Published: 01 April 2019
Mr Speaker Sir,
Last week, IPS released an important survey on the role of religion in the private and public space. Of the 1800 Singapore residents interviewed, one in four find it acceptable for religious extremists to publish their views on the internet or social media. A significantly higher proportion of younger people find the publication of extreme views acceptable, with almost half of those surveyed aged 18 to 25, saying they would allow publication.
This is similar to the feedback received from some younger members of the public who disagreed with the cancellation of the Watain concert. They raised questions about the government’s moral authority to police music, performances and artistic content.
I can understand this sentiment. Aspiring to have the freedom to express what one feels, the liberty to read and enjoy what one feels like, is seen to be a hallmark of a free and democratic society.
There are also other aspects of freedom that I think are important. The freedom to decide on one’s choice of religion and to practice it, the freedom to not be discriminated against because you are of a different race and religion.
I am sure we agree that we want all the above freedoms. But what happens when these two sets of freedom collide? Or are on a trajectory to collide?
Some may be sceptical about why these two sets of freedom can collide. They can. If one were to ridicule or taunt believers of another religion, he may feel he is entitled to his “freedom of speech”, but the recipient can feel that he is entitled to be offended and what about the recipient’s freedom of not being discriminated against?
These are difficult issues and each party is entitled to their own opinions and their rights. If we leave them to engage in a public disagreement – this could result in an escalating crescendo of extreme views against each other. And what if this spills into real action in the real world? So someone has to act. And oftentimes, this ends up being the government enforcement agency’s responsibility. If the enforcement agency does not act, the parties may take matters into their own hands.
The government’s overview on music, performances and art is based on classification ratings, tied to age-appropriateness and with consideration for public sensitivity. The IMDA regulates this. Not the MHA.
The Ministry of Home Affairs is principally focused on public order issues and with that the maintenance of racial and religious harmony as it can impact public order.
So why did the MHA get involved in the ban on Watain? The MHA does not look at music and artistic content. The MHA took into consideration the lyrics, views espoused by the band, and whether this would be significantly disrespectful, in this case, to the mainstream Christian community. In other cases it could touch significantly on the sensitivities of other groups in Singapore. So on religious harmony grounds, the MHA recommended that Watain not be allowed to perform in Singapore.
But I feel the whole episode provides a few learning points:
1. Firstly, agencies need to explain to the public that they are not making a value judgement on the art form. In the ban on Watain, there is no value judgement on black metal music. The fact of the matter is that the MHA was principally concerned about the words and the message that was being put out by the band, and the feelings, in this case, from the mainstream Christian community. It was not a value judgement on the genre of music.
2. Secondly, agencies need to be seen to be acting even-handedly towards different racial and religious groups. Minister Shanmugam has shared that bans on religious preachers in the past have been imposed on religious preachers across different religions. This even–handed approach is a point that is important to various racial and religious groups and needs to be repeated often.
3. Thirdly, while a judgement call has to be made on whether music and performances harm racial and religious harmony, such judgement calls should take place as early as possible so as to minimise confusion to arts practitioners and also minimise misunderstanding from the public that the government makes decisions based on pressure from religious groups. So we should look at processes and see how we can avoid a repeat.
On hindsight, we are all omniscient and prescient. Enforcement agencies will always be the whipping boy because they have to make a judgement call. If there is no public disorder, they are deemed to have over-reacted. If there is public disorder, they are seen to be lacking in preparation. Government agencies get no bonus points for active intervention to create a harmonious society. And over time, a harmonious society is taken as a given.
But really is it? Are we saying that society can magically chug along, and as active individuals in our society, we do not impact the course our society takes? I cannot believe that, and I do not think that our young will agree either. We are actually making a stand, taking action every day, in the words we speak, in what we do and what we do not do. Our actions or lack thereof have consequences.
So we need to ask ourselves how we want the tone and texture of discourse to be in our society. Do we want civility, respect, consideration in our general discourse and public expressions of speech? The trade-off may be some restraint and the inability to be “spontaneous”. Or do we want absolute freedom and anything goes – potentially insults, taunts, offensive speech, in the name of freedom of expression? Should different lines be drawn just because it is on social media, or in arts and entertainment?
We need to strike a balance. On the one hand, we cannot have a free for all situation so that one can step all over another and expect the other not to react or retaliate. On the other hand, we also do not want a situation where civil and considered discourse on all matters related to religion, race, or a group’s values and orientation be avoided or tip-toed around so as to avoid any possibility of causing offence. In fact this debate we are having in this House, in a considered way, shows that such issues can and should be discussed. As long as we understand what we are trying to achieve, and how we can work together to achieve them.
In the words of the great American singer and song-writer Bob Dylan, who won the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016, he once said “A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.” His songs gave a voice to his generation, mobilising them and motivating them. And he understood the balance that even artists have to strive to achieve.
As we aspire to greater freedoms, with the stability and prosperity our society affords us, let us also have a care for those who may be impacted by our decisions, impacted by our words, and also those who toil to safeguard what we have. Our pursuit for freedoms brings a lightness to our spirit, but let us not forget those who carry our burdens for us – anchoring our racial and religious harmony for the prosperity and stability of Singapore.
Mr Speaker in Chinese pls.