Freedom of Speech and the People who fight for it

Recently, it’s like everyone’s got their hands in the air, protesting for the right to free expression in Singapore. From Political Parties to NGOs to friends on my Facebook wall, I see an endless outcry for more space to speak freely in Singapore.

They warn me, “If you don’t fight for it now, you don’t know what it means  until you become a victim of oppression one day 

What probably hasn’t helped, is conflating every recent issue into this giant furball called The Right to the Freedom of Speech, and stuff it down everyone else’s throats without much explanation or distinction. A tad bit ironic no?

Cherian George, in his recent SAA lecture at the Projector, opened by clarifying that the Freedom of Speech is a limited right. This is outlined by the UNHCR.

Article 29 would limit its scope so that freedom of expression would not include the right to libel or slander people, or to preach racial discrimination or to advocate violence.

This seems is something that most others conveniently forget:

You Either Have Free Speech or North Korea”

Roy Ngerng

“It is important for the international community to work to foster freedom of expression and in so doing empower the masses rather than ust the rich and powerful.”

Chee Soon Juan

“They amounted to a violation of his fundamental rights to freedom of expression.”

Kenneth Jeyaretnam

It seems as though, the (limited) right to the Freedom of Speech has become this united banner for various issues that are arguably not an issue with the Freedom of Speech in the first place.


Roy was sued for defamation (which he admitted to) and not because he spent over two years talking about the CPF.

Amos Yee was unfortunately charged for spreading obscene images and making “wounding remarks against Christianity”. This was later escalated because he choose not to comply with the terms of his bail/probation.

Yet others have quickly taken it upon themselves to defend Amos and Roy under the banner of the Freedom of Speech in Singapore but conveniently ignored other parts.

  • Are they really concerned about Roy’s arguments on the CPF?
  • Are they really concerned that the State currently has no seeming means to help other teenagers like Amos? Surely he must not be the only one?

For whom is the right to free speech applicable? 

The same group of Freedom Fighters of Speech were again up in arms when IKEA decided to advertise a magic show by “pro-family” pastor, Lawrence Khong and demanded for IKEA to remove said advertisements. Not condoning the church but is this not recognizing the church’s right to express their beliefs?

Is the right to free speech therefore applicable only to those who have been invited to join the banner?

Or is this select group only for a budding liberal / democrat / progressive individual? Is this a special club for those who have advanced quicker than traditional parts of society?

The freedom to speak freely also means the likelihood of eventually offending someone else unlike you. The projection of the idea of progress on a linear trajectory is equally unhelpful. It can’t be seen as a point where the rest of society has to eventually reach. Perhaps the problem isn’t the freedom of speech – but actually giving a damn to the actual reasons and circumstances behind it all. Maybe then, we can properly recognize and manage cope with difference; and society will be richer for it.


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