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How far, in your society, should unpopular views be open for discussion?

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In May 2013, Singapore’s media regulator, the Media Development Authority (MDA), introduce a new licensing framework regulating online news sites operating in Singapore. The move came as a surprise to many and elicited a wide array of responses. The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), an industry association formed by eBay, Facebook, Google and Yahoo, argued that the new regulatory framework creates business uncertainty and stifles innovation, whereas the United States government criticised the move as a further restriction on freedom of expression in Singapore.

While the Singapore government, predictably, defended the framework as necessary to safeguard public interest, public security and national harmony, plenty of Singaporeans questioned if the move was designed to curtail free speech online and political discourse in general, and if the new framework would be used to censor unpopular views, especially those that are critical of the government, online. While such concerns are slightly overstated, they are not entirely unwarranted as it is essential for the democratic health of the nation that unpopular views are open for discussion, for the free and open exchange of ideas and opinions is the only way to discover the truth, achieve progress and reach genuine consensus.

The fact that Singapore is a small, multi-racial and multi-religious country is often used as an excuse to restrict the freedom of expression in Singapore. The open discussion of unpopular views, it is argued, threatens social stability and must therefore be carefully controlled; it is also argued that consensus, rather than contestation, should be encouraged. Such a view, however, is dangerously myopic. As while there is no doubt that social stability is vital to Singapore and that consensus is an admirable goal, suppressing or ignoring unpopular views actually undermines the pursuit either goals. After all, the only way to arrive at a genuine consensus is through an honest, open and thorough conversation involving all stakeholders. Imposing the views of the majority while suppressing or ignoring unpopular, controversial or distasteful views creates a false consensus. It breeds resentment among those marginalised and produces a far more destabilising effect on society.

For instance, each time the views of those strongly critical of Singapore’s liberal immigration policy are summarily dismissed as nonsensical or conveniently labelled as xenophobic, social tensions are escalated rather than alleviated. This is because the marginalised minority, aggrieved at the perceived insult and injustice, feels compelled to resort to ever more belligerent methods to make their voice heard. Similarly, limiting the discussion of ‘sensitive’ issues, such as the tudung issue, to behind-closed-doors dialogue sessions among carefully selected community leaders rarely produces positive results. In fact, it tends to obfuscate the decision-making process and further alienate the vast majority of the stakeholders who are omitted from the process. Openly discussing and addressing unpopular views may be an onerous, unpleasant and imperfect process, but it is increasingly clear that Singapore must begin to embrace it if we wish to progress as a nation.

After all, the conditions that necessitated and facilitated an authoritarian style of governance in the early decades of Singapore’s independence no longer exist today. Now more so than ever, in an era of open and instantaneous communications on the internet, Singaporeans demand a say in charting the future of their nation. Trying to curb the free-flow of ideas and opinions, whether online or offline, is not merely impossible but counter-productive. Besides, the open discussion of all views — including, and especially, unpopular views — is fundamentally beneficial to society as it clarifies misconceptions, nullifies rumours and exposes lies, bringing us ever closer to the truth.

Law and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam’s candid, sincere and often entertaining debates with fellow Singaporeans on his Facebook page exemplifies this. A renowned attorney, Shanmugam handles contentious debates on issues like racism, welfarism, immigration and even PAP’s authoritarian tendencies with consummate ease. He does not shy away from taking on unpopular views, and most crucially, he is not afraid of admitting that he is wrong when proven so. The fact of the matter is, examining and discussing the merits (or the lack thereof) of unpopular views legitimises the process of governance rather than undermines it. If we allow the process of open debate to reach its fullest conclusion, we will find that what remains is always the truth or the best possible decision for us to make, and that society would better for it.

Obviously, there will remain those who habour fears that the unfettered discussion of sensitive and emotive issues would quickly descend into an uncivilised mess, characterised by vicious insults and illogical diatribes. Such fears are, of course, understandable, but they are ultimately misplaced. There is little evidence to suggest that Singaporeans are ill-equipped to handle the discussion of controversial and potentially divisive views; quite to the contrary. The recent debate that occurred online on the subject of homosexuality and liberal Islam was certainly a heated one. And there were, admittedly, more than a few discussants who allowed their emotions to get the better of them, not to mention nefarious trolls who tried to derail the debate with their bigoted views. However, when all was said and done, cooler heads had prevailed and the trolls had been swiftly weeded out and admonished by the rest of the online community.

Moreover, while the debate did not produce a definitive conclusion, those involved were more than happy to agree to disagree and to live and let live. In fact, it was most remarkable that despite the deeply personal nature of the subject, both sides displayed incredible restraint and respect throughout— if not for each other, then for the sanctity of the process of intellectual debate. Most encouragingly, this incident is not simply an isolated one but the latest in a long list of incidents — including the Sun Xu and Heather Chua incidents — demonstrating that Singaporeans are more than capable of discussing unpopular views online. While internet trolls will always exist and there remains some way to go before we are able to handle such heated discussions with complete civility, the solution to the problem is more discussions, not less.

Finally, it is important that we do not confuse unpopular speech with libellous and seditious speech. Singapore’s hard-earned political stability and its fragile racial and religious harmony deserves protection, but we must be clear about what we are protecting them from. Unpopular views that are merely controversial, distasteful or simply different and causes no harm to society or personal injury to anyone must not be restricted in any way.

Libellous views that unfairly damage the reputation of a person and seditious speech that incite hatred against and threaten the safety of a particular community, on the other hand, must not be tolerated. Chee Soon Juan lost his defamation lawsuit against Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong in 2001 not because his accusations against the two leaders were unpopular but because the accusations were baseless and he had in fact defamed the two’s reputation. Similarly, Amy Cheong was issued a stern police warning for her Facebook remarks about Malay-Muslim weddings not because of the unpopular nature of her views but the racist and seditious nature of them. Granted, the distinctions may not always be clear — unpopular views may also be, at the same time, libellous or seditious, just as libellous or seditious views are not always unpopular — but we must not abdicate our shared responsibility to distinguish between the two categories and throw the baby out with the baby out with the bathwater.

The freedom of speech is one of the most precious freedoms societies possess, the proper exercise of it which propels the debates of ideas and move entire societies forward, and we must not let it go to waste. The discussion of unpopular views may come across an uncomfortable exercise that many people instinctively eschew and it is not without its shortcomings. But, for better and for worse, unpopular views are an essential ingredient in the exercise of free speech. History is, after all, replete with great men and women — from Lincoln to Martin Luther King, Gandhi to Betty Friedan — who championed unpopular causes in the face of massive public resistance and eventually succeeded in making a positive difference to the lives of millions of people. These giants of mankind serve as the ultimate inspirations for us, and we would do well to take heed of these examples and embrace the open discussion of unpopular views, warts and all.

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