Should we accord freedom of speech to those who do not embrace it?

September 9, 2009 by
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Mr Kelvin Teo of Kent Ridge Common asks the question: Should we show tolerance to groups that advocate intolerance? My answer is that the truth should be allowed to speak for itself.

Quick Snippets from the Editor
09 Sept 2009

This is my response to the Kent Ridge Common article “The divide between religious extremism and free speech” (07 Sept) by Mr Kelvin Teo.

Mr Teo’s article tried to address the question whether groups that seek to injure the right of others to free speech should themselves be accorded that liberty. Special reference was made in the beginning of the article to the AWARE saga earlier this year which saw a group of Christians take over a secular organization in order to impose its own values on it and subvert the organization to its own agenda.

In the first paragraph of the article, it was stated that during the AWARE EOGM on May 2, “the crowd effectively drowned out the voices of Dr Thio Su Mien and her mentees“. I disagree with this assessment, which seems to imply that supporters of the AWARE Old Guard had tried to deny Dr Thio’s group the right to free speech through raucous behaviour.

According to the ST letter “Volunteer tells why Aware’s EGM turned raucous” (07 May) by Ms Pamela Oei, it was Ms Josie Lau’s team that first tried to play dirty by switching off the microphones on the floor at the start of the meeting in order to silence the crowd, despite the use of microphones being normal practice during an AGM or EOGM.

According to Ms Oei: “When one is trying to speak up in a hall as cavernous as the one in Suntec City with no microphone, one is left with little choice but to shout to be heard.

Supporters of the Old Guard protested when Mr Siew Kum Hong was told to go and sit with the men at the sidelines, as there was nothing in the AWARE Constitution that dictated segregation of sexes at an EGM. Furthermore, Mr Siew was acting as legal counsel for the old guard, so he had every right to sit with them.

They protested at the various forms of self-serving behaviour displayed by Josie Lau’s team at the conference, including attempting to bask in the glory of AWARE’s achievements over the past 24 years, none of which she or her team was responsible for.

They also protested at the lack of civility displayed Dr Thio Su Mien who hijacked the microphone from people who had been queueing up for up to an hour and a half for their chance to speak, for treating the crowd like primary school children, and for demanding respect even before that respect had been earned.

In short, Ms Oei argued that the alleged racuous behaviour displayed by supporters of the Old Guard was a passionate response to the disrespectful and self-serving manner by which Ms Josie Lau’s team had conducted the EGM. It was entirely justified.

Throughout the entire AWARE saga, no one had tried to deny Josie Lau’s and Thio Su Mien’s side the right of free speech. They were free to hold press conferences, they could say whatever they wanted, and they were even free to publicly denounce AWARE’s Comprehensive Sexuality Eductaion (CSE) programme just because it did not fit their narrowly defined worldview of right and wrong. Nobody asked that they be sued for defamation even though they repeatedly tried to perpetuate the lie that AWARE had promoted homosexuality in schools. It was a passionate and open debate from start to finish.

In the end, the AWARE Old Guard won because the truth was allowed to speak for itself.

I believe therein also lies the answer to the question that Mr Kelvin Teo raised, namely, should groups (like Ms Josie Lau’s team) that seek to deny the right of others to free speech be accorded that right themselves?

The Old Guard’s victory was meaningful precisely because they won the debate in a fair and open setting, not by stooping down to the despicable, underhand tactics employed by Josie’s team. Their conduct and their actions throughout the saga spoke even louder than their words, and for that I applaud them.

Furthermore, groups like those organized by Ms Josie Lau and Dr Thio Su Mien do not really have the ability to take away the fundamental liberties of other individuals. Only the judiciary and the Government with its police force have this ability.

If we allow fanatical groups to rise to a position of power such that they can exert an undue influence on society and take away the fundamental liberties of individuals by employing the cruel machinery of the state, that the fault must be our own, for it would be we who foolishly ceded our rights to them.

People who believe in democratic processes and in freedom of speech thus have two duties:

  • One, to continually exercise their civil liberties and stand up for what they believe in, like what the AWARE Old Guard and their supporters did admirably during the saga, and
  • Two, to participate actively in the political process of the nation so that groups and political parties that do not believe in civil liberties or do not believe that others should be afforded the same rights as they afford themselves are not allowed the chance to gain power.

Mr Kelvin Teo’s question is a good one, but it must be answered in the right context. In that regard I find his analysis logical but superficial.


5 Comments on Should we accord freedom of speech to those who do not embrace it?

  1. sloo on Wed, 9th Sep 2009 8:28 am
  2. As a volunteer at the AWARE EOGM, what media most reports failed to point out was that the new team was quiet most of the time as they did not have any answers to the questions and accusations raised by the crowd. When they did, their answers were flawed and further attacked by other questions. So instead of saying the crowd drowned them out, we should highlight the fact that the team, just like in many of their previous press conferences and interviews, chose to remain silent in the face of probing questions or sidetrack the issue all together. Check out the videos – u can see the crowd behaving passionately but u can also see that the new team hardly making any attempt to get their point across and answer any of the accusations.

    […] Regligion – Should we accord freedom of speech to those who do not embrace it? […]

  3. mathialee on Wed, 9th Sep 2009 1:55 pm
  4. I think the ST editor also brought up this point in an editorial on the aftermath :

    The press repeatedly tried to get Josie’s team to give press interviews during their time in office, and they were repeatedly turned down. This was in contrast to the long-standing AWARE members who were very forthcomming with information throughout the saga.

    If it seemed as if the voices of Josie’s team were not heard, it was because they CHOSE to shut up and sit down.

  5. admin on Wed, 9th Sep 2009 2:41 pm
  6. Thanks, Mathia.

    The ST article that you reference is aggregated here:

    […] and free speech [Recommended] – Carpe Diem: God unites but religion divides – Should we accord freedom of speech to those who do not embrace it? – Irreligious: Christianity and politics go hand-in-hand [Thanks […]

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