“The reason why Singapore has so far been an exception to what is becoming a world-wide rule is that this Government had the courage always to be on the side of sanity against the intolerance of the hysterical.”
Those words were uttered by Singapore’s former Cabinet minister, S Rajaratnam, in 1988. They remain as salient now as they were 30 years ago, in light of recent events and incidents.
In the past week or so, two incidents have once again raised questions of whether Singaporeans (or the public) are an intolerant, petty lot. Indeed, are they a hysterical mob, fuming over the slightest infringement or slight, fists thumping on chests for retribution against the perceived perpetrator?
The first incident was over an Indian national (and Singapore permanent resident) who posted online a photo of a Singapore flag on a t-shirt, with the flag being torn apart to reveal an Indian flag beneath.
Self-proclaimed “patriots” of Singapore did not waste time in castigating the offender, with even one activist threatening to “burn” the Indian flag in front of the Indian embassy here, even if it ran afoul of the law.
Following the uproar, the Indian national “is no longer with the company”, his employer, DBS, said on Tuesday. And the police have started investigation into his post too.
The second incident happened only yesterday, when architect Tay Kheng Soon reported on his Facebook page that he was interviewed by the police over a Facebook post he had made in July.
In it, Mr Tay – incidentally the brother of former Education minister, the late Tay Eng Soon – had commented about his recent visit to a holocaust memorial in Armenia. The memorial commemorated the Armenian Genocide where some 1.5 million Christian Armenians were murdered and exterminated by the Muslim Ottoman rulers, starting in 1915.
Some members of the public took offence at Mr Tay’s post and reported it to the police. The unhappiness apparently was over the (factual) report that the Muslims had slaughtered the Christians.
The reaction by some to the two incidents (and there are others) remind us of what Singaporean academic Cherian George cautioned the Government about during the hearings of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods in March – that laws against hate speech often backfire.
“Groups manufacture indignation and then demand that the state uphold its insult laws by punishing the individuals and groups accused of causing offence,” Mr George said.
He called on such laws to be repealed, including section 298 of the Penal Code which criminalises the deliberate wounding of racial and religious feelings.
The two incidents described above seems to prove what Mr George says – that there are people out there who are so sensitive that they would “weaponise” (to use the academic’s word) hate speech laws (or laws to protect our national symbols or emblems, for that matter) for their own purposes.
These people would be those whom former Cabinet minister, S Rajaratnam, would call “the hysterical minority.”
Mr Rajaratnam, who would later become Minister of Culture, argued in 1988 against such extreme sensitivities, and called on the government to stand on the side of rationalism or reason, rather than extremism or emotional outbursts.
The late minister was defending the availability of the book, The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, which some wanted banned here.
The novel, which depicts a sexual relationship between Jesus Christ, whom Christians believed is the son of God, and Mary Magdalene, a prostitute, caused a worldwide uproar, including here in Singapore.
Mr Rajaratnam objected to the call for the book to be prohibited, and wrote several letters to the forum page of The Straits Times to argue this.
He said that his persistence in objecting to any ban was not over the banning per se but “over the cast of mind and motive that led to the banning” – in other words, the rationale behind the ban, the thinking that “racial and religious cohesiveness” can best be ensured in Singapore by enforcement through law.
“I would have thought the best way of ensuring racial and religious harmony would be by compelling the hysterical minority to ‘empathise’ with the sane majority,” Mr Rajaratnam wrote in one of his letters which the newspaper titled, “Why religious hysteria must not be placated.”
“The reason why Singapore has so far been an exception to what is becoming a world-wide rule is that this Government had the courage always to be on the side of sanity against the intolerance of the hysterical,” Mr Rajaratnam said.
He added: “This is what western Christian and even non-Christian countries with also a multiplicity of religions and races have had the courage to do in the face of the baying of the hysterical over this book.
“And as far as I know, no religious wars have erupted as a result of the courageous stand. On the contrary, placating religious hysteria is the surest way of encouraging religious intolerance and, therefore, of religious civil wars.”.
While Mr Rajaratnam and Mr George may have been referring to things religious, their words also apply to any form of extreme or extremist views, which do not encourage tolerance and understanding, or open debate or discussion.
It is unfortunate that the police had found it necessary to interview Mr Tay over his posting. The very action of having him account for his views might give his accusers, who have no basis for their complaints and remain anonymous, the satisfaction of being able to intimidate anyone who hold views contrary to theirs by resorting to the powers of the police.
The police should stop this practice of interviewing people because of such frivolous complaints.
What they should do, as someone suggested online, is for the police to interview the complainants instead, to see if their complaints have any credibility or substance.
And even then, the authorities should exercise extreme caution, and be aware, not to allow themselves or the laws – which are well-intentioned – to be weaponised for selfish or misguided purposes.
The hysterical few must not be allowed to cry foul at the smallest pin prick, especially imagined ones.