Sunday, 26 January 2014

To make principles matter, they have to be applied across the board

By Devadas Krishadas, TODAY, 25 Jan 2014

In recent years, several individuals have been arrested for making racist comments online. The arrests are typically under the powers of the Sedition Act; the justification given being that undermining racial harmony is a threat to the nation.

The case of Mr Anton Casey is an opportunity to clarify government policy on the issues of permissible views on nation and nationals, and how that harmonises with its approach to dealing with race matters.

Mr Casey’s comments about “these people” — meaning Singaporeans — prompt important questions. Are Singaporeans “a race” or “a nation”, and should there even be a distinction if the fundamental point is that slurs on the nation are also tantamount to a threat not dissimilar to racial taunts?

This is because comments such as Mr Casey’s pit Singaporeans — whatever their ethnicity, and let us keep in mind that being “regardless of race” is the aspiration of the national pledge we all take — against foreigners residing here.

This is an important consideration given that, as a result of government policy, foreigners are represented in large numbers and, as a phenomenon, are and will remain a permanent feature of our island community. A feature which the Government, in defence of the Population White Paper, has repeatedly described as being critical to our economic viability and, by extension, to our national continuity.

Hence, logically speaking, provoking disharmony between Singaporeans and foreigners should be treated with equal seriousness as provocations of disharmony between different local races.

While Singaporeans may cheer if they stopped reading at the preceding paragraph, they will soon stop if they follow the rest of the logic train. If it is seditious for foreigners to provoke disharmony with locals, then it is equally seditious for locals to provoke disharmony with foreigners here. A quick browse through popular online forums will quickly reveal how common the latter practice has become.

So, the bottom line is that it is important to deal with matters at the level of principle, but also to accept that when doing so, for principles to matter, they have to apply universally.

In other words, if Singaporeans are upset at Mr Casey’s comments, they should also be upset at many of their own. There are ways to hold Mr Casey to account.

But the more important question is whether we have the maturity to hold ourselves to account as well.

Devadas Krishadas is the Managing Director of Future-Moves, a strategic risk consultancy. His new book Sensing Singapore: Reflections in a Time of Change was released in January 2014.

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