AMOS YEE, ROY NGERNG, AND FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION IN SINGAPORE

The Community Action Network welcomes the news that Amos Yee has been freed. We understand he is in poor health after not having eaten for several days and wish him a speedy recovery.

Despite our relief at this turn of events, CAN would like to express our deep discomfort over the way the state has conducted proceedings against Yee. In prosecuting him as an adult, Singapore has breached its obligations under the UN Convention on Child Rights.

Even before he was sentenced, Yee spent a total of 55 days in custody, during which time, he was shackled, tied to his bed, deprived of sleep, denied access to toilet facilities, and placed in a mental institution alongside inmates who were criminally insane. He also faced the possibility of at least 18 months in a Reformative Training Centre, despite the fact that the option was not raised during his trial.

In handing Yee a backdated sentence of four weeks in prison, the court has narrowed not just Yee’s right to free speech, but also whittled away space for Singaporeans to express themselves. These are rights enshrined in Article 14 of Singapore’s Constitution and affirmed in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They should not be so readily eroded.

Yee’s Youtube rant was rude and in poor taste. But it should not be a crime to have an opinion, even if it is an opinion about a religion or religious figure. Yee did not preach hatred or incite violence with his words. He was merely expressing a point of view. His cartoon of two former world leaders having sex, while crude, can hardly be regarded as pornographic. Both the video and the drawing were simply attempts by a teenager to express himself. Those who disagree can either engage with or ignore him. There is no reason for the state to make a criminal out of an opinionated teenager. Yee’s convictions should be quashed.

A mature society is one in which opinions – even provocative ones – can be openly discussed and debated. We should not have to turn to the police every time our feelings are hurt. Indeed, by criminalising the verbalisation of certain views, we do nothing to cultivate tolerance.

Yee’s case isn’t the only Singaporean being persecuted for speaking his mind. Blogger Roy Ngerng faces financial ruin as a result of a defamation suit brought against him by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Ngerng has repeatedly apologised to PM Lee over his blog post on Singapore’s Central Provident Fund (CPF). He has also offered to pay damages of up to $10,000. But in court recently, Ngerng was told he lacked sincerity. He is now liable for damages of at least $250,000.

It is our belief that in raising questions about CPF, Ngerng was merely giving voice to the many Singaporeans who have similar queries. If the Prime Minister felt that his reputation had been impugned as a result, we respectfully suggest that the logical thing to do would have been to debunk Ngerng’s post in an open debate. Suing an ordinary citizen stymies discussion and raises even more questions in the minds of other citizens.

We believe that defamation suits brought by public personalities and holders of political office should meet higher thresholds of admissibility in order to safeguard free speech. Eminent individuals who enjoy easier access to the media (especially through their official positions) than the layman to remedy falsehoods should also be entitled to lower damages than that awarded to ordinary persons for the same injury.

Genuine progress is only possible when there is a free flow of ideas, robust debate and space for diverse opinions. A cohesive society is not built on a foundation of lawsuits and legal threats. Rather, we become stronger when we recognise that we can disagree and still coexist, and politicians will win more respect by engaging their critics, rather than bankrupting them through defamation suits.

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