SINGAPORE is finding its way forward as it opens up space for public discussion and civic engagement, and the growing use of online platforms makes some rules of engagement necessary.
"We are finding our way in this regime but my own philosophical approach is that it is no different from physical space," Law Minister K. Shanmugam said.
"When we make it a no man's land, everyone is fair game and then we get people lynched.
"The worst instincts of people come out sometimes when they have anonymity and they feel they can say and do everything without the controlling framework of social norms," he said.
"I don't think the concept of freedom justifies that... There is a line between bad manners and harmful conduct."
He said this yesterday at the Rule of Law Symposium at the Supreme Court in a 45-minute session moderated by National University of Singapore law professor Dr Thio Li-ann.
The law symposium was attended by more than 400 participants from Singapore and abroad, including Chief Justices, top lawyers and academics.
Responding to a question on political criticism, Mr Shanmugam, who is also Minister for Foreign Affairs, said that people were free to criticise the Government or its policies, but a line is drawn when unsubstantiated and false allegations of fact are made against individuals.
"There is nothing to prevent people from criticising government policies, and you can be as hard as you like," he said, noting that the Government already gets criticised on a "regular basis" on an array of issues ranging from education to immigration.
He added that when allegations are made against public officials, it hurts their integrity - and it is crucial for them to be seen as people of character.
Citing a "purely hypothetical example" of someone alleging that the Prime Minister is taking money from pension funds, he said: "You can say they are dishonest, but please go to court and prove it. Let the politician take the stand and be cross-examined, and indeed if he is dishonest, he will be destroyed."
He added that civil society participation is axiomatic in a developed economy.
Yet the encroachment of cyberspace means the need for new laws such as the Protection from Harassment Act.
"It's the nature of societies, and you must accept the change and go with it," he said. But he cautioned against political instability in a small country like Singapore.
"It would lead to economic paralysis, simply because decision-making in the Government would become difficult," he said.
"The smaller you are, the more nimble you have to be. The system has got to be stable. It is not the same as saying it must be unrepresentative."