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Freedom of speech is the “right to agree with government and the right to disagree” – Tommy Koh

"We should not demonise Alfian Sa’at. He is one of our most talented playwrights. I regard him as a loving critic of Singapore. He is not anti-Singapore," said Tommy Koh in defence of the playwright

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The comments of Singapore’s Education Minister Ong Ye Kung while responding to questions from Members of Parliament over the Yale-NUS out-of-classroom programme, created another controversy as he allegedly singled out playwright Alfian Sa’at for his role behind the scrapped dissent and protest programme.

Several prominent figures in the arts community — as well as Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh — spoke up for playwright Alfian Sa’at and said, “We should not demonise Alfian Sa’at. He is one of our most talented playwrights. I regard him as a loving critic of Singapore. He is not anti-Singapore.”

“It is of course true that some (of) his writings are critical of Singapore,” Prof Koh said, adding: “But freedom of speech means the right to agree with the Government as well as the right to disagree.”

“I feel that I should defend him at this moment when he must feel discouraged and worried and friendless,” he said.

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A Ministry of Education (MOE) spokesperson set out the context for Mr Ong’s speech which was intended to draw attention to the “difference between studying and researching resistance, and teaching students the techniques of resistance.”

As Mr Alfian’s writings are public, “people can and should form their own conclusions about his beliefs and how he feels about Singapore”, the spokesperson said.

In Parliament, Mr Ong had said that individuals such as Mr Alfian may use the autonomous universities here “to conduct partisan political activities to sow dissent against the Government”.

Mr Alfian, on the other hand, urged his supporters through a Facebook post on Tuesday (Oct 8), not to get personal.

“I’d like to make an appeal here for commenters to avoid making their criticisms personal. You can direct your criticisms instead at policies, programmes, agendas, ideologies.”

“Whatever we do, we should not hit other people’s noses. And I take this to mean that the exercise of our rights, including our rights to criticism, should not cause harm… to another individual,” he wrote.

Mr Ong agrees with Prof Koh’s view on freedom on speech, noting that he had said in Parliament: “Individuals…are entitled to their views and feelings about Singapore. They can write about them, vent them on social media, and even have a following.”

However, the Education minister also pointed out that as responsible citizens of the state, we need to decide whether we allow such forms of political resistance free rein in our education institutions, and even taught as compulsory, credit-bearing programmes.

As a final word, Mr Ong reiterated that educational institutions “should not work with speakers and instructors who have been convicted of public order-related offences, or who are working with political advocacy groups funded by foreigners, or who openly show disloyalty to Singapore.” -/TISG

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