Nuns have been known to go wild, courts have been known to convict the innocent and governments have been known to act unlawfully. That we have great literature on these themes from many different civilisations testifies that these are realities in our human experience. The realities may not be flattering ones, but our literature redeems us, vouching for us as a species able to plumb our consciences, to speak out when things aren’t right, to remedy our failings, and to convey through story-telling the lessons to future generations so that they may avoid the same errors.
It’s when consciences cannot speak that we are diminished. As theatre director Ong Keng Sen said on Friday, 6 August 2010, “Our humanity is being stripped away by censorship. . .”
I was there at that press conference by the group ArtsEngage, and had an opportunity to say a little something. Let me record here my two chief points:
1. Censorship in Singapore is far more pervasive than the doings of the Media Development Authority (MDA);
2. We need to assert again and again that freedom of expression is a right, not a privilege.
Freedom of expression is a right, not a privilege
Let me take the second point first, though before that I need to give you a bit more context about that press conference. It was called by ArtsEngage to mark the closing of their petition gathering phase. They used the occasion to announce that their Position Paper had collected about 1,800 signatures and had been lodged with the Censorship Review Committee (CRC). The government-appointed committee has been tasked to produce recommendations for modifying censorship guidelines and is expected to issue its report this September.
In my remarks, I registered my concern that while the process of engagement with the MDA and the CRC was necessary, the rights perspective might be lost. Polite engagement can easily be taken as acquiescence to the government’s claimed right to interfere with speech as a matter of principle, and the process may set the baseline that freedom of expression is a privilege to be negotiated with the controlling authorities. I am uncomfortable with that.
I think that as much as we engage, we must continue to assert that freedom of expression is a civil right, not a gift of government, and that any engagement I participate in is one where I try to roll back the government’s unlawful encroachment upon my civil right: You are trespassing, and I am engaging with you to get you off my property; at no time am I going to concede that you have any right to squat here and deprive me of the use of my property.
A huge number of Singaporeans, house-trained by our repressive, quick-tempered government, shy away from adopting the rights perspective in public discourse. I am dismayed we give up our birthright so easily.
I know the practical argument for not raising this angle: It will only get the government’s back up and make it even harder to get the slightest concession from them. But considering how little we can get out of them by polite engagement anyway, I always wonder whether this is a practical argument or merely a rationalising of our deepest fear — to be cast as a subversive subject to frivolous prosecution or indefinite detention should we protest too loudly.
Yet, freedom of expression is right there in our constitution, and the same fundamental right is there in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights too. . .
Let me digress for a moment:
Singapore has an international commitment to respect freedom of speech
Did you know that at the very top of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), in the Preamble, there are these statements?
Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,
And then in the body of the Declaration, it says that it was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations:
The General Assembly proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.
(comment by Yawning Bread: wouldn’t “every organ of society” mentioned above include the courts?)
Article 19 of the UDHR says:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
What this means is that by joining the United Nations, Singapore as a member state has signed on to the UDHR, even though the latter was first adopted before Singapore joined. And Article 19 of the UDHR provides for the freedom to express an opinion and to receive opinions: The right to speak and to hear.
The UDHR is not a dead letter. There is, in fact, an international process by which Singapore, like all other UN members, are assessed for compliance. It is called the Universal Periodic Review, and is conducted by the UN’s Human Rights Council. The Council’s resolution 5/1 of 18 June 2007, provides that member states undergoing Universal Periodic Review shall be reviewed on several bases, including but not limited to (a) the Charter of the United Nations; (b) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; (c) human rights instruments to which the State is a party; and (d) voluntary pledges and commitments made by States.
Singapore’s turn to be assessed by other members of the UN for compliance will come in 2011.
This digression is meant to reinforce my point that not only is the freedom of expression in our constitution, but it is in the UDHR, to which our State has undertaken to honour, and to be so judged by its peers in the United Nations.
Many pieces of legislation passed by our always-accommodating parliament contravene these fundamental guarantees. They are therefore unlawful legislation, even though they claim to be “laws”. Any minister or bureaucrat who operates by such unlawful legislation is acting unlawfully.
The MDA is not the only culprit
Censorship is far more pervasive than the doings of the MDA. As ArtsEngage’s Position Paper pointed out, different agencies, including the police, the Ministry of Manpower, venue operators such as the National Library Board that recently prevented ex-detainee Vincent Cheng from speaking at a forum, play a part.
At the press conference, I cited the case of Alan Shadrake (pictured right). As readers may know, this longtime investigative journalist wrote the book Once a Jolly Hangman (see here) which criticised the way justice works in Singapore. For his pains, he has been hauled up to face contempt of court charges (see here, here and here). As I noted in previous essays, the defence of justification is not permitted in contempt cases: It does not matter if what one said was a reasonable conclusion from facts, or even completely true; the criticism alone makes the offence.
Summoning Shadrake to face contempt of court charges, with imprisonment as a possible penalty, is an act of brutal censorship.
The government has also gone into disinformation mode.
4 August 2010
‘Attacks on judiciary undermine public trust’
Singapore must defend the integrity of its institutions of justice and law enforcement robustly, especially when attacked maliciously.
Such attacks undermine public confidence and trust earned over years, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng said yesterday.
‘If we do not do so and allow vicious falsehood to perversely masquerade itself as the truth, we will eventually lose our moral authority and with it, our effectiveness to achieve our mission to keep Singapore safe and secure,’ he said.
“Vicious falsehood”, said Wong. Although he did not cite the Shadrake case specifically, it’s the only well-known case before the courts currently. He can only have been referring to it. How did Wong become the judge, deciding that the contents of the book are (a) false and (b) vicious?
Surely, such things should be established by a trial process, under which the defendant has the right to prove that he is justified from his research in coming to the conclusions that he reached. But wait, he is not allowed to argue justification, and as I’ve said above, the archaic law punishes criticism, whether true or false. By no stretch of the imagination can one see these contempt of court charges against Shadrake as a process to arrive at justice which is what courts are supposed to be interested in; it’s really a blatant, bullying act of censorship.
And the MDA is not the chief actor here.
Nobody has the right not to be offended
At the press conference Zelda Ng, a theatre practitioner, spoke about nuns who became convent school girls — one usually thinks it goes the other way around. It’s like this: There was a play written by Leon Foo, directed by Gavin Low, titled Nuns Gone Wild, included in the Arts House’s Short+Sweet 2010 season. The Arts House has a kind of exemption, meaning its productions do not need to be individually licenced by the MDA. However, the terms of the Arts House’ exemption (I don’t really know if ‘exemption’ is the right word; it’s a kind of blanket licence) puts the onus on Arts House to apply the same standards as the MDA themselves would.
Consequently, the Arts House arm-twisted the playwright and the director to take out any references to nuns. The plot remained similar to the original, but the characters became convent girls and the title was changed from Nuns Gone Wild to Good Girls.
Note here too the MDA was not directly involved. Censorship was being carried out by third parties, something that the MDA would only be too happy to see spread, in order that they can keep their hands clean, protesting innocence: “But hey, we don’t censor anymore.”
Everybody at the press conference knew why Nuns Gone Wild could not proceed as originally conceived. It might offend some religious folks. But as T Sasitharan, a doyen in Singapore’s arts community, said at the event, “Nobody should have the right to be not offended.”
In that vein, let me scandalise you, offend and close this essay with a advertisement conceived by Bjorn Borg, brought to my attention by my London friend Chris Hansen: