Thursday, 22 May 2008

High Crimes and Misdemeanors

Scales of JusticeI know what treason means, it's actions disloyal to your country, but sedition is different; it's actions to destabilise or foment opinion against the Government. Wikipedia defines it thus:

"Put simply, sedition is the stirring up of rebellion against the government in power. Treason is the violation of allegiance to one's sovereign or state and has to do with giving aid to enemies or levying war. Sedition is more about encouraging the people to rebel, when treason is actually betraying the country."

The reason I'm explaining this is because Singapore has a sedition law and it's getting used against people who publish on the Internet, ie, bloggers. The latest was Tuesday; a Chinese man was arrested and had computer equipment seized for a blog post 2 months ago. Unfortunately for him, someone actually read it and linked to it on a popular socio-political blog ( saying how stupid this guy was. Then people complained. Then the police turned up.

So what did he say? It was an unnecessary, ignorant, crude tirade about a guy sitting on the floor of an MRT carriage. Where he got into trouble was that he stated and taunted the guy's race so he potentially fell foul of Section 3(e)

"(e) to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore"

Previous cases of sedition include (from the ST article):

  • April 2008: Ong Kian Cheong, 49, and wife, Dorothy Chan Hien Leng, 44, charged under Sedition Act and Undesirable Publications Act for allegedly distributing evangelistic publication that cast Prophet Muhammad in negative light.
  • 2006: 21-year-old accounts assistant given stern warning for putting up offensive cartoon of Jesus on a blog.
  • 2005: 27-year-old man becomes first since 1966 to be jailed (for a month) for posting racist comments online. In connected case, 25-year-old given day's jail and fined maximum $5,000. Later that year, 17-year-old blogger given probation.

As an Englishman, this feels very strange. Robust personal speech in England is not protected by a constitution as in America but having an angry, both-barrels rant doesn't feel like a criminal offense. I haven't read the full blog post (he has already deleted it and plans to write an apology) but I don't see incitement or a subversive intent. If he was a Hollywood celebrity, he would issue a written apology, check into rehab then tearfully repent on Oprah. Better to shun intolerance; gagging the source is at best unimaginative, and at worst, generates publicity.

England has not had race riots in recent memory (unless you count Brixton and Toxteth?) whereas Singapore has (1964) and the Government is determined to not just create but enforce a peaceful, multi-racial society. The issue of public expression is contemporary with the British Government's attempt to frame a Racial Hatred law so strict that comedy clubs would have to close due to lack of source material.

Only last week, the Singaporean Government wrote in response to an open letter from a group of prominent bloggers that its regulatory light touch of the Internet was clearly working and is now open to an even lighter-touch regime. So far, it's all sledgehammers and crushed nuts.

So I started off a teensy bit smug that England doesn't have or need a law on sedition but the Internet is turning every home into a printing press (which must be registered in Singapore) and the legal balance between this new-found public expression and social responsibility is in flux.