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.