What is real freedom of speech?

Whenever it’s a case of Government versus the people, it is easy for people to side with the people. That’s understandable. Big Government. Nazis. Bullies against the small man.

But we sometimes forget the Government and the civil service are made up of warm blooded human beings. They are the people too. When we talk about a government department, it is not just an entity. It is people, like you and me. With families. With dignity. With a bright future like everyone else. Trying to make a decent living. Like the saying goes, “There is no such thing as a society. It’s you and me.”

So I read this big argument between the Government and the Workers’ Party over the latest judgment by the Court of Final Appeal. What the 2-1 majority decision says is this – the government is not a person. So it cannot use the law against harassment and to correct fake news. At first glance, it sounds reasonable.

Except that if you think a bit deeper, you would realise two things. One, the two judges who disagree with the Chief Justice misread the intent of the law. It provides for the Government to get the offending party to correct their false reporting. They are not talking about harassment. They are talking about getting the mischievous or guilty party to own up and correct their mistake.

WP used freedom of speech to argue their case. If you think about it, what the government is asking is in fact that. If you say something wrong and the court agrees you are lying and I ask you to correct your mistake and you refuse – you are indeed impeding freedom of speech. So by getting the truth out through the guilty party, you are indeed promoting better freedom of speech.  So WP’s position does not hold water.

Then the WP tries another tack. They say if you have all the vast resources to correct the error, you don’t need to be protected. The individual should be allowed to say all kinds of defamatory stuff about the Government or a department and then hopefully people will read the clarification somewhere else.

As one official told me, it is as good as saying rich people and companies do not need defamation laws since they have resources to communicate somewhere else. That is a sure invite for mischief and taking down our government departments.


So what does the judgment mean?

If I don’t like a certain CEO of a statutory board or a junior officer of an agency, I can blog everyday and claim that department is anti-Muslim, anti-women, anti-gay or anti-whatever nonsense I can think of to sabotage the people there. Over time, hopefully it sticks and the people in that department suffer and people lose faith in the department.

I can use it as a pressure point to HDB officers who refuse to give me my flat early by saying HDB is corrupt, HDB is anti-Chinese, HDB is this and that. And I don’t need to correct myself even when proven false? Since HDB can use its other means to hopefully address my mischief?

I don’t like the taste of a medicine from a hospital. I can blog every day that the hospital is reckless in dispensing medicine and that people have died from it- and I can get away with it. Hopefully, people will stop going to the hospital so that I get to punish a certain pharmacist I don’t like.

What does that mean for all of us in Singapore? Everybody can have a go at any government department if they are not happy with one chap there, whether he is the senior official or a rude counter lady. Our latest trust index showed our Government is still very much trusted by our people – around 70 per cent, one of the highest in the world. The developed nations – looked upon highly by the liberals and our dear opposition – scored in the 30s.

But if we do nothing about the harassment law and allows the intent to be lost by all this politicking thanks to the WP, the losers are not just the government and civil servants. It is you and me and anyone who needs to count on a good government to a better livelihood.