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story Kaushik Swaminathan | Tee Zhuo
On Jan. 7, two masked gunmen attacked the headquarters of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in apparent response to the publication’s caricature of Prophet Muhammad. They killed twelve people including editor Stéphane Charbonnier, seven Charlie Hebdo employees, and two police officers. A global condemnation of this attack has since followed, and the magazine, with its often incendiary and controversial content, has become a beacon for freedom of speech and expression—and its protection at all costs.
Freedom of speech must be the cornerstone of any working democracy, but this does not preclude us from recognizing its material as offensive, blasphemous and racist. #JeSuisCharlie is at the center of this debate. The hashtag, which has arisen as a gesture of solidarity and identification with the spirit of the magazine and its right to freedom of speech, has drawn flak. Critics see the hashtag as a careless gesture by users, representing not just support for the magazine’s freedom to express, but also an endorsement of its religiously and racially offensive content.
But just as much as we have the right to be offended, publishers have the right to be offensive.
One thing is certain: cartoons à la Charlie Hebdo would be harshly dealt with in Singapore. Incidents remind us that a country known for its efficiency, high productivity, cleanliness, and lack of corruption, is also notorious for limiting certain freedoms ostensibly to protect societal values and racial and religious harmony. For example, a permit is required to hold public protests and even then only at Hong Lim Park—ironic in its restriction of freedom of speech. These laws—which organizations like Human Rights Watch have called “draconian”—have intimidating names like “The Sedition Act” and the “Undesirable Publications Act”.
Just last year, the Singapore government’s decision to pulp a children’s book inspired by a real-life story of same-sex penguins evoked strong responses, both in the national and international media. In 2013, artist Leslie Chew was arrested for sedition after posting a cartoon on Facebook in a comic series called “Demon-cratic Singapore”. In 2010, a repairman was jailed for two weeks for placing cards containing questions about Prophet Muhammad on cars he believed belonged to Muslims. He was charged for “injuring the religious feelings of another person”. In 2009, a couple received eight-week jail terms for mailing “seditious or objectionable evangelical Christian comic booklets”—including one titled Who Is Allah?—to Muslims. And the list goes on.
Singapore’s questionable freedoms naturally have implications for our college. Yale-NUS’s Core Statement on Freedom of Expression states: “We are firmly committed to the free expression of ideas in all forms…There are no questions that cannot be asked, no answers that cannot be discussed and debated. This principle is a cornerstone of our institution.” But a webpage on freedom of speech at the school states: “However, attacking or disparaging another race, religion or ethnicity is not allowed in Singapore. Singapore has passed numerous laws that prohibit any speech that causes disharmony among various religious or racial groups.” Our school’s dedication to upholding free speech is undeniable, but so is the contradiction of a free speech policy with such a caveat.
Even apart from policy, Yale-NUS has generally taken the stance that offensive material should not be published. But practicing a double standard—upholding freedom of speech when it caters to the majority and disparaging it when used by the minority—is an injustice to this right. Following the Charlie Hebdo attack, France was criticised for hypocrisy in its selective application of this right; while the satirical magazine’s cartoons are deemed lawful in France, denial of the Holocaust is punishable by imprisonment. A similar situation exists at Yale-NUS, albeit on a different scale. On one hand, the removal of the Occupy Hong Kong elevator posters by campus security was met with condemnation by Yale-NUS students and the swift righting of wrongs. On the other hand, parodies of other posters and the posting of insensitive images were met with calls for removal. Barring incitements to harm or kill, should we cherry-pick incidents to stay true to free speech?
The conversation on the freedom of speech in Singapore has been—and will continue—evolving as the country matures politically. But how it will evolve is a question without a definitive answer. What is in our control, however, is how we choose to shape the conversation at Yale-NUS—and a conversation must exist. If we continue to silence the non-politically correct members of our community, we betray the principles that we, at least in appearance, place on a pedestal. Brian Beutler of the New Republic summarized it when he said, we “don’t have to defend acts of blasphemy to defend the right to blaspheme.” If ever there was a sentiment that our school needs to understand, and if not accept at least acknowledge, it is this.
This version of the article was last edited on 20 Jan, 2015, to better specify the origin of a quote.