Racism is pernicious. It is a rampant, destructive weed in the field of human relations. Its roots go deep, deep into the soil of our very being, our culture, our history, our psyche as homo sapiens. It is illogical and unpredictable. It promotes chaos and bloodshed. I should know. It killed my aunt.
You would be hard-pressed to find someone more against racism than me. So when I say that racists should not be locked up for making racist statements, you should understand that this is not a knee-jerk reaction.
It’s not that they don’t deserve it. Personally, I think they should be caned for their atrocious hate-mongering and then forced to serve hard labor in some dirt-poor country filled with people of different skin colors than their own, people who are struggling to survive each day. Maybe they should be forced to care for infants dying of AIDS or starvation in Africa, or clearing landmines in Cambodia. Maybe that would help to wake them to the human condition. Suffering generally does.
But that’s just the problem, you see; intolerance breeds intolerance. Hotheads like myself rarely see the bigger picture, which is why people like me are generally not asked to make decisions affecting millions of people.
Here’s the problem with making racist comments illegal, though: If you force them underground, then what they think and do will be out of sight—but it won’t go away. It’s like dandelions. You can mow them down, but the root system is still there, and next spring they’ll be back in even greater numbers. From a practical perspective, the government is warping and rendering useless a massively useful tool to understand what its citizens honestly think and feel, because they’ve created a climate in which people won’t say what they think and feel. Then those who are spreading real sedition will not be as easily identified and apprehended.
You see, another problem with making racist comments illegal under sedition laws is the fact that, yes, you are inculcating a culture of fear. People will be afraid to say what they really think. They already are. This has only made it worse. With each new case of government/authority intercession in the blogosphere (acid flask anyone?) that fear grows. Ultimately you’re killing off the good with the bad.
And history teaches us that clamping down on freedom of speech is one of the hallmarks of oppressive regimes. In this case, I think the move was well intentioned—but to the rest of the first world it sends the wrong signal. It reinforces that image of Singapore as a place that does not trust its own citizenry to behave in a responsible manner (stick of gum anyone?). Yes, there will always be a few in any society who jam the train door with gum. Yes, there will always be a few in society who make inflammatory, racist comments. The answer is not to arrest those who make racist comments. So what is the answer?
In my opinion, the answer is, on a practical level, to ignore them and on an ethical level to engage them in discourse and try to show them the error of their ways. Should they be held responsible for their actions? Absolutely. But the court of public opinion should be the first recourse, not an unintended victim of more severe measures.
You see, the problem with curtailing freedom of speech using the sedition law is that you invoke the law of unintended consequences. In the short term, you’ll see a little grumbling from, mainly, the blogging community. That’s easy to dismiss. What will be less easy to dismiss is the fact that the young, intelligent group that makes up the bulk of the blogging community is also the young intelligent group that’s likely to be the future movers of Singapore’s business, technology, arts, civil service and government. And if they do not feel they are able to honestly express themselves in their home country, they might well move on to share their talents with other countries who do not sacrifice freedom of speech to expediency, however well intentioned.
Finally, we should consider what the framers of the American Constitution considered in regards to the limitation of power: Today we have a responsible, responsive government who serve under the rule of law. But no-one can guarantee the ethics of tomorrow’s leaders. And just as you would find it difficult un-erode a rock, freedoms revoked, relinquished or curtailed are rarely regained.