Mark Ng advances the cause of speech freedom

Yup, I’m referring to the same Mark Ng (pic at left), the pastor from New Creation Church who was in the news lately over remarks made two years ago likening Taoist deities to secret society gangsters. No, I’m not saying that what he did was right, and I am certainly not encouraging anybody to do likewise. In any case, the record should show that he too has realised it wasn’t the right thing to say and has apologised to Taoists. The apology has been accepted by several Taoist priests and this particular matter is now closed.

What I am more interested in is how this episode underlines the maturity of our society when we encounter potentially injurious speech, and how it is handled.

My point is a simple one: We have a growing list of such transgressions, from schoolboys to preachers, but in all of these cases, the potentially hurtful words are uttered first and dealt with later. And we’re all fine with the process. What does that imply? It means there is no case for preemptive censorship even of racially and religiously offensive speech.

Our government uses the fear of racial and religious conflict to argue in favour of censorship. Unfortunately, lots of people buy that argument and agree that muzzling is needed. In making its case, the government paints Singaporeans as immature and prone to disproportionate response. Somehow almost no one contests this belittling description of themselves. Perhaps they are too mature to take offence?

The record shows that none of these cases were preempted. The words were said, everybody could see and hear what was said, somebody somewhere got upset, and the issue grappled with when it surfaced. Mark Ng, by his indiscretion, has just beefed up the dossier of cases with one more example.

Bottom line: We don’t need preemptive censorship. Not even of hate speech.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not arguing for no regulation at all. There is a place for laws that criminalise extreme forms of hate speech, e.g. a sustained rhetoric promoting serious discriminatory action or calls to violence. There is an even bigger place for spontaneous speaking up against such speech by other members of society, not only in response to extreme forms of hate speech, but also to milder forms of offensive speech which the law would do better to stay away from, the law being a very blunt instrument. But there is no need for preemptive banning. There is no need to fear that lots of people would see those offensive words and go berserk. Our experience just does not validate these fears.

Mark Ng’s case was the fourth this year, from what I’ve read. In February, another pastor, Rony Tan from Lighthouse Evangelism, belittled Buddhism in a number of videos. After the Internal Security Department called him up, he issued a public apology though blogger Redbean had doubts about what exactly that meant.

The same month, police arrested three Chinese youths, aged 17 to 18, who were the active participants of a Facebook group named after a derogatory term for Indians, according to the Straits Times. Ten days later, the newspaper reported:

In a statement, the Police said that the unnamed teen who started the racist group has been placed on the Ministry of Community, Youth and Sports’ (MCYS) Guidance Programme.

According to the MCYS website, the programme started in 1997 is for first-time offenders that commit minor offences, offering them an ‘opportunity … to make amends and resolve against re-offending in the future.’

The youth will undergo a ‘voluntary six-month programme that focuses on counselling and rehabilitation with the active involvement of parents … If the juvenile completes the Guidance Programme successfully, he will not be charged by the Police’ but issued with a caution instead.

The two youths who acted as administrators for the group, 17-year-old Sam Soo Siu Weng and 18-year-old Goh Jun Yi, have also been let off with a caution.

— Straits Times Breaking News, 12 Feb 2010, 3 youths won’t be charged

(I don’t understand why the name of the teenager who had to undergo the six-month counselling program was withheld when the names of the other two were not.)

Earlier this month, offensive remarks about two students in Tampines Junior College were found on a Wikipedia entry. One was a Singaporean of Indian ancestry, the other a Korean. I haven’t seen any follow-up reports (after the initial Straits Times’ story on 11 June 2010 JC students branded ‘dogs’ on Wikipedia) , but I believe the school administration is working with the police to investigate the source.

These cases recall the “racist bloggers” case of 2005 that led to short jail terms for two young men for anti-Muslim remarks that led to furious debate. That too, was handled post-facto.

Then there was the case of Ong Kian Cheong and his wife Dorothy Chan who were jailed in 2009 for eight weeks each for distributing Jack Chick booklets titled The Little Bride and Who is Allah? in 2007 to three Muslims who complained to the police. Both publications were insultingly critical of Islam. Actually both publications were ludicrously bad. However, in their defence, Ong and Chan pointed out that these books had been freely available in local shops.

Mark Ng’s mocking words about Taoist deities were made two years ago. They were contained in DVD recordings that had been on sale since. In other words they circulated for two years before somebody noticed.

None of these cases were preemptively censored. They even circulated for a while before they came to light. And yet, we’re doing alright. It only goes to show: We do not need preemptive censorship. Not even of racially and religiously offensive speech.

And since even this class of speech does not need censorship, why do we need censorship at all? I really do think Singaporeans will do fine making their own judgements about what they see and hear.

8 Responses to “Mark Ng advances the cause of speech freedom”

  1. 1 sloo 28 June 2010 at 12:40


    Just cos these incidents were discovered some time after they happened only goes to show that people can still be disturbed and offended by words and actions in the past. The point really is not that we don’t need preemptive censorship; it makes it even more indispensible for the mere fact that we cannot predict how these words and actions can trigger reactions in the future. But in order to have prepemptive censorship, that would entail massive resources and a scenario quite like George Orwell’s 1984.

    And the difference again is that these words and action were made available to the public. The act that someone from the public discovered this much later does not diminish the fact that if you initiate such words, then be prepared to face the consequences of the public. It would be entirely different if they happened within the fur walls of their church, which i am sure happens a a lot of times. With a society that is becoming increasingly divided along racial and religious lines it is no surprise that more people are taking notice of these incidents than before. Using past reactions (or the lack of) to confirm your theory as applicable to our present situation is therefore lacking in understanding of the increasing polarised state of our society.

    I have no doubt that you think singaporeans are mature and reasonable enough to make judgments of what they see and hear – but what are the results of such judgments? Can we safely say that nothing untoward will happen? And just as you think this, so there many who think otherwise – just look at some of the postings online. Are we willing to take the risk of trying out your academic proposition at the risk of violence and worse, deaths?

    I am not for preemptive censorship on the whole but if it helps in preventing similar disrespectful and derogatory incidents in our society, then its a very attractive and viable option for maintaining the peace.

  2. 2 K Das 28 June 2010 at 16:49

    The Chinese (the Taoists, I mean) are generally more passive on matters of God and religion unlike the Muslims and to a lesser extent the Christians and Hindus, who often react strongly to offensive comments and acts against their religion. Hence the tolerance and ready acceptance of apology to New Creation Church’s pastor Mark Ng’s offensive remarks about Taoist deities being like secret society gangsters is understandable.

    God and religion should be kept in heart and at home and not brought to public space. If only practitioners of other faiths can have the level of tolerance displayed by the Taoists, Singapore or for that matter the world can be a better place to live in.

  3. 3 Sheng 29 June 2010 at 11:29

    The critical issue about preemptive censorship is BALANCE. At which point or level should premeptive action come in without negating the right to freedom of speech and thought. It is hard to argue for totally no preemptive censorship even though some semblance of tolerance and good sense has been displayed in the examples you set forth in your article. When the action crosses a point that triggers a less than desirable reaction, it may be too late to react / respond.

    But let’s honestly consider the need for preemptive censorship in Spore. it is really about harassing the mind of the citizen. Put in enough fear of the authorities and soon enough, no one dares… not a whimper … not a whisper of disagreement.

    This represents the thuggish and knuckle duster mentality of the old tyrant that commands all and everything in Spore. It is time that we confront the issue for what it is. Preemptive censorship is not for maintaining peace or preventing riots – it is part of the social control which is exerted and impose on Spore for the alst 25 years.

  4. 4 ryisse 29 June 2010 at 11:31

    The unnamed teenager is probably below 16 years old and therefore in the jurisdiction of the Juvenile Court. But I’m not sure what this means re revealing or not revealing his name.

  5. 5 Robox 29 June 2010 at 23:46

    If I have interpreted this hastily-read article correctly, I agree with YB’s basic assertions:

    1. It is prudent not to create a chilling environment for free speech. (Goodness knows, haven’t we had enough of that in Singapore on a whole range of other issues?) Most of what many would consider offensive speech/acts in everyday life falls into the the category of unconcious or unintentional; it’s the polar opposite online. When such unconcious/unintentional offensive speech occurs, it provides us with a good opportunity to challenge such speech/acts – moral suasion – and increase the chances of the eradication of such problems. A chilling environment for free speech deprives us of such an opportunity.

    2. On the other hand, I support the use of the law against speech/acts that are wilfully injurious; that I would call hate speech or hate-based action. Such speech/acts meet all the legal criteria for crime, by which I mean the critera for mens rea (guilty mind) and actus reus (guilty act). The challenge is in determining what those criteria are in the specific cases that we have seen so far, eg. repetition of speech/act despite appeals, warnings, and despite already being corrected; namecalling, even if done as a one-time act; etc.

    But specifically with the case/s of Christian preachers, there are a couple of things that I have not yet seen acknowledged:

    The majority of what I deem hate speech by Christian preachers publicly against other belief systems have been directed at other Chinese who profess no religion or Buddhism/Taoism and who have been the traditional source of new converts to Christianity – Indians and Malays have been spared, at least in public communication to deflect the charge of racism against themselves. Interestingly – and I bring this up because I witnessed yet another instance of this occurrence just a week ago – one tack that Christian preachers have used is to exploit any underlying anti-Indian sentiment there may be in the Chinese population by demanding, “Do you know that Buddhism comes from …(GASP!)… INDIA? That makes it racism on top of being hate speech against another religion. (Oh, and did I forget to mention that these Christians are also overwhelmingly staunch PAP supporters?)

    What all the above points to is just how strategically layed out the plans – a plot? – to win new converts to Christianity are; all the accompanying speech employed is intentional and done knowingly.

    It’s a criminal act. Whether done for the first time by any one preacher or not.

    This leads me to propose a public education program that is substantially different from the ones conducted thus far which all seem to be of the “This is dangerous” or “Let’s just be nice to one another, okay?” categories; it is really an outgrowth of secularism and employed with great success in other countries.

    But first, to secularism itself as a way of understanding the point I am arriving at:

    At its core, secularism is the prohibition *against government* from interpreting religious doctrine, and this can be as simple as the prohibition against determining that any one doctrine is correct, particularly when in conflict with other contending information. There is good reason for that prohibition:

    1. Almost 100% – and I use that figure only to give this the benefit of the doubt – of politicians are not qualified to interpret doctrine, even the doctrine of their own religions, by virtue of not being trained to do so.

    2. We did not elect religious leaders but political ones.

    In inter-faith or inter-ethnic relations, the prerequiaite of training as qualification to interpret doctrine is developed further to now encompass religious leaders themselves. The religious leaders of one religion – and we can extend this to include sects and denominations within religions as well – are trained in the study of their religions only; they are not qualified to interpret other religious doctrine. (Sorry, but Bible College does not qualify you to interpret the Vedas written in Sanskrit.)

    But personally, I take the stand that if in an effort to win me as a convert to your religion, the only things that you can tell me are what is bad about other religions but not what is good about yours, then I will walk away concluding that your religion cannot possibly have anything good about it.

    Your relgion is not for me.

  6. 6 Robox 29 June 2010 at 23:55

    One bit of information that I omitted is that free speech originated as a problem solving in politics. Notwithsatnding that politics doesn’t only refer to party-based politics, the problem solving aspect remains true. Thus, I would question what problem anyone engaging in hate speech is intending to solve so as to qualify it as free speech?

  7. 7 Anonymous 2 July 2010 at 11:51

    Not witnessing strong (and rash) reactions towards religious and racial transgressions in public does not directly translate to a population that is mature in dealing with racial and religious issues.

    Even if the above-mentioned incidents have not shaken/destabilized the social-religious and racial fabric of the country visibly, it could still lead to a “hardening of mindsets” in people who might already have a predisposed opinion towards a certain race and/or religion. Such people do not necessarily take outward action or speak up aloud to express their views. This is especially so without vigorous, open-minded yet respectful discussions about race and religion themselves.

    Such racial and religious exchanges are not commonly seen and “felt” and this is partially due to the secular nature of the government. This sets the tone of religious-racial debate which is stable and arguably, stagnant. In addition Singaporeans generally avoid trouble or contention whenever possible, for better or worse.

    A form of preemptive regulation is needed. But this should not be in terms of punishing provocative expressions and the containment of their impact through “quick-fixes” i.e. public apologies. Both methods are losing relevance in an age of increasing (and deepening) consultation and interconnectivity. Instead, the preemptive regulation should be centered on why such religious and racial incidents have happened before, how they can slowly weaken society and how to constantly handle such sensitive issues openly and delicately before they erupt into something uglier.

    At a deeper level, religion and race are very personal issues of identity, belief and faith. Sometimes it may be impossible to reconcile one’s thinking with another (i.e. there can be no acceptance in any form for another race/religion). Perhaps it would be more useful to ask the people who have lashed out such hurtful remarks;

    ”What has the religion/race or any member in it done to merit those harsh words?

    However, if the answer for such behavior lies more towards upbringing and socialization, then the status quo could be poised for a perpetual progression towards the next public and “climatic” racial or religious conflict.

  8. 8 ISA Logic 17 July 2010 at 12:03

    If ISA is to be used on matter of gravity, then it must act swiftly. This should be the logic, even if you were not supportive of the use of ISA at all. ISA’s pursuit on Pastor Mark on a 2-year old matter is really a hard logic to simple mind.

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