Jail the racist blogger. Legal?

Posted On // 2 comments

DISCLAIMER: Much of what I am saying here is guesswork. I have not read the complete post by Mr Sexy Fragrant Prince. Also, I am no expert in law, although I do understand how to read English.

Before I contend whether people in general should be allowed to make racist comments, I want to first examine the requirements that the law has set out. Personally, I really wonder whether Mr Sexy Fragrant Prince (henceforth Mr SFP) did meet these requirements.
"Under the amendments made last September to the Penal Code, whoever, with intent to wound the religious or racial feelings of any person, causes any matter to be seen or heard by that person," (taken from TODAY)
On "intent to wound the religious or racial feelings of any person", it is interesting to note that Mr SFP did in his own defense claim that the audience he was writing to was his friends. I think that until this can be conclusively proven by both,

a) the contents of his blog post - Whether Mr SFP did direct his comments at Malays.

b) the traffic of his blog - Whether Mr SFP was aware that there was a reasonable chance that Malays would come across his blog (since you can't possibly be culpable for hurting the feelings of people you had no idea would chance upon your blog)

Herein, one might argue that all blogs are public in nature and bloggers are assumed to understand this, thus making them culpable for any racist remarks they make online. However, it is dubious as to whether bloggers can truly be assumed to understand this. Mr SFP for instance did exhibit a thorough lack of such an understanding. "Even if you are a Malay and am reading this... good for you..coz this is my personal blog and i can say what i deem fit."

it would be unfair to lock Mr SFP up. Also, it is not enough for either one of the above criteria to be fulfilled in order to consider that he had the prerequisite intent. Both must be fulfilled since only fulfilling (a) without (b) would be like saying he wrote racist remarks, but knew no one would read them. Or if only (b) were fulfilled, it would be akin to saying that he knew people would read his blog, but he didn't think his remarks would be racist.

On "causes any matter to be seen or heard by that person", I wonder whether MR SFP was truly successful in causing Malays to see his racist contents. And if they did, I wonder whether they were truly offended. This particular law seems to suggest that it is enough if "that person" sees or hears it, and it doesn't matter whether he or she was offended by it. Personally, I think that such a requirement is too relaxed. As with most crimes, one cannot be charged for a particular offense if he did not succeed in committing it. Take murder for instance. Should the victim not lose his life, the suspect cannot be charged with murder, but only with attempted murder which falls under a different law and also metes out a different punishment.

On the validity of the law
Above and beyond the application of the existing law, I challenge the very existence of this law.

On truth
Bearing in mind that truth may be a defense to libel or slander, should truth not similarly be a defense for racism? The only difference between libel or slander, and racism, is therefore that the former is usually targeted at an individual, while the latter is targeted at a group of individuals. There should thus be no distinction made between both cases since there is no reason why a group of individuals should deserve greater rights than a single individual.

Given that a truthful remark about a race, say, "Chinese mostly speak Chinese" or "Indians typically have a fragrance around them", is still very much a generalization and seems racist because of that, am I then guilty of being racist even if the generalizations I made were true? (I am not defending racist people, since by definition, the generalizations they make are false, they thus do not fall under the kind of 'truthful' generalizations I speak of.)

Having established the importance of truth, I find it difficult to accept that there can be a law punishing you for wounding the feelings of another person regardless of whether the comments you make are true. Herein, I am only challenging the boundaries set by the law. While i fully understand that most racist comments are inaccurate and that the government has yet to find fault with one whose comments may be true yet 'racist' because it is hurtful to another race, this does not detract from the fact that the wording of this particular law as such implies that a person can be found guilty regardless of the validity of his statements.

On sedition
A possible explanation for the law's lack of discrimination on the basis of truth would be the threat to social stability. Herein, sedition, or the act of saying things that have the potential to incite hatred and resentment against the social order of peace and harmony is often cited as a reason behind the need to curb such extreme speech.

First and foremost, I question the assumption that such racist speech would lead to a collapse of the social order and a breakdown in racial harmony. Most racist speech is usually made by individuals, and not a race itself. It is thus unlikely that Singaporeans would behave so irrationally as to target the entire race the person belongs to just because of one person's seditious words.

Having been educated to love thy neighbour of a different race or religion, and rigorously indoctrinated of the importance of racial harmony, it can be safely said that Singaporeans have by and large the maturity to respond to such comments in a responsible manner. Given this maturity, it is far more likely that Singaporeans would engage in civil dialogue to settle differences (although the government does set quite a bad example in this aspect). Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that the pragmatic Singaporean would decide to take up a cause for his race at the expense of his own material comfort.

On the contrary, such free speech has to be upheld for the maintenance of racial harmony, or maybe just racial tolerance. Sweeping matters under the carpet through blanket censorship will not do. A law as arbitrary as the one used against Mr SFP may succeed in covering large grounds, yet at the same time it succeeds in stifling free speech. As mentioned earlier, it makes discussion difficult because people fear that even the truthful generalizations cannot be made public, and neither can they express their views towards certain issues, leaving everything under the carpet, to fester, till one they the intolerance explodes and we get something far worse.

What is the benefit of allowing people to air their racist views? Simply put, it allows them to be corrected, or at least be made known. As with any active blogosphere, the self-checking mechanism of other internet users critiquing the racist views can serve to correct these views, allowing both the individual and the community at large to better understand the cultures and customs of certain people. Simply Jean provides a pretty good example of this self-checking mechanism. To give an example myself, I would tackle Mr SFP's claim that the Malays he meets on the MRT are 'gross' and 'smelly' by saying that there is a) not representative of all Malays b) not the person's fault that he may be too poor to bathe and c) even if it is representative of all Malays because somehow Malays are less well-to-do, I would say that you cannot blame them for a demographic trend that has existed since the colonial times when Chinese immigrants were the ones most greatly enriched by the entrepot business.

On top of that, it also allows fellow Singaporeans to understand the concerns of certain people. This is especially so since no custom or tradition of any race or religion may be exercised without consideration for the rights of other individuals. Take for instance the Sikhs who need to carry a knife with them wherever they go. Should they be allowed to board an airplane with a knife even if it poses a threat to the lives of other individuals on board? Similarly, there may also be concerns by certain people over the customs and traditions of other races. While I am not saying that people should be totally intolerant of the traditions of other races, one cannot deny a person his rights on the basis of tradition. In allowing discussion, a middle ground can hopefully be reached.

However, there are some comments that are simply too far-fetched and are indicative of a highly misled individual who cannot be successfully convinced by any logic anyone has to offer. In such an unfortunate scenario, proving that the person cannot be convinced by logic would simply show that such an individual need not be bothered with, making it unlikely that the victimized race would bear any ill-will towards the race this individual belongs to.


Anonymous said...

Most Chinese people speak Chinese partly because the school system here makes second language compulsory, and Chinese students are expected to learn Chinese. There are objective facts backing this statement.

Where is the objective backing for the statement "Indians typically have a fragrance around them"? At worst, it is highly subjective, and at best, it is merely a truism. Chances are that if you ask an Indian person who you perceive to have a "fragrance" around them, they will not think there is anything out of the ordinary about the way they smell. From whose point of view is this "objective" statement being articulated?

Moreover, every person of every ethnicity has their own particular smell, whether or not it is obvious to other people. This is merely a truism. By that measure, the statement "Chinese people typically have a fragrance around them" is just as true. But for what reason should the statement regarding Indian people be one that needs to be picked up on and defended as being a "truthful" generalization?

The reason is this. Take out the word "fragrance" and replace it with the word "odour" and what you'll see is a common comment that is made about certain minority groups in Singapore, including both Malay and Indian people, in a racist context.

I think we need to get clear about what ideas of "truth" we are trying to defend here.

sandy said...

"Chinese people typically have a fragrance around them" - and that's a fact. It didn't occur to me until somebody pointed out to that it has to do with the lard used in cooking certain dishes like char kway teow, beef noodles, etc. And then it dawned on me why I always found it unbearable, to the extent I feel like puking, when office colleagues lunch in with said dishes since the pantry and/or cubicles trap the smells. For the record, I'm a Singapore born Chinese who does not like hawker food, chilli, curries or durians. So does that make me a food racist?