Singapore's determination to continue to prohibit hate speech, underlined in Parliament this week, aims to draw a clear distinction between what are sinister forms of social provocation and the freedom of expression that should be available to citizens. Freedom of speech indeed serves to protect the liberties that make a nation democratic in principle and in practice. However, the intentional promotion of hatred through speech, deeds and social media is not democratic; if anything, it subverts rational thinking and the civil exchange of considered views that constitute the basis of democratic communication. Singapore need take no more than passing notice of countries where the demand for free speech extends to the protection of egregious verbal and written assaults on the beliefs, values and practices of both faith and secular communities. The dire consequences of such tolerance for what is essentially intolerance are manifest in many of those societies. They are free to find their own way forward.
But for Singapore, the long-held and preferred approach has been to err on the side of caution by prohibiting speech that can divide a multiracial and multi-religious society, ignite dissension and potentially even spark violence. A degree of state intervention in this area has produced a keener sense of appreciation among Singaporeans of how an attack on the cultural sentiments of one community is also an attack on the entire national fabric. By putting cultural and religious chauvinism in its place, the law has made tolerance the default mode of social existence. Singapore has survived tumultuous times that could have produced a fragmented collection of communities, each seeking to hold sway over the others.