Graduate Digest
Freedom Of Speech: Will We Ever Be Totally Free?

freedom of speech / noun / the right of people to express their opinions publicly without governmental interference, subject to the laws against libel, incitement to violence or rebellion, etc.

Freedom of Speech: Will We Ever Be Totally Free?



Even though there had been increasing anti-establishment sentiments and calls for more freedom of speech in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era, freedom of speech works within bounded, albeit expanding, parameters. While we see democracy advocates explore the expansion of such freedom, it may not be the same democracy as what they had imagined or demanded for.


In a true democracy, problems of societal decision-making are discussed between conflicting interest groups such as the government, private actors and the community-at-large, and the populace does have significant influence on the outcomes of intended decisions. Singapore’s scope of democracy bears a semblance of liberalism but has a strong paternalistic frame.


Catherine Lim, Singapore’s own renowned novelist and political commentator explained, “A democratic society is one that allows for opinions to be debated freely. Corporations and individuals should not feel criminalised for speaking against the government. However, when you consider the control that the government has over political associations, the Law Society and the use of political tools such as lawsuits against individuals with a different opinion, we cannot say our society is truly democratic.”


The argument is that democracy without controls could result in political gridlock and disrupt the efficiency of unopposed decision-making — it is this tension between giving people their voice and ensuring effective governance that the state has to manage.



When the late Lee Kuan Yew was Prime Minister of Singapore, it was common for the mainstream media to only give exposure to the views of the government, especially during hustings in a general election. However, the advent and popularity of social media has prodded them into providing fairer attention to and reporting on other parties, not just the incumbents, so as not to lose readership to social media influencers and online news platforms such as The Online Citizen.


Dr Victor Goh, Director of the Social Service Institute at the National Council of Social Service, explained the influences of social media’s popularity on freedom of speech. He said, “Social media provides a platform for freedom of expression on a massive scale. The ease with which technology allows for ideas to be communicated to a large audience has brought with it an improper conflation of public and private expression.”


He cautioned about the implications that social media has on the freedom of speech. He said, “Since many have come to rely on social media for ideas, news and opinions on issues, there is a need to exercise caution when consuming this content and to be responsible when posting content on social media. The debate on the limits of freedom of expression online is a multifaceted and a complex one.”


The concern stems from an increasing number of debates on controversial issues such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues along with elitism and meritocracy in education, topics which used to be considered out-of-bounds and never publicly discussed.


However, society evolves and as the level of education and exposure rises, there is a greater inclination for dissimilar voices to be aired, especially online.


Dr Hoon Chang Yau from Singapore Management University and a leading Asian Studies researcher in Singapore, suggested that such democracy continues to have limits and be bounded within set parameters. He said, “Some may argue that the rise of social media empowered individuals to speak up democratically. To some extent, we can quantify them. However, there is still an ongoing tension and negotiation between the state and citizens as opinions shared online go through the process of self-censorship. In that case, the freer freedom of speech does little to challenge the legitimacy of the state’s governance.”


The state’s response to dissenting remarks and blog posts by Roy Ngerng and Amos Yee serves as a reminder that questions about the legitimacy of governance remain out-of-bounds for public discussion.


Dr Hoon further added, “The climate of fear and culture of *kiasuism in Singapore means that most of the populace fear being put in their place by the government for airing a ‘wrong’ public opinion, and this psychology sustains the self-censorship practised by the citizenry.” This reveals the tension inherent with having greater freedom of speech online while ensuring that the extent of the discourse doesn’t violate the state’s legitimate limits.


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