Why we shouldn’t simply ban lies and xenophobia.

It’s a real shame that The Real Singapore has been effectively banned by the MDA.

Now, I’m no supporter of TRS. I think the articles it posts are stridently anti-foreigner, filled with falsehoods, and designed to mislead. I’ve also fallen victim to its questionable editorial tactics – when I was still chairperson of Raffles Press, TRS shamelessly took one of the editorials I wrote and re-posted it without my consent. It is not, by any measure, the voice of the average Singaporean.

However, the one thing I hate more than TRS is the government’s willingness to use the law to pummel opponents into silence. Yes, of course the government doesn’t stop ‘reasonable’ politicians like those in the WP from speaking. Of course the government still allows ‘rational’ platforms like Mothership.sg to exist.   I will concede outright that any Singaporean can share their honest opinions, provided that they are moderate and substantiated.

But this still isn’t the kind of society I want to live in. I don’t want to live in a Singapore where our instinctive response to idiocy is the heavy hand of state legislation. I don’t want to live in a Singapore which rejoices when a teenage boy is remanded in Changi Prison for a moment of immaturity on YouTube. I don’t want to live in a vindictive Singapore which repays intolerance with intolerance.

We must not kid ourselves into believing that the death of TRS means the death of xenophobia and hate-mongering in Singapore. The online commentators who want to “send the PRCs home” will simply migrate to the HardwareZone or STOMP. The people who contribute to TRS will vent their anger on their own blogs, or over a jug of beer in the neighbourhood coffee shop. The xenophobes will still vote against the PAP at the next General Election, and throng opposition rallies with fervour.

Banning TRS doesn’t make the spread of lies and anti-foreigner sentiment harder. It only makes it less visible. Just because TRS was popular doesn’t mean that it was persuasive. Many netizens were quick to point out the numerous mistruths the TRS editors were guilty of propagating. Social Studies teachers used TRS as an example of irresponsible and biased journalism. Politicians stood up to refute the content of many of its articles. Ask any reasonable Singaporean about their first impression of TRS, and I guarantee they won’t say “trustworthy and well-researched political website.”

In short, people already loved to hate on TRS. And those who frequented TRS won’t suddenly become pro-immigration just because the government banned a single platform for xenophobia. In fact, they’ll probably become even less receptive to government rhetoric, because the MDA has confirmed their worst fears about state censorship.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the MDA was right. Let’s assume that TRS was responsible for thousands of otherwise reasonable Singaporeans becoming irrational xenophobes, thanks to its anti-foreigner articles. If that’s the case, then the government cannot ever claim that Singapore is racially and religiously harmonious. If a discredited website run by three amateurs could undermine the social fabric of our nation, then our supposedly robust and resilient racial-religious harmony is but a happy delusion. Surely fifty years of nation building can’t be threatened by some second-rate news site.

So if we accept this premise, then the success of TRS in peddling lies and hatred rests on the government’s failure to counter its false narratives. Perhaps students weren’t properly educated on how to be intelligent and discriminating when surfing the web. Perhaps our politicians were unable to convince Singaporeans that foreigners are here to help, rather than hinder, us. Perhaps pro-government websites were incapable of appealing to emotion and passion in the same way that TRS was able to. And that’s not the fault of TRS – that’s the fault of the government for eschewing impassioned rhetoric and ignoring the emotional and irrational needs that we all have. It seems so counter-intuitive that a website which bases many of its articles on falsehoods can somehow be more alluring than the truth. It takes real talent to lose a debate when the facts and weight of evidence are on your side.

It also annoys me to no end that people will soon trot out the “Singaporean society is still immature! We must ban these views till we are mature enough to handle them!” argument. It is painfully naïve to think that by living within a hermetically sealed bubble of PG opinions, we will naturally develop the maturity to deal with extreme and questionable views. If you believe that Singaporean society is not yet ready to counter sites like TRS, then Singaporean society will never be ready. We will forever exist within the safe space of government-approved discourse, fearing to engage arguments that differ wildly from our beliefs. Much like real life maturity, social maturity is not a function of age – it is a function of experience. And the less we are willing to experience and deal with as a society, the less mature we are doomed to be.

It saddens me that even as more Singaporeans become politically active, and more people are willing to share their thoughts thanks to the Internet, we have become more exclusionary as a society. We seek to ban things we dislike. We seek to jail people we hate. We seek to kick out those we feel “do not share in our Asian values”. We have allowed our space for disagreement to shrink, and our capacity for intolerance to expand. The recent decision to revoke the license of TRS is but an example of this.

Why can’t we denounce something without wanting to eradicate it as well?

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15 thoughts on “Why we shouldn’t simply ban lies and xenophobia.

  1. It is also to be noted that being against excessive unregulated immigration is not necessarily xenophobic. I am all in support of immigration, provided that it is well managed, where FTs coming in do not significantly affect local wage and job opportunities. The government could have take a more sensible and active approach by screening each applying FT (applying for middle or upper level jobs) base on their qualification and experience (to be assessed by a recognized body, and paid for by the applicant or sponsoring company), and ensuring that they do not coincide with areas/fields that are already saturated, while only opening up skilled immigration and work visas to those who truly have skills/expertise in a selected list of jobs that not many Singaporeans are actually applying for. Plus of course allowing some flexibility for the companies and businesses to have some exceptions. i.e. what countries like Australia and Canada are already doing. Further, for lower level jobs (i.e. certain office/admin work, security, retail and F&B), FTs should be paid a set wage, while a sensible *living* wage (scaled to cost of living, i.e. rental and utilities, transport to work, food, etc. before OT) be set for the local workers in each field. This would prevent resentment of the many lower-wage workers towards FTs, due to artificially suppressed wages or even unemployment.
    The top executives, CEOs, and investors/stock-holders (drawing huge profits and bonuses), should be the ones ensuring increased productivity, and those at the bottom should not be paying for it by having their wage cut while they work twice or thrice as hard as what people used to (i.e. downsizing). If a business struggles to stay afloat unless they pay their workers slave wages, then that business model isn’t viable to begin with (and other ways should be sought to cut costs instead of succumbing to modern-day slavery, sacrificing on the most basic human rights and decency). The government could encourage this by injecting assistance for small startups/business in the first 2 years, etc. (and to ensure their suitability to diversify the market — key to a robust economy), while providing tax rebates for companies investing in R&D to improve their productivity in a tangible and sustainable way (and creating opportunity for growth — i.e. improvement of existing or creation of new products).
    And finally, rental prices should be regulated properly regulate to keep it within what’s sensible for businesses and retail/F&B shops to survive, and can afford to pay their workers a proper and fair wage with respect to current cost of living.

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  2. Well said! My gut tells me that there is more to this and, that the order came from on high.

    It is important for Singaporeans to read widely because that is the only way to understand the wide spectrum of perceived truth. If all you have is one view being bandied as the “truth” (hard or otherwise), it begs the question, who decided on that being the truth? Just as a swordsman can only get better by sparing with another, a one sided debate is just a soliloquy – it gets you no where.

    Auspicium Melioris Aevi.

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  3. Dear SM Ong,

    Apologies for the unsolicited message but my name is Luke, from Inconvenient Questions SG. We are one of Singapore’s newest socio-political platform which aims to be the middle ground for engagement and discussions for pertinent issues.

    The reason why I am writing to you is to extend an invitation to your society and its members to join our upcoming debateIQ happening on May 13th, called “Rules of Engagement?”. debateIQ is one of the key features of our site, where we invite prominent members of the public, academician and even politicians to exchange views on a particular topic in an hour plus session. In our previous sessions, we have had Minister Masagos, Josephine Teo and K Shanmugam as our panellists. You can find more details of this event at http://inconvenientquestions.sg/Event/BH2/coming-soon-rules-of-engagement.

    This would be a good avenue to get your voices heard and your questions broadcasted to a wider audience, as the event will be filmed and publicized on our channel with more than 9000+ likes.

    Do let me know if this is something that you would be interested in? Do drop me an email at luke@inconvenientquestions for more info/questions.

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  4. It boils down to how far the government (and by implication, the voting public is willing to go). For example, I’m reasonably sure you wouldn’t allow a child pornography leeway under freedom of expression. Or let’s take the less obvious case of the recent event in the USA where some gunmen came and blazed away at a prophet Mohammed cartoon exhibition (not to mention the highly publicized Charlie Hebdo incident). Or take an even greyer example – would you allow someone to advertise cigarette smoking? What about giving an LGBT rep to become a NCMP and have a voice in parliament?

    I take the position that the government can get away with precisely what the voters allow them to (over time this will shift as well). There is no absolutely right or wrong answer.

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    1. Well, the problem is that we can never assess what the “majority” genuinely feels about this issue. You might say that at every election, the majority is showing its support for every single policy proposed by the PAP government.

      But that’s not true, is it? Just because a majority of Singaporeans vote in the PAP every five years doesn’t mean that a majority of Singaporeans feel that banning TRS, or remanding Amos Yee in Changi Prison, is justified. It simply means that on balance, the majority feels that the PAP is the least bad party. I could strongly disagree with the PAP on its illiberal tendencies, but at the same time accept that it is still the best party to run the country economically.

      I doubt you can claim that a majority of Singaporeans are in favour of banning TRS. But even if you could claim that, remember that this debate isn’t about freedom of expression. I don’t care about your “right to free speech”, if it means that there’s direct potential for serious harm. For instance, we would both agree that you don’t have a right to incite others to violence. But I disagree that banning TRS will decrease xenophobia in Singapore – as I’ve argued in this piece, it will only increase intolerance and sweep xenophobia under the carpet where it will fester.

      Also, just because the government can get away with anything the majority wants, doesn’t mean it should. What the majority wants might make sense to them in the short term, but hurt the country on a broader, long term level. For example, Singaporeans might want to see TRS banned, but is that really a good thing for discourse? Do we want to remain a society where we shut down views that seem crazy or stupid to us? I would argue otherwise.

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  5. Quote : “I don’t want to live in a Singapore where our instinctive response to idiocy is the heavy hand of state legislation.”

    Perhaps, but we are not alone. See
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laws_against_Holocaust_denial
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hate_speech

    Many laws are conditioned by history. In Singapore, the Sedition law is indeed one such (riots and such in our early nationhood). One might argue that while shaped by history, the government is abusing it. Then see my first response.

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  6. I’m not making a case based on people having the right to free speech. Of course your right to speak freely can be curtailed in the instance where are you inciting violence against a particular group of people. This was why laws against Holocaust denial were implemented – because Germans (and some other European states) feel that it gives space for Neo-Nazis to victimize Jews.

    But I question if these laws are still relevant today, especially given the rise of Neo-Nazism in Germany despite the existence of laws against Holocaust denial. Perhaps, 60 years after WWII, it might be time to re-look these laws. Maybe it would give Neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers a platform to spread their lies. But it would similarly empower the rest of Germany to stand up and refute these terrible lies.

    Do note that laws against hate speech and Holocaust denial are very controversial, so we shouldn’t use these laws as irrefutable evidence to back up the Singapore government’s actions. Also, there’s no consensus over what kind of hate speech to punish, and when to punish someone. There’s an ongoing debate as to when hate speech meets the threshold of harm.

    Refer to my article as to why banning TRS would, on balance, increase xenophobia and intolerance in Singapore. At best, banning TRS won’t change anything at all.

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    1. I think you have over interpreted my words. At the end of the day, I am saying that there is no right or wrong answer to this question, there is only relativism.

      To be specific on your reply,
      1. I never said the majority want the G to shutdown TRS. I only meant that the G tends to be reflective of what it thinks society wants and it can be renewed (by voting) over time so attitudes can change. In fact, I would argue that the majority don’t even care about TRS or may not even have heard of TRS. At the same time, I believe your opinion is probably in the minority really.

      2. I did not quote these laws as “irrefutable evidence” of any kind. I quoted them to illustrate my point about relativism, and that all laws and their application have their context in history and the local culture – there is no one standard for free speech. Do note I also posted a “Hate speech” link as well.

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      1. Hm, perhaps.

        I don’t like to argue from a position of relativism though, because how can we ever obtain a true reflection of what society’s moral stance is? What if, for example, 20% of Singaporeans want TRS banned, 16% of Singaporeans want TRS to stay online (for whatever reason), and 64% of Singaporeans don’t care at all? Society is so heterogeneous and non-uniform that it is difficult to ever claim that “society thinks in X way”.

        And even if the government tried to be reflective of society’s views, I would argue that the vote is a very clumsy tool to approximate what the prevailing “social morality” is. Because when we vote, we vote on a whole range of issues, rather than just one or two policies. To give an example, just because a 60.1% of people voted the PAP into power in 2011 doesn’t mean that 60.1% of people support 377A. Similarly, even if society has changed, the vote won’t be able to accurately capture these shifts.

        I totally agree with you that “there is no one standard for free speech”. But the question remains as to whether or not TRS genuinely posed a threat to our social harmony, and whether banning TRS will reduce xenophobia in Singapore. And that, in my opinion, is the real debate that many people are missing.

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