Friday, February 02, 2007

Proposed Free Speech Curbs Helps Speechless & Grows Economy

There are two things happening today. First, there will be a seminar on free speech at NUS. One of my favourite bloggers, Mr Wang, will be at the seminar. Second, it looks like the fall-out from the racist podcast will get wider. There is an inevitability that free speech will come under scrutiny again, specifically free speech in the Internet, in the coming weeks. And most, if not all, attention will gravitate toward the more delicious and controversial podcast. It is probable that the podcast, as an event, will overshadow the seminar, and more importantly, perceptions and important Government policies, will be shaped more by the podcast than the seminar. At a cost to free speech.

When the NKF scandal broke into the public domain, by dint of the lawsuit between Durai and SPH, there was a massive outcry. And most people forgot, or the media did not really highlight the truth that talk of NKF excesses were already circulating widely in the Internet a year before. A year before the scandal broke, people were talking freely about the abuses of Durai and his NKF. It was this stirring in cyberspace which got the reporters sniffing. From that came the ST article that incensed Durai. While the SPH lawsuit was pending, Durai took to court two Singaporeans who made claims of NKF excess in the web. Durai won both cases. In fact, both cases were not contested. Both Singaporeans threw in the towel. They paid the price for their free speech. When Durai faced SPH next, "Free Speech" won. "Free Speech" of the ST. "Free Speech" which was no different from the free speech of the two Singaporeans. "Free Speech" won because it had money, it had power to contest the case in the courts. To fight the defamation charge against "Free Speech".

The point is simple. The Government is correct. There is indeed free speech in Singapore. But free speech around the world and particularly in Singapore, is essentially an expensive commodity. This is a point articulated most eloquently by Chomsky. In Singapore, there is free speech, but it is relatively more expensive than in the US, for example. Free speech is a commodity which is so expensive that only some can afford this in Singapore. Most Singaporeans cannot. Free speech in Singapore is most expensive when it is co-located in space which has high visibility. Parliament space. Rally space. Newspaper space. Broadcast media space. In these spaces, free speech in Singapore has an astronomical price. The Mr Brown saga attests to this.

So where is free speech cheap in Singapore? It is cheap when there are less than three humans within earshot of you. It is very cheap in your bedroom. It is cheap in cocktail party sniggers. It is cheap in coffeeshops. In these spaces, free speech is relatively cheap. As a matter of fact, it could be really free. So long as you whisper. Keep your volume low. Its very cheap free speech.

For a very brief moment in time, free speech was cheap in Singapore cyberspace, ridiculously cheap as compared to the other spaces in Singapore where free speech is located. The regime perception then, most manifested by MM Lee when he once dismissed a NUS undergrad to "go set up a website", was that this was junk space. Useless space. They could not see that this cyber-space has potentially the same impact as the other astronomically expensive spaces in Singapore with regard to free speech.

It was a brief moment. The case of the two Singaporeans against NKF was probably the beginning of rising costs of free speech in this cyber-space. The beginning of a legal-juridical awareness of this space that was anomalous to all the other spaces where free speech was expensive. A space that made a mockery of those expensive spaces. Defamation makes its appearance, but this case is a poor example for the law-makers, especially in light of Durai's subsequent capitulation. Then, the AcidFlask case happened and defamation reared its head again, this time with greater prominence and confidence. A hike in the price of free speech.

Soon after, the racist blogs case, the Holocaust blog case happen in quick succession. And we are introduced to Sedition. Defamation's ugly little twin. The cost of free speech in cyber-space rises another notch.

As GE 2006 neared, regulations were publicised expressly to make free speech expensive. But the regulations flopped. Too many "websites" and not enough authority to stem the tide. The regulations were like ticketing-gates except that the gates were ignored. People just walked around, above, under the gates. The numbers made it impossible to manage.

For a while, after this regulatory fiasco, the price of free speech in cyber-space stabilised. There was and is still now a flourishing of free speech in cyber-space. The number of sites, blogs talking freely about Government, about policies (as evinced in the ongoing death penalty discourse) has increased dramatically since GE 2006. Its still early days. But its important days. To foster the art of discourse, the art of thinking, the art of speaking. The age of wonder. To experience relatively cheap free speech in Singapore. And from such experience, build a generation confident of a stepping over of spaces. From cyber to physical. Into a space like a seminar. Like this seminar on free speech in NUS. And this stepping over, can only occur when there is a cyber-space where free speech is still relatively cheap.

For the next week or so, listen carefully to the narratives that will surface when the story of this racist podcast is spun. Overcome the fear that these narratives will seek to invoke. Stay firm against the moral equivalence of these narratives. See through the narratives and understand that they seek to negotiate the price of free speech upwards another notch in this cyber-space. Less speech. Speech Less.

Remember this narrative?

Proposed GST rise helps lower-income group and grows economy

Don't let the racist podcast overshadow the free speech seminar at NUS. Its about the potentialities for a different Singapore, limited as they are already.

Quotes of the Day --

"Our strategy should be not only to confront Empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness -- and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we're being brainwashed to believe."

"There can never be a single story. There are only ways of seeing. So when I tell a story, I tell it not as an ideologue who wants to pit one absolutist ideology against another, but as storyteller who wants to share her way of seeing. Though it might appear otherwise, my writing is not really about nations and histories, its about power. About the paranoia and ruthlessness of power. About the physics of power."

-- Arundhati Roy, The Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Proposed GST rise helps lower-income group and grows economy "

Before this implementation unfolds further and we come to a realisation that
we, the massess, are again taken for another ride and being squeezed further, let us realise
now and see this slogan as it really is - Another blind-sighting slogan that ain't
absolutely true to its intent!

There are definitely still available other alternative ways, though less convenient but more demanding for government accountablility. This ST's forum article debunk the myth behind that slogan...
"No Need To Raise GST If Land Sales Seen As Revenue"

12:01 AM  

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