Lessons from France for Singapore

Thousands gathered at Paris' Place de la Republique on Sunday for a march in honour of the shooting victims. Singapore too has to come to terms with a potential clash between secular values and religious or other sensitivities.
Thousands gathered at Paris' Place de la Republique on Sunday for a march in honour of the shooting victims. Singapore too has to come to terms with a potential clash between secular values and religious or other sensitivities. PHOTO: REUTERS

The brutal deaths of 17 people in Paris, once regarded as the city of dreams and the cultural capital of the world, are having a devastating effect on France.

The killings of staff at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and people at a Jewish supermarket are seen as acts of terror and an assault on freedom of speech. But they can also be viewed as manifestations of a broader narrative of traditional tensions from the Middle East, imported via immigration into Paris.

The Paris murders also segue into the worldview of the much touted clash between Western values that extol freedom of speech and non-Western ones that apparently countermand this.

But France is not the bastion of free speech that some may think it is. There is a law against Holocaust denial. France is in the process of trying to pass a new law, making it an offence to deny that an Armenian genocide occurred in the last century.

Its far-right French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen has been convicted several times for making statements seen as inciting hatred towards minorities, including Muslims.

However, Muslims in France may be forgiven for asking why anti-hate speech laws did not seem to protect them from extreme satire.

At the same time, France also has a tradition of republicanism and secularism which braces itself against any attempt to censor freedom of expression, no matter how obnoxious. Hence, the recent march of over a million people in solidarity with the victims of the shooting spree, and in defence of the right to publish controversial, offensive material.

Which brings us to Singapore.

We too have to come to terms with what may be a potential clash between secular values in an increasingly contested public space denoting freedom of speech, and religious or other social sensitivities.

There are already examples online of such clashes, when an individual post or blog offends those of another race or religion, or nationality.

We should not be lulled into thinking that such disregard for others' sensitivities are shown only by a minority, online, and are therefore not a problem. Online posts have real-life impact. Such "speech" is not immune to prosecution. Some have faced defamation suits as a result of what they have posted online; others have had their employment terminated due to violating workplace rules.

Unfortunately, we in Singapore have yet to begin the difficult conversation of figuring out how to strike compromises, or how to agree to disagree.

For example, it is becoming more evident that Singaporeans increasingly want greater freedom. But how much of this freedom is negotiable and how much of it is what must be insisted upon, no matter what?

To be sure, the Charlie Hebdo periodical would not have been allowed to publish the kind of satire it did in Singapore: the Media Development Authority would have stepped in to curtail its licence. The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act and the Sedition Act would likely have been thrown at the publisher, editor and cartoonists.

That kind of restriction might be an appropriate response to the kind of provocation Charlie Hebdo spewed out. But is that where the line should always be drawn? Could gentle satire - even of race and religion - become acceptable?

Can we develop a tradition of encouraging dissent or allowing artistic freedom that might make us a little bit more thick-skinned and a little bit more tolerant of our own foibles?

So long as hyper-sensitivities abound in areas of race, language, religion, political affiliation, nationality and even sexual orientation, we remain susceptible to state intervention when things get rough. That has worked well in Singapore, but may not always be desirable to those who want a burgeoning of democratic practices.

Can Singaporeans learn to distinguish between what is wilfully destructive hate speech online and what is merely thoughtless venting, and respond appropriately?

What we need is to build a societal consensus on how to engage with critics civilly, and how to respond to critical views without attacking the critical person.

We don't need a Charlie Hebdo kind of satirical publication. But we could learn from the French in the way they respond to critical views with sangfroid.

As a society, Singapore can do with more freedom of expression - but not the kind that leads to violence and heartbreak.

The writer worked in the Singapore navy and media, taught at tertiary institutions and is the editor of Philosophers For Change, an online journal dealing with alternative socio-economic paradigms.

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