Friday 16 January 2015

Paris shootings: Lessons from France for Singapore

By Sanjay Perera, Published The Straits Times, 15 Jan 2015

THE brutal deaths of 17 people in Paris, once regarded as the city of dreams and the cultural capital of the world, are having a devastating effect on France.

The killings of staff at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and people at a Jewish supermarket are seen as acts of terror and an assault on freedom of speech. But they can also be viewed as manifestations of a broader narrative of traditional tensions from the Middle East, imported via immigration into Paris.

The Paris murders also segue into the worldview of the much touted clash between Western values that extol freedom of speech and non-Western ones that apparently countermand this.

But France is not the bastion of free speech that some may think it is. There is a law against Holocaust denial. France is in the process of trying to pass a new law, making it an offence to deny that an Armenian genocide occurred in the last century.

Its far-right French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen has been convicted several times for making statements seen as inciting hatred towards minorities, including Muslims.

However, Muslims in France may be forgiven for asking why anti-hate speech laws did not seem to protect them from extreme satire.

At the same time, France also has a tradition of republicanism and secularism which braces itself against any attempt to censor freedom of expression, no matter how obnoxious. Hence, the recent march of over a million people in solidarity with the victims of the shooting spree, and in defence of the right to publish controversial, offensive material.

Which brings us to Singapore.

We too have to come to terms with what may be a potential clash between secular values in an increasingly contested public space denoting freedom of speech, and religious or other social sensitivities.

There are already examples online of such clashes, when an individual post or blog offends those of another race or religion, or nationality.

We should not be lulled into thinking that such disregard for others' sensitivities are shown only by a minority, online, and are therefore not a problem. Online posts have real-life impact. Such "speech" is not immune to prosecution. Some have faced defamation suits as a result of what they have posted online; others have had their employment terminated due to violating workplace rules.

Unfortunately, we in Singapore have yet to begin the difficult conversation of figuring out how to strike compromises, or how to agree to disagree.

For example, it is becoming more evident that Singaporeans increasingly want greater freedom. But how much of this freedom is negotiable and how much of it is what must be insisted upon, no matter what?

To be sure, the Charlie Hebdo periodical would not have been allowed to publish the kind of satire it did in Singapore: the Media Development Authority (MDA) would have stepped in to curtail its licence. The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act and the Sedition Act would likely have been thrown at the publisher, editor and cartoonists.

That kind of restriction might be an appropriate response to the kind of provocation Charlie Hebdo spewed out. But is that where the line should always be drawn? Could gentle satire - even of race and religion - become acceptable?

Can we develop a tradition of encouraging dissent or allowing artistic freedom that might make us a little bit more thick-skinned and a little bit more tolerant of our own foibles?

So long as hyper-sensitivities abound in areas of race, language, religion, political affiliation, nationality and even sexual orientation, we remain susceptible to state intervention when things get rough. That has worked well in Singapore, but may not always be desirable to those who want a burgeoning of democratic practices.

Can Singaporeans learn to distinguish between what is wilfully destructive hate speech online and what is merely thoughtless venting, and respond appropriately?

What we need is to build a societal consensus on how to engage with critics civilly, and how to respond to critical views without attacking the critical person.

We don't need a Charlie Hebdo kind of satirical publication. But we could learn from the French in the way they respond to critical views with sangfroid.

As a society, Singapore can do with more freedom of expression - but not the kind that leads to violence and heartbreak.

The writer worked in the Singapore navy and media, taught at tertiary institutions and is the editor of Philosophers For Change, an online journal dealing with alternative socio-economic paradigms.

Charlie Hebdo and the hold of absolute values
By Bilahari Kausikan, Published The Straits Times, 15 Jan 2015

THE world rightly condemned the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo. The tragedy has spawned hundreds of commentaries around the world. Is there really a need for yet another one? Most have predictably cast the issue in terms of freedom of speech, and this is certainly an important aspect that should not be ignored. And, of course, terrorism is a global problem that the world should unite to fight. But I have yet to come across one commentary that has drawn attention to the eerie extent to which the murderers and their victims shared a similar mode of thought.

Both held their values to be so absolute that they justified anything. The fact that the terrorists had a completely mistaken interpretation of Islam is, of course, correct, but also beside the point. The point is that they believed in it; believed in it as fervently as the cartoonists believed in their right to freedom of expression. But is freedom of expression necessarily the prime value for everyone? Thousands may agree; thousands of others would disagree, and disagree without murderous intent.

I am not arguing that there is a moral equivalency between the terrorists and the cartoonists. Clearly there is none. Nothing justifies murder. And if a cartoonist has ever murdered anyone, it is probably only for the mundane and sordid reasons that most murders are committed. But is it right to constantly lampoon a religion? I do not often agree with former Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad, but he got it absolutely right when he said killing is wrong and so is insulting someone else's religion.

When news of the attack broke, I conducted a very unscientific and somewhat mischievous experiment. An American friend posted an article on the attack on Facebook. I commented that the modes of thought of both sides were similar. The response was as I expected. The Westerners were outraged. As this is a family paper, I cannot quote their comments and will say only that none was complimentary, some rather creative in their interpretation of my ancestry, and I learnt a few new words. There is no one as rabid and intolerant as a liberal in full bray in defence of liberalism, an irony that liberals seldom appreciate.

I was not offended; it takes a lot to offend me. And had I needed any comfort, I could have taken some from the fact that when Pope Francis himself was so audacious as to suggest gently that there must be some limits to freedom of speech, he, too, was not spared, with the Huffington Post huffing that this came close to blaming the victim. But, wait a minute, didn't the magazine have some responsibility? Just a smidgen, perhaps? Just as much as someone smoking in a petrol dump? No?

I chuckled to myself and let the rants continue for a while. I then pointed out that even from the point of view of freedom of expression, a double standard was at play. France, like many other European countries, has laws against the denial of the Holocaust. When the law was challenged on the grounds that it infringed freedom of expression, the UN Human Rights Committee held that it was justifiable as necessary to counter anti-Semitism. Even the United States prohibits hate speech.

That ensured radio silence: Nothing heard, out. It was almost too easy, like shooting fish in a barrel. I was highly amused.

But the larger point, which the Americans and Europeans who responded to me didn't or refused to understand, is a serious one. This is not just about tolerance or respecting other religions, but something far more fundamental. Any action taken on the defence of a system of values embraced as absolute seldom ends well.

Isaiah Berlin, a political philosopher and intellectual historian who deserves to be more widely read today in the West, probably made the argument best. To summarise the central point that infuses his body of work: There is not only one Good but multiple Goods, and these Goods often contradict each other and, so, cannot be simultaneously realised.

Now, that's something for Singaporeans to think about as they complain about columbariums, foreign workers, or whatever.

The writer, a former permanent secretary for foreign affairs, is now ambassador-at-large.

Integration not just about fitting in
It also means letting ourselves be changed a little by our immigrants
By Chua Mui Hoong, Opinion Editor, The Sunday Times, 18 Jan 2015

Part of my job is to survey the climate of opinion on any number of current issues, and make a judgment call on what commentaries to run in The Straits Times, what thoughtful perspectives from which contributor to solicit and what new issues to highlight.

I've been following the evolving discussion of the Charlie Hebdo incident with fascination, ever since news broke on Jan 7 that 12 people were gunned down by two French Muslims in the Parisian office of the satirical weekly magazine.

As always, as a true-blue Singaporean, part of my mind is engaged on what this all means for Singapore.

Every society has to strike a balance between free speech and responsibility to others.

Laws against libel and laws proscribing disclosure of secrets for national security reasons are common fetters on speech. In many countries, including France, there are laws against hate speech that incites racial hatred or discrimination against a racial group.

Austria and Germany have laws against denying the Holocaust. France has a 1990 law that makes it illegal to question the existence of crimes against humanity (such as the Holocaust).

In France, even the iconic 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man, abridges the right to free speech thus in Article 11: "The free communication of ideas and of opinions is one of the most precious rights of man. Any citizen may therefore speak, write and publish freely, except what is tantamount to the abuse of this liberty in the cases determined by law." (italics are mine)

In other words, even the fiercely independent and revolutionary-minded French recognised limits to free speech and chose not to protect those who abused it.

No wonder an irate Muslim editor, Mr Mehdi Hasan of the Huffington Post UK, wrote an open letter to "free speech fundamentalists", calling them out on their hypocrisy for championing Charlie Hebdo's right to insult Islam, when their societies protect other religions from such insult.

"Did you not know that Charlie Hebdo sacked the veteran French cartoonist Maurice Sinet in 2008 for making an allegedly anti-Semitic remark? Were you not aware that Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that published caricatures of the Prophet in 2005, reportedly rejected cartoons mocking Christ because they would 'provoke an outcry' and proudly declared it would 'in no circumstances... publish Holocaust cartoons'?"

So much for the free speech fallacy surrounding the issue.

As for Singapore, laws like the Sedition Act and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act take a clear stand, putting communal peace and social order above freedom of expression.

Within Singapore, we may question the Government on details of legislation, and debate instances of over-zealous enforcement of these laws, and argue online and off among ourselves just how to shift the balance to give more leeway to freer speech.

But last week, as many newspapers around the world republished Charlie Hebdo cartoons in a blow for "freedom", I was glad that in sedate Singapore, we have laws that can hold to task anyone who might feel inclined to insult Muslims by publishing naked caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

As for Western views, I was struck by how few commentators there were who acknowledge that French and European laws aren't even-handed in their protection of religions from hate speech. Even more striking was that very few went on from there to argue that protecting Muslims from hate speech should become part of the European agenda, as protecting Jews from anti-Semitism is.

Instead, there was a lot said about the need to integrate immigrants better. Integration is a code word for making minorities fit into, become part of, and even become like, the host country and its culture.

While every society has the right to demand that immigrants and newcomers "fit in", the accommodation should also be two-way.

Societies that choose to take in large numbers of immigrants - and it is a choice, for countries can close their borders to newcomers - also have to be prepared to be changed by their immigrants.

France has five million Muslims making up about 8 per cent of the population - a large minority. The Charlie Hebdo murders could be an opportunity to review its own treatment of Muslims. Or they can strengthen the resolve to argue that being French means forcing French Muslims to live with gratuitous insult of their religion in a country that protects other religious minorities.

In Singapore, we have our own integration problems, as seen by a rising tide of anti-foreigner sentiment, especially online. Our workforce has more than 1.33 million foreigners, of whom about 750,000 are domestic workers and construction workers.

Foreigners in such numbers will have an impact on any society - in neighbourhoods where migrants cluster, in cuisine, in social manners, in the lingua franca of choice. Our morning commute, our meal times, workplace, evening shopping spree, will all be different.

We can resent the change, or let ourselves be changed - a little - by the foreigners in our midst. To be sure, we want to avoid the bad traits: the ostentatious ways of one group, or the crass behaviour of those who misbehave on airplanes.

But we can learn from others, and let Singapore change at the margins. We can leaven our staid society with the zest from the large numbers of foreigners in our midst: Interweave our complaining culture with the immigrant's gratitude for efficiency, for peace and security; inject third-generation Singaporean complacency with the DNA of the immigrant drive to succeed; overcome being kiasu (fear of losing) with newcomers' courage to embrace change; and rekindle love for our nation through the fervour of immigrants who forge new ties with the adopted land of their choice.

Faced with large numbers of foreigners and immigrants, we can resent them and insist they all become just like us - as many among the French seem to be saying last week. Or we can hear their voices and let ourselves be changed a little, perhaps for the better.

Wanted: Libel laws to keep communal peace
By Jamil Maidan Flores, Published The Straits Times, 15 Jan 2015

IN THE wake of the terrorist assault last week on the offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, in which 12 persons were killed, many people all over the world were moved to say, in an outpouring of anger at the perpetrators and sympathy for the victims, "I am Charlie".

Apart from two police officers, who were slain as they responded to the attack, the victims were cartoonists and editors marked for death by Muslim extremists because of their libellous depiction of the Prophet of Islam in past issues of the magazine.

Before the week was over, the youngest of the terror suspects had turned himself in to the police. Three terrorists had been killed in two simultaneous shootouts with the police, after they had gunned down a policewoman and at least four more civilians.

What can you make of all that gore? Speaking right after the Charlie Hebdo attack, US President Barack Obama called it "an attack on journalists.. (and) underscores the degree to which these terrorists fear freedom - of speech and of the press. But… a universal belief in the freedom of expression is something that can't be silenced because of the senseless violence of the few." French President Francois Hollande also described the Charlie Hebdo killings as "an attack on freedom".

Vienna-based Dr Anis Bajrektarevic, professor in international law and global politics, saw the attack as a demonstration of Islamofascism. "That these individuals are allegedly of Arab-Muslim origin does not make them less fascist, less European, nor does it (absolve) Europe… of responsibility." He lamented that Europe had not listened to voices calling for moderation and dialogue.

A group of French imams, joined by the Vatican Council for Interreligious Dialogue, condemned the attack and called for "responsible media to provide information that is respectful of religions, their followers and their practices, thus fostering a culture of encounter". They also expressed compassion for the victims and their families.

That's the way to go. Like the imams and the cardinals, I condemn the slaughter of civilians and peace officers and feel compassion for victims and their families. But I can't say, "I am Charlie Hebdo". That would be a travesty of the work of Mr Steven Sotloff and Mr James Foley, who were beheaded last year by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Mr Sotloff, Mr Foley and the many journalists all over the world who lost their lives speaking truth to power - those are the real heroes of freedom of expression.

Can't Charlie Hebdo be justified as satire? I know what satire is. It's the socially valuable art of exposing the pompous to ridicule. My own favourite object of satire is Kim Jong Un, the North Korean strongman. But I'll never portray him in pornographic terms. That would garble the social message.

Charlie Hebdo depicting Catholic nuns masturbating, the Pope wearing a condom and the Prophet of Islam in unspeakable poses isn't satire. It's malicious libel that should be legally actionable in any democratic society.

I'm not for censorship. I'm against prior restraints. A magazine should be free to publish anything it wishes. But once it publishes malicious libel, there should be laws that would teach it to respect the rights and sensibilities of others. Without wise laws on libel, we play into the hands of terrorists. There's nothing they love more than the kind of grievance that magazines like Charlie Hebdo generously provides them. It gives them an excuse to wreak violence on those they hate.

The violence triggers a backlash: the state and the majority population crack down on the Muslim community - multiplying the grievance a thousand times and deepening the sense of alienation among Muslims. That, in turn, swells the ranks of new recruits for ISIS. Without wise laws on libel, that's how the cookie of communal peace crumbles.

The writer is based in Jakarta and works as a speech writer for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This article first appeared in

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