on speech: free speech, ethnic harmony and Watain

Free speech, ethnic harmony and Watain


Societies everywhere have become too sensitive about speech. One person taking offence should not be grounds for the police to investigate speech (as regularly happens in Singapore). The broadening definition of micro-aggressions on US campuses is proof of this heightened sensitivity globally. I was quite shocked and disappointed to hear, for instance, that the University of California, my alma mater, had decided that it is a micro-aggression “to say that ‘America is a land of opportunity’, because it could be taken to imply that those who do not succeed have only themselves to blame.”

That doesn’t mean absolutely anything should be permissible. Freedom has its limitations. And while I instinctively disagree with the concept of “safe spaces”, this objection is secondary to a broader, more urgent notion: that the main imperative in society must be to enable different voices to be heard, to promote the free exchange of ideas. The internet has changed the dynamics of all this incredibly, and there is a great piece on content regulation at Reddit here:

“Does free speech mean literally anyone can say anything at any time?” Tidwell continued. “Or is it actually more conducive to the free exchange of ideas if we create a platform where women and people of color can say what they want without thousands of people screaming, ‘Fuck you, light yourself on fire, I know where you live’? If your entire answer to that very difficult question is ‘Free speech,’ then, I’m sorry, that tells me that you’re not really paying attention.”

If we accept that the free exchange of ideas—and not free speech per se—is the more important ideal for a thinking society, then we must first be aware that in any multicultural, unequal city, different groups will have varying levels of confidence in expressing themselves (for reasons of culture, history, income, access, etc.). Thus while my instincts lean towards free speech—with the usual exceptions of hate speech and incitement—I can also see why it may be prudent in certain, limited circumstances to allow for narrow “safe spaces”.

What does all that theorising mean in practical terms? Well, for a global city like Singapore, if we want to encourage, say, the Muslim community or the LGBT community to share their thoughts, we may need to create—again, in specific, limited circumstances—spaces for them to do so without fear that their core beliefs will be attacked.

That must never be a general rule, of course. In any thinking society, all religious doctrines—not the believers themselves—must be subject to open interrogation. I know there are many in Singapore who believe that religions must be immune from criticism, but I’m sorry—we live in a world where people kill in the name of God and priests fuck little boys captive to God. (Pardon my French but when describing paedophiles my niceties betray me.)

So for instance in Singapore, if pastors want to criticise what they might consider the indecent dress sense of gays, the law should not stop them—even if their own dreadful fashion sense might. Similarly if gays want to criticise perceived homophobic passages of the Bible or the Qu’ran, the law should not stop them—even if their respect for the beliefs of others might. But none of these people should be able to criticise relentlessly anywhere and everywhere, such that they frighten off gays and Christians and Muslims from communicating.

All of the above is nice in theory—including the definition of hate speech—but much harder in practice. But every society must try.

Do I trust Singapore’s partisan ministers to be the arbiters of this? Absolutely not. However noble their intentions, they have repeatedly shown that they do not possess the requisite sensitivity to do so.


Let’s take a recent example: the banning of Watain. I was actually inspired by the many Singaporeans speaking up, sometimes to great comedic effect, against government overbearingness, hypersensitivity, and the intolerance of a moral minority.

Let me focus here specifically on comments by K Shanmugam, Singapore’s minister for home affairs and law. First, as others have pointed out, through his comments he racialised an issue—apparently all disgruntled metalheads are Malay—that was hitherto about artistic freedoms and censorship.

Yet perhaps even more worrying to me is the way he has stereotyped entire religious groups with the effect—surely unintentional, but potentially harmful—of positioning them at odds with each other.


The Christian community might not realise that the men in the photo are “a small group of Malays”, said Mr Shanmugam.

“They may think, is this what Muslims think of us?”

“So now we have to send the message that this is not what the Muslim community thinks.”

I’m sorry, Shanmugam, I disagree. No reasonable person is going to mistake Watain fans as representing the views of all Malays, never mind all “Muslims”. (Social studies 101: “Malay” and “Muslim” are not synonymous.)

This is the sort of simplistic essentialising of identities that is unhelpful in a world besieged by nativist forces. In one fell swoop, Shanmugam has done a disservice to three different Singaporean groups: Christians, Muslims and the Watain fans in the photo.

Christians, so this argument goes, might not know how to distinguish one group of Malays from another. The Muslim identity in Singapore, likewise, is so vulnerable that it can be easily hijacked by metalheads. And the Watain fans…well they are apparently so naive as to have become emblems for some larger (fictitious) inter-religious tussle in Singapore.

A cynic’s view might be that the People’s Action Party (PAP), just like colonial powers, has long practised a classic strategy of divide and rule. Thus the need to portray communities at each other’s throats.

By contrast, I do not doubt Shanmugam’s noble motives. But I do question his methods and sophistication of thought.

The PAP’s excessive conservatism in this regard is hampering—not promoting, as it likes to claim—the free exchange of ideas. By banning groups like Watain, you are not nipping in the bud some inter-religious fracas; you are denying us citizens the right to think freely and to develop ourselves as humans in this complex world.


The PAP’s usual retort to all this is that Singapore’s multiculturalism is so delicate and it is only because of its overbearing and intrusive policies that the fragile balance has been maintained.

This is one of the biggest myths. As I have written here before, Singapore has a long tradition of harmonious inter-ethnic relations going back at least 200 years. The brief racial riots in the 1960s, which may have been partly due to the PAP’s own actions, are remarkable only because they are the exception. In other words, Singapore’s relative ethnic harmony—compared to places such as Malaysia or the US’s South—has got much less to do with contemporary PAP policies than with Singapore’s intrinsic social, cultural and geopolitical realities of having been created as a free, open, multicultural, global city (whether by the British in 1819 or others before—topic for another day).

Every time you sit down at a hawker centre and bite into something, generations, no centuries, of interethnic harmony and cultural intermingling should burst across your palette. I have been to numerous other multicultural places—most recently Mauritius—and you can tell by the food that the people have never mixed as much as Singaporeans.

There are reasons why the Peranakan language incorporates so many others; why mosques, bars and brothels sit side-by-side in Geylang; why the most famous Hindu temple is in Chinatown; and why Eurasians have been around for so long that a first generation one—sorry, Ben Davis—is not automatically embraced by the community. There are reasons for this that all speak to the wondrous, deep multiculturalism of Singapore that far predate the PAP.

Singapore is a small, single global city—it should never be confused with, or compared to, large countries where deep tensions naturally form between relatively insular rural folk and relatively cosmopolitan urbanites. Just because, for instance, a Muslim radical can ignite passions in West Java or a Buddhist radical can in Rakhine, do not make the silly, ignorant assumption that the person can do the same here.

And yet the PAP gleefully co-opts “ethnic harmony” as its own. Does the party realise how disingenuous it is to: on the one hand say that ethnic harmony is a product of its post-independence policies; and then on the other to propose that hawker food, with all its unbridled miscegenation, deserves to be a UNESCO cultural heritage? If we are to believe this rhetoric, I guess our ancestors must have been slapping each other with their right hands, and exchanging curries with their left.

(For those who need hard data to understand human interactions, Singapore’s history of inter-racial marriages and its ever-rising share today is the most relevant statistic.)

All this is not to imply that racism or prejudice do not exist here. But the more important point is that the vast majority of Singaporeans are tolerant and will keep each other in line. When Shanmugam mentions in his ministerial statement the Amy Cheong incident—the lady who cussed at Malay void deck weddings—he predictably thinks about it negatively.

But why can’t our leaders see it positively? As soon as Cheong made those statements, thousands of people slammed her online (Shanmugam doesn’t mention this). And recently as soon as that silly Go-Jek passenger asked “Is it because I’m Chinese?”, thousands of Singaporeans, of all races, went into hyperdrive with such delicious, biting sarcasm.

Singaporeans don’t need government intervention to live harmoniously together, thank you very much. (Needing the government to curb terrorism, which we do, is a separate issue.)

One of the greatest failings of our leaders is that they constantly present a vision of fear and vulnerability that divides us, that feeds this negative conception of what it means to be a Singaporean living amid people of other colours. One wishes they would instead help build a positive vision of Singaporean multiculturalism, which leads to my next point.

The manipulation and misrepresentation of public opinion for political ends

Some defenders of (putative next prime minister) Heng Swee Keat’s recent racialised comments have been sharing a survey from 2016 as support, or at least a sort of explanation. Yes he was right, so the argument goes, Singaporeans actually do consider race when thinking about a prime minister.



However this survey and attendant article are problematic. First, the article’s main thrust is that “the vast majority of the 2,000 respondents prefer the country’s top leaders to be of the same race as themselves”.

Duh. Run the same survey in perhaps any other country now—and sadly, for the foreseeable future—and you’ll get the same preference. Prime minister, president, potential partner, hairdresser, dog walker, whatever—if given this ridiculous choice between “races”, there will be an aggregate leaning towards your own.

The much more important finding is this: the vast majority of Singaporeans accept a prime minister or president of any race. For only one category—Chinese respondents accepting a Malay leader—is the ratio below 60%. Even then it is still a majority. For every other possible combination there is overwhelming acceptance.

Instead of emphasising that the vast majority of Singaporeans accept a prime minister of any race—hooray!—why, then, did the article focus on the unsurprising racial preferences?

Simple. It was run by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) in the lead up to the 2017 presidential elections that was reserved for Malays. Herein is the second problem, the IPS and the mainstream media serving as the (possibly unwitting) handmaidens of the PAP’s already-decided, ideologically-driven (as opposed to pragmatic) policies.

Properly-thought laws and policies should come after years of solid research. Yet in these specific cases—certainly not all—it appears as if the political manoeuvre comes first (#tanchengblock), the law is proposed second (reserved presidency) and then the research comes last (survey on race), to provide a sheen of rigour and respectability. Finally, since the survey results are undesirable—the vast majority of Singaporeans, after all, will accept a president of any race—the emphasis shifts. One can almost imagine the acolyte spin doctors cheering their Eureka moment that will please Ah Gong.

The losers? Us. Instead of celebrating Singapore’s beautiful multiculturalism and tolerance, we are reminded again that humans are different and that we are tribal. Is that curry I smell?



If we want to frame the Watain incident in terms of free speech and safe spaces, I would say the group’s free speech should be allowed because it is a private event. So what if a few people don’t like it? Rather than focus on a single Watain, the government should monitor the larger environment, for instance if anti-Christian expression is spreading across the public space such that Christians no longer feel comfortable to live full lives, practice their faith, express themselves and rebut their critics. We are just so far away from that.

Three other articles in this series:

on speech: the slow death of honest discourse

on speech: has the PAP itself spread misinformation in Singapore?

on speech: the PAP’s cheerleaders are the last ones standing

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3 thoughts on “on speech: free speech, ethnic harmony and Watain

  1. “By contrast, I do not doubt Shanmugam’s noble motives. But I do question his methods and sophistication of thought.”

    How can you be so sure that the Sham has only noble motives?

    And are you sure that so-called law for curbing fake news is not an attempt to pre-empt criticism of the govt, notwithstanding the validity or background for such criticism?

  2. With due respect to your views, i feel compelled to direct the readers here to find out more about Watain Band, by watching their videos on Youtube. Pls google ‘youtube watain band’, and see for yourselves why K Shanmugam had to ban the band. As a parent, I thank him for not being a coward in this matter.

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