    What would be interesting is to attempt to have people espousing anti gay views prosecuted as you suggest. It might qualify for prosecution for seditious tendency as it is attempting to promote ill will between classes of society.

    I would like to bet that the government response to such an attempt would be gays are not a class of society so cannot be offended by seditious speech, however ill-defined it might be. Being gay is a lifestyle choice right? (Although isn’t religion a lifestyle choice as well?) And also, surely they would say the purpose of this law is not to protect all classes in society, only those worthy of protection.

    • 6 Martha de Beest 8 September 2009 at 23:46

      Sorry Chris, I made my point above in reply to Sloo before seeing your reply. Yes the fundamentalists love to claim gay is a lifestyle choice, not immutable characteristic, and therefore they cannot be a minority/ class of people. The irony of their own position is lost on them, as is the fact that all the evidence is against them.

  4. 7 Martha de Beest 9 September 2009 at 00:29

    What about if mailing the offending articles to muslims causes those muslims to hate and feel violent towards Christians? Doesn’t that cause friction and potential public order problems? Does the incitement to hatred have to be of the other group, or can it be offence to that group, causing hatred towards one’s own group?

    The research paper I referred to in the comments on your Christian extremist article, mentions that the conversion tactics of Christian groups were cited as a major factor behind the radicalisation of those Muslims arrested on terrorist charges in Indonesia in April 2009. So perhaps the public order argument needs to take into account the rebounding effect too?

    Similarly the tactics of the Christian extremists both regarding 377A and the AWARE saga in Singapore seem to have caused many people to become antipathetic to Christians generally; can it be argued that they have incited hatred not just against gay people, but also against their own group, and against Christians generally?

  5. 8 KiWeTO 9 September 2009 at 12:30

    Can society proscribe against hate thoughts? No.
    (just about every religion would be seditious if we took that philosophy).

    Can society proscribe against hate agitation? Perhaps.

    What is a clear difference between the two?

    If one were to express:

    1. I hate “christians/muslims/whoevernots”
    2. We should hate “christians/muslims/whoevernots”

    Which one should civil society act against with the force of societal law by agreement?

    From my opinion:

    We can only deal with speech (1) by:
    A. Exposure and Education hopefully leading to acceptance that others have the right to be different so that oneself can be different. Else, we would all be forced to be like each other!
    (After that, we can still choose to hate each other’s religion, but at least we all equally have the right to choose to hate?)
    (as for the finer line between harbouring hate thoughts and acting on them via discriminatory acts… ugh!)

    As for hate speech (2)
    I would say it would be inciting hatred. Especially if it is promoted to the greater public. Throw the law book at them. (When did we give up exile? 😉 Afterall, if they don’t want to be in a pluralistic society, they can leave, or be ‘invited’ to leave. )

    Then again, when did we choose it to be a progressive pluralistic society, and is it wrong for a conservative to want to keep things the same as they were? (even if they are discriminatory such as ‘whites-only’ or similar things?)

    As for the finer line when (2) is expressed within like-minded people…. sigh. methinks the near equivalent happens in houses of faith far too often (those who are not ‘saved’ like us are doomed to burn in hell etc etc).

    Fine print to sort out include:
    1. What rules define a group in society so that it can be construed as hate speech? do fat people count as a group? physically disabled? goth? cos-players? Or the reasonable-man test of whither it be hate speech of inflammatory nature?

    What they did was in bad taste, and might have been better dealt with via harrassment laws, or the equivalent of restraining orders, or disturbing the public peace. What happened to ‘turning the other cheek’ and ‘sticks and stones’ as a form of peaceful rejection of another’s views?

    Then again, a lot of our laws might need a rethink on its reactive nature. But these are things that never seem to be high on anyone’s priority list.


  6. 9 la nausée 9 September 2009 at 12:33

    Trying to read protection for gays into s. 3(e) of the Sedition Act might be tough; you need to show that feelings of ill-will are promoted between different classes. Does anti-gay invective promote ill-will (1) between homosexuals and heterosexuals (unlikely), or (2) between gays and Christians (not quite comparing like for like)?

    It’s also necessary to disentangle the various meanings of ‘hate speech’. ‘Hate speech’ might mean causing feelings of enmity between various groups and thus increasing the risk of violence and public disorder in society-at-large (this is the essence of the Sedition Act and s. 298A of the Penal Code); inciting third parties to commit acts of violence against a specific group; or a verbal form of discrimination which, independently of causing physical violence, injures the psychological, reputational, socio-political and moral interests of a specific group (possibly s. 298 of the Penal Code, were it seen to be requiring a high threshold).

    I tend to prefer the third approach, because the first two may depend on rather tenuous causal links, and the first in particular masks the group-specific nature of hate speech which makes it peculiarly objectionable.

    • 10 Martha de Beest 9 September 2009 at 16:14

      La Nausee,

      re your first paragraph, I see your point, but are you saying the groups have to be alike that the enmity is between? I don’t see that.

      • 11 la nausée 9 September 2009 at 18:13

        @Martha de Beest,

        I’d suggest, although quite tentatively, that the ‘classes’ have to be defined according to the same trait or characteristic, e.g., homosexuals vs. heterosexuals vs. bisexuals. Two reasons.

        First, this interpretation promotes certainty. If on the other hand we define ‘classes’ according to two or more criteria, there will be odd overlaps: e.g., in the case of Christians vs. gays, some people may be both Christian and gay, or in the case of women versus Religion X, some people may be both female and devotees of Religion X. If so, it may be hard to show that ‘enmity’ has resulted between two or more partially overlapping classes.

        Second (and more technically), the term “classes” must be interpreted ejusdem generis with “races” immediately preceding it, and that latter term defines groups according to one (immutable) characteristic only.

        All this is distinct from proving that a sexual minority is a “class” under Sedition Act. So all in all, I think the argument that anti-gay vitriol would be prohibited by the Sedition Act is quite difficult to sustain.

  7. 12 sloo 9 September 2009 at 14:02

    From my reading of what our govt has done in the case of this couple, it is the fear of a backlash from muslim that has forced their hand to criminalise their ations. So its not just the obvious actions of the perpetuator, it is also the anticipation of whatever actions and response that may come from these actions that unnerve our govt. The law, when used in this instance, is a pre-emnptive move and serves as a warning to others. It also makes to clear to all concerned the govt’s stand on such matter before theissue is blown out of hand, as in the case of the malaysian cow head incident.
    Of course the issue then is when and how the govt imposes this law – only when people complain to the authorities, when a backlash occurs or when it first unearths evidence of wrongdoing. Note that Chick tracts have been selling for years in numerous stores (in fact, a feature in unearthed this long before the couple’s case came to light) and the couple have been mailing them for years. The line is fuzzy but the actions and motives will be clear when they act.

  8. 13 Martha de Beest 10 September 2009 at 01:08

    La Nausee,

    I can see your reasoning, and it sounds an attractive argument, but I think it may be slightly flawed.

    If “classes” were to be eiusdem generis with race, then would they not also have to be immutable in character? That would exclude religion from the picture (though not sexual orientation). But clearly the courts consider religion included.

    Personally I don’t see a problem with classes overlapping. What about mixed race people, would your line of reasoning lead to it being a defence for someone inciting hatred against a particular racial group if they were, in part, genetically part of that group?

    Which raises another question: are you perhaps being too literal on the “between” point? If our mixed race person stirs up hatred against race X, can it really be said to be between races? He’s saying “race X is hateful because…”, not that “race Y should hate race X because…”

    So if our mixed race person is guilty in that situation, why not a religious extremist (or anyone else) who incites hatred against gays?

    On the issue of what is hate speech, here is a straightforward explanation of what is hate speech against gay people in England:

    “What the new laws will cover:

    The new offence will tackle serious acts of hatred directed towards lesbian and gay people. These include homophobic song lyrics, available to buy in Britain, which encourage the torture and murder of gay people and violently homophobic publications and websites, available to the general public. Such materials create great fear and promote inflammatory myths and misconceptions as fact, undermining community cohesion.

    What the new laws won’t cover:

    There have been some alarmist claims in recent months about what the new laws will cover. The new protections will categorically not impede genuine freedom of speech or the telling of jokes by comedians, as some have suggested.
    The offence will not outlaw jokes involving gay people, or any jokes that a gay person might deem offensive. Neither will it cover playground insults.
Instead, the new offence will aim to prevent and tackle acts of serious hatred against individuals defined by reference to their sexual orientation, with a high threshold for prosecutions which must be approved by the Attorney General and heard before a jury.”


  9. 14 Martha de Beest 10 September 2009 at 01:14


    Presumably followed up because of the complaints. In view of the decision, it seems clear that it’s illegal to sell/distribute the material, which has been deemed to have a seditious tendency.

  10. 15 Lee Chee Wai 10 September 2009 at 02:56

    Is there no anti-harassment law in Singapore on the basis of which to charge the couple (if indeed someone felt harassed by their actions)?

    The Sedition Act (I’ll not get into the hate speech aspects of it) seems to be inappropriately applied to this case.

  11. 16 la nausée 10 September 2009 at 11:02

    I would suggest our Sedition Act and s. 298A of the Penal Code are a little different from the U.K. legislation (presently, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006). Singapore’s legislation deals with the hate speech problem from a general public order standpoint (hate speech is deemed bad because it jeopardizes the life of the nation, by stirring up hatred between different classes, and not just persons). On the other hand, the U.K. legislation is what may be termed ‘victim-centred’; hate speech is proscribed because it contributes to the marginalization of a particular community, by depriving it from its rights to physical security and to dignified treatment.

    The two approaches come apart in the recent Sedition Act case. The anti-Muslim propaganda was mailed to the victims’ individual homes, rather than posted online. It would be difficult to prove that there was a risk of public disorder, unless one (1) shows that the victims passed on the materials or would retaliate by hurling abuse at other religions; or (2) interprets the term “seditious tendency” very generously. The Government has apparently adopted the latter approach. I think the sounder approach is the victim-centred, anti-discrimination one.

    To answer Lee Chee Wai’s query, I think s. 298 of the Penal Code (the wounding of racial/religious feelings) encapsulates the victim-centred approach, although in a quite rudimentary way. Ex facie, the provision seems overbroad, as Alex points out, because it would appear to be a weapon which ultraconservatives can rely on if their feelings are in anyway pricked. But an examination of the accompanying legislative materials suggest that a higher threshold must be set. As the original drafters explicitly stressed the need “to allow all fair latitude to religious discussion”, and this is given effect to by requiring that a “deliberate intention” to wound another’s racial/religious feelings be proved.

  12. 17 Martha de Beest 10 September 2009 at 17:22

    La Nausee,

    I think your approach sounds better and less problematical than using the Sedition Act.

    I’m not sure though that you’re completely correct regarding the purpose of the UK legislation; the 2006 Act amends the Public Order Act 1986. I think it is seen very much as a public order issue, in particular to prevent a violent backlash against certain religious/ethnic groups following terrorist bombings a few years ago. Similarly the extension to hate speech based on sexual orientation is to prevent the incitement of acts of violence, i.e. breaches of the peace.

    But it does also seem designed to protect individuals from serious acts of hatred because of belonging to a particular group.

  13. 18 Jezebella 11 September 2009 at 16:29

    Using freedom of right and speech to offend is an ABUSE of the freedom, and such abuses should not be tolerated. Especially when it could hurt and offend people on a large scale.

    The couple got what they deserved.

  14. 19 Kelvin Tan 13 September 2009 at 22:31

    Guess SouthPark would have seen to be seditious for so many of their episodes, as well as their motion picture.

    “Joseph Smith is a true prophet dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb”

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