In the Straits Times of April 29 there appeared a report from a United Nations racism expert who was in Singapore for a time to study the race issue here. There was an aspect of his recommendation that Singapore rescind the Penal Code and Sedition Act for a greater freedom of expression on sensitive issues. He believes that the code and act were useful 45 years ago but for the present they have outlived their usefulness and are a blockage to the conduit of freedom of expression. It was not said how he arrived at this conclusion, of abrogating the code and act, but I presume that with the higher ratio of the educated he feels the cognition factor has become dichotomous with emotion and volition.
This should be of interest to the Catholic community which, as a part of Singapore, will be a part of whether a greater freedom results or the status quo remains. Before we go further on whether this or that is preferable, it would be in our interests to know something about the doctrine of the freedom of expression. The doctrine is generally associated with a class of protected acts held immune from restrictions to which other acts are subject, like the American Bill of Rights. Controversy arises when in the doctrine there are certain cases where immunity from restriction are there despite the fact that they have as consequences harms which would be sufficient to justify the imposition of legal sanctions. This ignites a feeling of irrationality when the elements of harm and immunity coexist in symbiosis in a single act in question.
The most common defence of the doctrine of freedom of expression is a consequentialist one where in general the good consequences of allowing such acts to go unrestricted outweigh the bad, according to Scanlon. He said at least some element of balancing seemed to be involved in almost every landmark First Amendment decision, where the balancing involved is not always a matter of maximising good consequences but often included personal rights and individual and social goods. The common denominator is that the long-term benefits of free discussion, he asserted, will outweigh obvious and possibly severe short-term costs. Meiklejohn based the privileged status of acts of expression in the fact that the right to perform the acts is necessary, if the citizens of a democratic state are to perform their duties as self-governing citizens.
Furthermore, it has to be understood that money can become a part of the freedom of expression as in Buckley v. Valeo. The American Supreme Court ruled that expenditure limits were unconstitutional because they violated the First Amendment, which provides that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or association. Its reason, the Court said, was prohibiting a politician or anyone else from spending as much money as he wished to express his political convictions and policies was restricting his freedom of speech (Dworkin). While the freedom of speech was not absolute, as made clear by Justice Black of the Supreme Court, it was a force to contend with relative to Singapore.
What worries me is the balancing of good and bad consequences. Who is to say that the good outweighing the bad will be beneficial? Consider this, what if the severe short-term costs are catastrophic? What if the cost for the long-term benefits creates a tumultuous present day Bangkok or the chaos of yesteryear Rwanda here? As a small nation would we survive to reap the future benefits? Even if we did, how many of us and our children would have paid the ultimate price for the long-term benefits? The etymology of “short-term” would be buried in the rubble of the costs – a pyrrhic undertaking. It would be in the example of federal judge Learned Hand something akin to the “democratic wager” (Dworkin), on Hand’s allusion to the ‘bet’ on which everything is staked.
I believe Singapore has done the right thing in playing the safe card of better safe than sorry. Our government is responsible to the electorate, not the UN racism expert, and it cannot follow the path that Learned Hand called the ‘bet’. It cannot emulate the high fliers in the casino. Legal sanctions are the premium we pay for the insurance of a stable society.
It would be interesting to know the views of the readers of Catholic News on this issue.
30 April 2010