They are wrong. The government is not considering a lèse majesté law. The Asian Correspondent used this term in its headline of 26 May 2015 for Carlton Tan’s opinion piece (A lèse majesté law for Singapore’s king, long live Lee Kuan Yew); The Online Citizen used it too in Tan Wah Piow’s piece of 28 May 2015 (Lèse majesté Singapore-style – the ultimate betrayal of the Singapore constitution).
Lèse majesté laws criminalise insulting remarks about the king, generally the reigning king. Lee Kuan Yew is dead. The government knows he is dead. It accepts the fact that he is dead. It even organised a huge funeral though I don’t know whether it hired professional criers for the occasion. In any case, he was never king, though he might have behaved like one.
What the government is considering is blasphemy law. Blasphemy law is aimed at speech and expression that articulates or implies irreverence toward holy personages or religious beliefs. Of course, Lee Kuan Yew must first be made holy in order to shield him with blasphemy law, but I don’t think it is necessary to belabour the very obvious point that beatification is in full swing.
In a recent essay (Behind the brat looms an oppressor still), I pointed out the many ways in which Singapore is becoming a theocratic state. Adding a blasphemy law to the statute books would be completely in character.
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Pause for a little background, shall we?
The Government is looking at introducing legislation to protect the name and image of the Republic’s founding Prime Minister, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, against commercial exploitation and misuse.
Culture, Community and Youth Minister Lawrence Wong revealed this while speaking to the media at the sidelines of the National Community Engagement Programme Dialogue on Saturday (May 23).
Mr Wong said the move comes as many members of the public have raised concerns over the misuse of Mr Lee’s name.
Mr Wong said: “I should make it very clear that the intent is not to restrict people from coming up with their own creative ways to pay their tribute to Mr Lee. Our intent is in line with public concerns.”
Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s death on March 23 triggered an outpouring of grief in Singapore. Some also came up with creative ways to pay tribute. However, it seems not all were well-received by the public.
Mr Wong said: “The first example that you can easily see was what happened with the company that tried to do the buns, right? So again at that time there was a lot of public reaction about how this was distasteful and it was commercially exploitative and it was probably bad and not the right thing to do.
“There have been concerns of people, also of potentially printing T-shirts, selling them with his name and images, and figurines that can be sold for profits or commercial gain.”
— Channel NewsAsia, 23 May 2015, Government looking to enact laws to protect name, image of Lee Kuan Yew. Link
Wong mused about expanding the existing law that regulates the use and display of national symbols, such as the Singapore flag and anthem to include the name and representations of Lee Kuan Yew.
Mr Wong said the legislation will not restrict the public from coming up with creative expressions of tribute to Mr Lee.
He said: “There is a very clear distinction between somebody who does it for charitable reasons – somebody who does it to pay tribute without making a profit out of it – and an individual or company that’s doing this specifically for profit, for commercial gains. I think there is clear distinction and I think it is not difficult to distinguish between the two.”
Mr Wong said it is not a total ban, but a restriction where approval is required. “So there can be variations of it. We are still studying it, so there can be ways where you could put safeguards,” he added.
Mr Wong said the aim is to ensure Mr Lee’s name and image are used in appropriate ways.
Several people have taken issue with this hare-brained idea. Carlton Tan at the Asian Correspondent wrote:
It remains unclear how commercial exploitation will be defined and who will be affected by this law. Will political cartoonists who sell books with Mr Lee’s image be banned? Will websites that use non-copyrighted images of him be banned if they display advertisements? Who must apply for approval? Is it anyone who wishes to use Mr Lee’s name or anyone who wishes to use it for commercial purposes? Must academics who write books about Mr Lee apply for approval if they earn royalties?
Mr Wong’s vague assertion that “there can be ways where you could put safeguards” is of little assurance. What safeguards are these and will the Government write them into the law or merely give verbal assurances that count for nothing? If anything, the Government has failed to even specify the reason for this proposed law. Although Mr Wong claims that the Government’s “intent is in line with public concerns”, he has not been forthcoming about what these public concerns are.
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A more fundamental problem is this: What is the public interest at stake?
Why is this question so fundamental? Because it is one of the best tests as to whether good law is being made by parliament. Laws that seek to enrich a few businessmen at the expense of consumers (e.g. monopoly/oligopoly laws), laws that favour one ethnic group over another, or laws that exempt a few private persons from paying tax, should be suspect (and illegitimate) unless it can be convincingly demonstrated that larger societal benefits flow from them.
Lee Kuan Yew was always a partisan politician. He always represented one political ideology amongst many, and in a highly divisive way. He was by no means a unifying figure. And to beatify him would be equivalent to making the People’s Action Party’s ‘lightning’ logo as sacred as the crucifix.
How would Singapore and Singaporeans as a whole benefit from such a law? That is the public interest test. No answer is anywhere on the horizon.
If at all there is a public interest argument, it would be this: in the same way that freedom of expression, besides being a human right, is also in the public interest, so it should be that Singaporeans in this and future generations should be able to freely debate, praise, castigate, satirise, whatever, the man, his ideas and his legacy. How else, except by reflection and criticism (and burning a few effigies) do we grow as a nation and society? Disallowing this discourse (which Wong’s law would do) is against the public interest. Allowing it is very much in the public interest.
Wong’s jumping off point was his statement that having Lee Kuan Yew on buns sold by a commercial bakery was “distasteful”. To some people, maybe. Others might have relished the chance to bite him and (after some passage through the alimentary canal) admix him with brown stuff. As always, it is a very bad idea for parliament to go around passing laws just because some people’s feelings have been hurt. For every one who felt hurt, another rejoiced.
You might even argue that any attempt by the government to pass a law raising that man to the status of un-denounceable saint would cause offence to some people too. After all, in almost all elections to date, at least 20 – 25% voted steadfastly against Lee and the PAP. Some were victims of his harsh rule and disregard for human rights, some even victims of trumped-up accusations. So, the government, going by its habit of quickly passing laws to prevent people giving offence, must therefore rush to pass a law forbidding the passing of laws that serve to beatify Lee Kuan Yew (since beatification would cause offence).
One more point I’d wish to make: Mythologising Lee might be helpful to the PAP staying in power, or at least cementing the PAP ideology — so the PAP dwarfs may now believe. But adding a divisive, partisan figure to the existing law that governs the national flag and anthem will not raise the man’s status. It will only demean the flag and anthem. These unifying symbols that Singaporeans consider above politics will be raped. Two more props will go the way of so many once-neutral, non-partisan institutions. As I have argued many times before, the PAP in their desperation to entrench themselves in power will end up destroying Singapore in the process.