Critics miss the point, problem lies with hate speech law in Amos Yee case
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Critics miss the point, problem lies with hate speech law in Amos Yee case

Headlines in the international media typically associate the charges Amos Yee faces with the fact that his video was critical of the late Lee Kuan Yew. For instance, the BBC’s headline goes “Singapore charges teen over anti-Lee Kuan Yew rant” while The Guardian’s goes “Singapore teenager charged over critical Lee Kuan Yew video”. But that is misleading. The most serious charge Yee faces is for making inflammatory remarks about Christianity, not for criticising Singapore’s supreme leader. The relevant law is hate-speech type legislation. The other two charges Yee faces also have nothing to do with his criticism of the government either, at least on the surface. The two other charges are: one for distributing obscene materials on his website and one for causing distress to viewers. In other words, this is not an example of the government’s intolerance towards criticism — there are many better ones for that — this is an example of a problematic law that was passed in Parliament without debate.

For clarity’s sake, Yee faces three charges. The first charge (hate speech) carries a maximum penalty of three years imprisonment, or a fine, or both; the second charge (obscene materials) carries a maximum of 3 months imprisonment, or a fine, or both; the third charge (causing distress) carries a maximum fine of S$5,000. It is the first that carries the heaviest penalty and is what I am mainly concerned with here.

There are three problems with Singapore’s law against hate speech. One, it is unnecessary and redundant; two, it cannot be consistently applied; three, it is liable to be abused.

Unnecessary and redundant

Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s Asia deputy director, has criticised the Singapore government:

However crass Amos Yee’s statements in the video may be, nothing he said should have landed him in a criminal court. Religions are resilient and able to defend themselves, and in a real democracy, his allegations should have been easily rebutted by the weight of public opinion. All Singapore has managed to do in this instance is make more people want to see Amos Yee’s video. The government should drop the charges and release him, and end its repression of free expression.

According to Robertson, Yee should not be prosecuted because his comments pose no threat to religions and religious harmony. But he is missing the point. Yee was not charged with promoting disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious groups (under Section 298A of the Penal Code), he was charged with making “remarks against Christianity, with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of Christians in general” (under Section 298). Whether or not religions are able to defend themselves is therefore irrelevant. The law here is concerned only with whether Yee posted his YouTube video with the “deliberate intention” of wounding the “religious feelings” of individuals.  What matters is how individuals are affronted, not the threat to society’s religious harmony or public tranquillity (which sets a lower bar than “public order”). (The need to uphold the law is also arguably more important than the need to avoid giving Yee’s video free publicity.)

And therein lies the problem. The prosecutor chose to charge Yee under Section 298, rather than Section 298A, arguably because it was harder to show that Yee had promoted disharmony between religious groups. What then is the purpose of Section 298, if it is not to safeguard religious harmony on the societal level? It appears that it is meant to protect individuals from feeling offended. But if that is the case then I am baffled because that was never Parliament’s intention, and it is also not the state’s job to mollycoddle its citizens.

During a 2007 discussion, Members of Parliament (MP) from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) agreed that the purpose of this law was to “safeguard racial and religious harmony” and to “preserve the social fabric of the country”. But how does the wounding of “religious feelings” threaten religious harmony? It’s an insult to the forbearance of religious groups to suggest that they will threaten the peace simply because their members feel offended; they won’t. The law is therefore unnecessary.

Moreover, if Parliament’s objective is to “safeguard racial and religious harmony” and to “preserve the social fabric of the country”, then Section 298A does that equally well and Section 298 is redundant. Section 298A specifically targets people who “knowingly promotes or attempts to promote, on grounds of religion or race, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious or racial groups”. Since another law fulfils the same objective and does it better, Section 298 is redundant.

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Singapore Parliament in session. Pic: The Online Citizen.

Cannot be consistently applied

Even if we accept that the law is necessary to protect individuals from deeply offensive comments about their religion, we need to consider also whether the law is a fair one — that is, can it be consistently applied without discrimination?

Perhaps we should first consider local playwright Alfian Sa’at’s argument that Yee had made a standard anti-theistic rant, and was therefore only irritating rather than deeply offensive. In a Facebook post, he wrote:

1) He did not insult the religious figure.

2) He described the religionists as ‘power hungry’ and ‘malicious’.

3) ‘Power-hungry’ is a familiar anti-theistic critique of institutional religion.

4) ‘Malicious’, but with a facade of being ‘compassionate’ and ‘kind’ is also another familiar anti-theistic critique. Take your pick of the ‘malice’: terrorism, sex abuse of minors, subjugation of women, persecution of LGBT’s etc.

5) ‘Their impact and legacy will ultimately not last’ is the argument that the world is heading towards secularism (admittedly a Eurocentric viewpoint).

6) ‘They’re full of bull’ is the dismissal of anything that does not fit a rationalist/empirical/secular framework.

I disagree with Alfian. Yee did insult Jesus. His comparison was between Lee and Jesus (the clue is in the flashing of a picture of Jesus in one of the images), and therefore his description, “power hungry” etc. was made in reference to Jesus, not his followers. His critique is also unlike the standard anti-theistic critique that atheists typically make, in that it is curt, not reasoned. The one-word-per-point name-calling is more inflammatory than a discussion of the issue, and is why Christians were more offended by this than by books or speeches by Christopher Hitchens. But even if we find Yee’s statements deeply offensive, and more than just a minor irritant, it still doesn’t justify the use of Section 298.

The issue here is one of equal enforcement. Yee is not the first person to say deeply offensive things in a curt manner, and he will not be the last. The fact is that people are deeply offended by things they read or see online all the time. It’s impossible to legislate and police against every single instance when they are. Instead, only those who come under the national spotlight and become the subject of multiple police reports get prosecuted — people like Yee who posted his video in the middle of the mourning period for the late Lee Kuan Yew and became the subject of over 20 police reports. This means that only certain people get prosecuted for breaking this law, while others who break the law too, don’t. Therefore, the law is problematic because it cannot be consistently applied and instead tends to target those who receive significant media attention, something irrelevant to the crime.

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PAP Youth Member involved in racist posting. Pic: TOC.

Liable to be abused

Finally, because this law cannot be equally enforced against every violator, it is also liable to be abused. Prosecutors have a certain degree of freedom to choose who to prosecute and who not to, but it cannot make its decision on political grounds, because the prosecutor is there to serve the public interest, not the Prime Minister’s interest (when they come into conflict). Unfortunately, because it’s not practical for prosecutors to go after every single person who says something offensive, they are forced to choose. But the sheer latitude this law grants them creates a huge propensity for abuse.

For example, netizens have raised questions about a 4-year-old case wherein a former Youth PAP member, Jason Neo, made a racist remark about Muslim kids. The prosecution has yet to file charges against Neo despite a 4-year police investigation. As a result netizens have begun to suggest that the police and the prosecution only worked so quickly to file charges against Yee because he had insulted the PAP’s mascot, Lee Kuan Yew, and criticised the ruling party’s policies. In contrast, they suggest that the former YPAP member is being protected because of his association with the ruling party. These insinuations of political bias threaten the people’s faith in the integrity of the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) and highlight how the law’s ambiguity makes it easy to abuse.

At this point, the AGC has three options. 1) Go after the YPAP member. 2) Disclose the reasons for the prosecutorial decision. 3) Get rid of laws that are liable to abuse.

The first solution may be impossible for reasons we do not know of, and which the SPF and AGC are unwilling to disclose. And it may also be impossible to go after everyone who violates Section 298. The second solution, though ideal, may according to the AGC not be feasible because of the risks associated with disclosure:

(a) in evaluating whether it is in the public interest to take a particular prosecution decision, the Attorney-General considers a large number of often competing interests, including those of the victim, the accused person and society as a whole;

(b) non-disclosure enables the Attorney-General’s Chambers to retain flexibility to depart from the guidelines when the interests of justice call for this in any given case, while keeping to a broadly consistent path;

(c) any attempt to publish guidelines is likely to result in vague guidelines, which would in turn have the undesirable effect of reducing, rather than enhancing, consistency; and

(d) the publication of specific guidelines would identify prosecution priorities, as well as areas where the Prosecution might exercise restraint, which may lead to an increase in offending in those specific areas.

The last solution is, of course, not very feasible either since the PAP has systematically inculcated a sense of vulnerability in Singaporeans and sought to establish its right to rule on that basis—as a protector of racial and religious harmony. To repeal a law like this would be politically costly, or so it thinks. So far, the PAP has largely succeeded in instilling an acute sense of anxiety, making the electorate believe that things will quickly unravel if it is no longer there to keep the peace between entrenched racial and religious groups. It has perpetuated the myth that there are latent feelings of racial and religious animosity that will erupt the moment the lid is taken off, and it has cast itself as the irreplaceable big daddy.

But as I’ve pointed out before, Singapore isn’t as vulnerable as the Government makes it out to be. Rule by anxiety can also be counterproductive because it contributes to the very problem of instability the Government is attempting to solve and blinds it to its own prejudices. The Amos Yee case demonstrates how the PAP has fallen prey to its own narrative of vulnerability and has led it to pass a law without debate. The end result is a law that doesn’t serve its stated purpose, is redundant, cannot be consistently applied and is liable to be abused. A review is badly needed, both of the law and the way these laws are made.

asiancorrespondent