Should the fight for free speech be incrementalist or uncompromising?

When reading about Mr Jolovan Wham’s run-in with the law, it is easy to react by decrying our government’s heavy-handed approach to regulating public disorder. Some of the charges slapped on Mr Wham seem unreasonable: He has been charged with one count of vandalism for sticking pieces of paper to the wall of an MRT train, and a violation of the Public Order Act for inviting Joshua Wong, the Hong Kong democracy advocate, to speak at an event over Skype without a permit. A first-time violation of the Public Order Act is punishable by fines of up to $3,715.

But instead of reflexively responding to this episode, it would be better to take this opportunity to reflect on whether civil disobedience, no matter how benign, is effective in our country. If it is not, then free speech activists would be well-served by acting within the ambit of the law.

I consider myself a faint-hearted supporter of free speech. That is to say, intractable claims about fundamental rights and liberties do not interest me — the rancour which has come to characterise social discourse in the West has inflicted considerable psychological harms on communities who have borne the brunt of hate speech and political polemics. The alternative, however, would be to let the government define the permissible contours of “free” speech; to let it strangulate civil society and suppress anti-establishment voices. This may work in the short run, given the dual conditions of an extremely competent government and a very narrow set of national concerns. But these conditions are exceptional: A new, less competent, generation of leaders will be met with a dearth of external opposition, leading to gradual institutional decay. And when people have come to rely on the government to set the agenda, it becomes hard to have meaningful conversations about broadening our value-systems and national priorities.

The important question to ask, therefore, is whether civil disobedience in Singapore can effect meaningful social change, or if it does nothing but encourages further restrictions on expression. Unfortunately, it tends to be the latter. Civil disobedience works by revealing the injustice of law; when activists are dragged off the streets by police for sitting in the “whites-only” section of a restaurant, or innocent civilians are harassed for participating in an independence march, people eventually come to recognise that the law itself must be changed. But this only works if Singaporeans perceive, or eventually come to perceive, our regulations on free speech to be unjustified. All evidence suggests that Singaporeans do not: We couldn’t care less about mythical rights to speak freely. Even when we do care, our concern is superseded by more pragmatic desires. How many of us would write to our MPs about Mr Wham’s treatment? Or petition for change? Simply put, the unease we feel when hearing about stories like these does not translate into tangible political pressure.

Dr Chee Soon Juan, known for civil disobedience early on in his political career, has come to recognise this reality. In the past, Dr Chee would engage in protests like a hunger strike to protest his “unfair” dismissal by the National University of Singapore. In his own words, he admitted that his acts of civil disobedience led him to be perceived as a “near-psychopath” when he first ran for office. Indeed, Dr Chee was never able to gain more support than his estranged mentor, Mr Chiam See Tong, nor has the Singapore Democracy Party (SDP) been able to supplant the Workers’ Party as the leading opposition force. Today, Dr Chee has rehabilitated his public image somewhat. He plays by the rules, and has cast himself as a more mature and considered political actor. called him a “quotable quote-machine” at the 2015 General Elections, and the SDP’s rallies consistently trended on social media. Time will tell if this new strategy will reap quantifiable dividends, but it is clear that it has a better chance of succeeding than brash civil disobedience.

Since most Singaporeans don’t perceive existing regulations on free speech to be unjustified, if we want to encourage more people to participate actively in social conversation — the bedrock of any thriving civil society — then we need to show how this participation can be a legal and normal part of everyday behaviour. This is evidenced by the success of events like Pink Dot, which have strived to abide by government regulations on foreign sponsorship and the use of Hong Lim Park. When Pink Dot was first held in 2009, it was estimated that 2,500 turned up. In 2017, an estimated 20,000 people attended the event. Pink Dot has succeeded because it isn’t seen as “edgy”, or an event organised by anti-establishment elements with a history of antagonising the state. It’s just a nice day out with friends, in support of a meaningful cause.

Activists like Mr Wham might claim that this model of civic engagement — fastidiously playing by the rules — depends on the largesse of the Singapore government. If the state decided to remove the Speakers’ Corner at Hong Lim Park, or prosecute online dissidents with renewed fervour, civil society would be crushed under the bootheel of authoritarianism. And that is true. Just because following the law is the best means to enact social change doesn’t mean that the law ought to be there in the first place. However, what these activists forget is that a staggering majority of Singaporeans trust our government. This is a fact. We do not regard our leaders with the kind of Madisonian distrust which characterises liberal Western democracies. This does not mean that people are brainwashed: It merely means that for the average Singaporean, their interaction with the state has been a largely positive one. Ours is a brand of authoritarianism that only starts chafing when you stick your neck too far out of line.

Like it or not, ideological free speech activists need the majority of Singaporeans on their side. Without popular support, stunts such as Mr Wham’s MRT protest will be, at best, seen as a minor annoyance, and at worse, perceived by the government as a demonstration that the people cannot be trusted with regulating their own discourse. This does not mean we cannot have discussions on highly controversial issues. Last year, I attended a screening of the movie 1987: Untracing the Conspiracy. It told the story of Operation Spectrum, where 22 people are arrested by Singapore’s Internal Security Department (ISD) and accused of being involved in a “Marxist conspiracy”. The victims were detained without trial, and they alleged that ISD officers put them through inhumane interrogation procedures. The movie was screened legally at The Projector; it was rated R21, so I was sure to bring along my ID for verification purposes. We weren’t harassed by the police, and got to speak to the director of the movie and some ex-detainees after the screening.

That’s the type of civic engagement that may encourage more Singaporeans to be politically aware, and active in seeking out controversial issues within our society. When free speech — and consequently, being a vocal citizen — is not tainted by the overhang of criminality, that’s when more people are willing to have conversations that we as a society sorely need. I sympathise with Mr Wham; his heart is in the right place. However, he is no martyr for free speech. Civil disobedience, along with speech acts of slander and defamation, is what drives the government to clamp down harder on expression. If we are to persuade our fellow countrymen and our government that we can responsibly exercise our right to free speech without contravening the law — no matter how unjustified we think the law is — that’s when we become more effective agents of change. It may feel unfair that we have to play by the rules set by the government, but if we don’t, then be ready to get played by the rules.


3 Replies to “Should the fight for free speech be incrementalist or uncompromising?”

  1. To disobey a law one regards as unjust is to hope to fulfill one, or any combination of, the following three functions: a) demonstrate that the law in question is morally intolerable (e.g.burning draft cards during the Vietnam War), b) demonstrate that the government’s enforcement of the law is wrong (e.g. arbitrary, excessive, vindictive etc.), c) demonstrate against forces beyond (may or may not include) the law in question (e.g. riots against the passage of a particular policy is not against the law the riot violates – say, public order laws – but against said policy). Short of committing acts which carry demonstrable and significant harm to others, I suppose you don’t disagree with them as proper gestures for a concerned and exercised citizen to make.

    Having established this, certain contradictions in your case are quite hard to miss. Statements like “If it is not, then free speech activists would be well-served by acting within the ambit of the law.” is saying, effectively, that free speech activists should, and therefore could, fight censorship laws (which is their focus) by obeying censorship laws. While it is an admittedly clever and admirable feat to, for instance, be able to use a totalitarian government’s propaganda against itself, the absurdity of saying that the best way to overturn a law is to first consent, and be obedient, to is equal to that of saying Rosa Parks should have first given up her seat to the white man. Then, standing, her diatribe against bus segregation would presumably have been more palatable and thus more effective.

    But you localise civil disobedience: good-hearted as our activists may be, they have the tragic misfortune of being born in a country whose unique and exceptional apathy renders resistance futile. Here is where you misunderstand the functions of civil disobedience. Barring revolutions, which is a class of resistance sui generis, the chief priority of civil disobedience is demonstration. It is the mechanism intended to fix an apathy entrenched over years of forfeiting our attention towards unjust laws in favour of focussing on more immediately material and prevalent concerns like the economy etc. To say that demonstration is futile because it will be met by indifference is like saying that medicine is futile because it will be met with illness. Never let the best be the enemy of the good.

    To preemptively circumscribe our sphere of civic engagement in such a manner is, if not cowardice masquerading as clear-eyed prudence, then tactically foolish. If, for instance, the press ought to regularly prove itself worthy to its political overlords in the hopes of receiving ever-greater liberties, and we are OK with such a state of affairs, we are not merely condoning hypothetical far-off repression, we are condoning the toleration of such a patron-press/people relationship; so long as government is pleased, we are pleased, for an approving government is one more generous with the ‘mythical’ rights we as a people need to work hard to deserve.

    How can liddat


    1. I don’t have a philosophical position on civil disobedience. I’m making a pragmatic claim: If civil disobedience intends to achieve a substantive purpose, then we must evaluate the efficacy of civil disobedience in achieving that aim. Given that I’m not seeking to answer the question “is civil disobedience justified simpliciter”, let’s look at the two problems.

      (A) The purpose of civil disobedience. You suggest that civil disobedience is “the mechanism intended to fix (discursive) apathy”. Assuming that is true, my argument is that civil disobedience achieves the precise opposite effect. You are right that Singaporeans focus on “material and prevalent concerns”. What civil disobedience does; is associate civic engagement with a loss of material goods. In order for me to protest on the MRT, I must also risk imprisonment and other associated harms. That contributes to a broader public reticence towards speaking up about injustice. I propose that one reason why people are apathetic in the first place is that they believe that civic engagement is fraught with danger and punishment. This belief is confirmed when they see activists dragged off to police stations and charged with misdemeanours. That is to say, my point is not “medicine will be futile if met with illness”. My point is that “When medicine worsens illness, it is best to do nothing and die peacefully than to do something and die painfully”.

      (B) How to achieve a freer and fairer society. You suggest that it is absurd to say “that the best way to overturn a law is to first consent”. No it is not. Just because civil disobedience has worked in one context does not mean it similarly applies to Singapore’s. There are at least two compelling reasons why civil disobedience worked for the civil rights movements but not in Singapore:

      a. Organisation. The civil rights movement was able to politically organise through churches and other social networks. This meant that protests could be held on a far grander scale – the March on Washington – and also that smaller-scale protests could be followed-up on through concerted social pressure and sympathy marches. Comparatively, unfettered freedom of association is illegal in Singapore. Further, all of our socio-civil institutions are deliberately de-politicised.

      b. The presence of institutional support. The goals of the civil rights movement were supported by a majority of Northern lawmakers, both Democrat and Republican. Dismantling segregation was itself a pre-existing contentious issue within the government. There is no such alignment in Singapore. Both the PAP and WP make no strong mention of free speech in their manifestos. Within these parties, backbench MPs are not given much independence. Beyond these parties, the other opposition parties – SDP included – are largely irrelevant. With no institutional support, there is no way to translate protest into tangible political gain.

      Hence, my point could have been better summed up as “there is no generic best way to overturn a law – everything is relative and contextual”. This seems to be a reasonable position. One would not argue, for example, that civil disobedience by Rohingya in the Rakhine state is advisable. It is probably better that they abide by disgustingly discriminatory laws – and at least get to live in their homes – than to protest injustice and get driven out en masse by the junta.

      To add: A valid position to take would be that it does not matter whether civil disobedience works per se. People are intrinsically justified in standing up against unjust laws regardless of the consequence. I wish not to discuss that position because I’m extremely consequentialist and do not find that position interesting or compelling!


      1. A conscientious attempt to avoid civil disobedience as a matter of course is also unsound on pragmatic grounds. I make my case in two ways which should cover all your objections. First: an extrapolation of past and present instances of civil disobedience to help us conclude that it is the most appropriate recourse in a particular situation, and that this situation is common. This is the matter of how civil disobedience works. Second: the matter of whether civil disobedience, of the same order ((not of magnitude but of effect) as in countries like America, will work in Singapore.

        Of the laws that proscribe actions, there are, broadly, two kinds: those which delimit acceptable behaviour pertinent to the average person, and those which delimit acceptable practices of larger corporate bodies like private organisations and the state i.e. 377A and the gag order respectively.

        Civil disobedience is a manifestly necessary component to any meaningful objection to these two types of laws. In the case of 377A, provided I am correcting in assuming we share the same intolerance for sexual policing/discrimination, we see quite clearly the importance of civil disobedience. Firstly, this is a prime example of how a sensible private response to an insensibly intrusive law is to neglect the law privately while resuming the struggle against it publicly. Again, I presume you won’t quarrel with my axiomatic assumptions of what are insensibly intrusive laws. Secondly, laws that carry proscriptions de jure but do not enforce them de facto oblige civil disobedience, on practical grounds, as the only recourse for the citizen concerned for its repeal. Because a government as fond of the status quo and muted governance as Singapore’s administration is is very unlikely to see the merits in going through the whole process of repealing a law, generating controversy and attracting political attention if they can demonstrate, empirically, that gay men hold obedience to the law, no matter how discriminatory, in higher regard than their basic right to sexual satisfaction. Your position takes you to this conclusion: we would have a higher chance of repealing 377A if gay men simply stopped having sex. If that sounds absurd, it sounds even more so when substantiated by your logic: our chances increase because people see that gay men have proved, by their celibacy, that they are reasonable and willing to engage in the formal due process of legislative reform instead of taking matters into their own hands. If the Lee administration is unwilling to reform when gay men are very clearly disobedient, an obedient gay community will only justify and perpetuate that reluctance.

        Second, with regards the second order of laws – those which delimit the acceptable practices of larger corporate bodies – there are circumstances under which the only way to reject the law, or draw attention to its abuses, is to violate it. For instance, to demonstrate the allegation that a gag order had been unjust, arbitrary, vindictive or simply wrongly applied by a court, one has to supply the information that was gagged in order to prove its importance and relevance to the public.

        On to the matter of whether civil disobedience can work in Singapore. Here I think you misunderstand my position. I do not hold that civil disobedience is both a necessary and sufficient condition for the successful repeal of a law. I hold it is important as an option for all laws and, as argued above, necessary for some laws. Hence to cite Chee Soon Juan’s and Jolovan’s failures is only adequate in proving the proposition: “They needed more favourable extrinsic conditions”. Here is where we come to the issue of Singaporean apathy. I didn’t quarrel with that assumption before, but this is a good place to do it. It is empirically false to say that Singaporeans are incapable of being sufficiently exercised so as to congregate spontaneously (LKY funeral cortege) or form a planned public congregation (Pink Dot). Though these are entirely legal and appropriate events, it still applies to your point regarding less legal and less appropriate events. You are really making a theological point when you say you believe that since we have never illegally congregated in feverish zeal against a law, Singaporeans will never find a cause that can incite such a showing. Also, unless civil disobedience remains a viable and accepted option, it is likely that such a cause will never be found. Your argument’s premise assumes its conclusion. Lastly, yes, “there is no generic best way to overturn a law – everything is relative and contextual”. My dispute is against your recommendation, or at least that’s what it seems to me, that the chief consideration, in every instance, in deciding the best way is how generously our authorities will take it. That seems to be to be the point at which the totalitarian state’s victory over the mind of the body politic is guaranteed.

        Therefore it should be true that a more committed consequentialism, which does not just value consequences but also makes them more feasible by expanding their range and the means by which we may achieve them, would support civil disobedience not eo ipso, but by virtue of the things only it can achieve.


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