Wednesday, May 04, 2005

TODAYonline: Response to my Earlier Letter

Short post just to clarify some issues. To be honest, I had some hope reading the title of the letter: "Airing Racism Issue will help society mature" which was the main thrust of my letter anyway, that irrational views should be attacked and not simply the author per se. But unfortunately it seems that her sympathies are for the identification of racism so we can sanction it.

Which brings me to the first point of the letter, where she defines what an ad hominem argument is i.e. one that appeals to the feelings of prejudices, rather than to the intellect, often marked by an attack on an opponent's character, rather than by an answer to the contentions made. Now while granting that most racist comments are by nature irrational and hence have little substantial value, nevertheless, attacking the person and calling him names or worse is not a substitute to persuading him of the errors of his views or ways. Yes, racism can be hurtful, I don't deny that, neither did my letter but the point is that the criticisms were more an opportunity to let loose at a safe target than having any constructive purpose per se.

Second issue, the freedom of an individual to express in a private capacity in a private space personal and private comments. As such, decrying the comments on the basis that he's a scholar and future civil servant is to carry the notion of harm into the realm of probabilities but more than that, we are again looking at the person rather than the content of the speech. But what this encourages is simply for people to be more careful about expressing their opinions rather than airing them, getting challenged and then changing them.

But the biggest problem is that of determining how speech ought to be sanctioned. Now, we both agree that individual freedom comes with personal responsibility, I've done a longish blog on that last week. But at its heart, we don't shout 'fire' in a crowded theatre because that will cause physical harm and/or violence. Anything beyond that is to run the fundamental risk of turning any speech society or a sub-society deems unpopular or irrational into no-go areas. That has and will chill the freedom of speech (for examples of bloggers self-censoring or going anonymous check out

Think about it people, we don't allow racist comments but we allow homophobic comments to be posted in the Straits Times Forum and advocated by Senior Writers like Andy Ho. Today publishes in its forum daily doses of advice from Focus on the Family. Why the double standard?

The last point she makes is basically if we don't take a firm enough stance against racism (don't ask me what she means, she uses the word sanction which could mean anything from a slap on the wrist to imprisonment) we will go down the path of the racial riots of the 70s. That notion has been held over our heads for quite sometime and while I can appreciate peace, safety and stability, I do question whether Singaporean's have really matured and turned into a tolerant multi-cultural, ethnic and racial society or are we 'holding' it together by sheer National Education bombardment and the threat of force?

Maybe it's time to find out so we don't get a situation of Indonesia '97? Once the situation has turned dire and the threat of force is no longer credible, we better pray that our cohesiveness is genuine rather than apparent. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, it is precisely airing such issues that can lead to their diminishment.

She basically says that because CZ and I are probably Chinese (she's right) and grew up in a school environment where the majority of my friends are Chinese (pretty much true up to this point where I probably have more non-Chinese friends than the vast majority of Singaporeans) and thus would not have experience racism in Singapore. It's a pretty good argument this, that basically because I'm not a focus of racism, hence can take a more sanguine view about it. Apart from the fact that the people who support the right to speech are all not Chinese, I think it's impossible to say how much my 'non-threatened' status affects my particular viewpoint. But I remain confident that the freedom to speech is better in the long run.

Not sure if she's being sarcastic in the last paragraph but we should give her the benefit of doubt.



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