[photo credit: AsiaOne]
Chief Legislative Counsel
1 Upper Pickering Street
Fax: 6908 9000
I note on your website that you welcome “all views on any area of possible law reform“. I also understand that the Attorney-General is responsible for drafting Singapore’s laws.
As such, I am writing in to you to suggest an area of law reform. Recently, Amos Yee, a 16-year-old boy, was charged under Section 298 of the Penal Code, Chapter 224.
Section 298 states that, “Whoever, with deliberate intention of wounding the religious or racial feelings of any person, utters any word or makes any sound in the hearing of that person, or makes any gesture in the sight of that person, or places any object in the sight of that person, or causes any matter however represented to be seen or heard by that person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 3 years, or with fine, or with both.”
I understand that it was in 2007 that the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) decided to expand section 298 to “cover offences committed via electronic medium”.
It was also said that, “Arising from the case of the racist bloggers who were charged under the Sedition Act, we propose amending the Penal Code to provide another option to the Sedition Act, to charge such offenders in future cases.”
As such, it seems that Section 298 is a duplication of the Sedition Act.
According to Professor Cherian George, “What the Sedition Act contains that Sections 298/298A of the Penal Code does not is a prohibition against actions or expression that have the tendency “to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the Government”.
Of note, the amendments in 2007 were also targetted at bloggers.
Now, this brings me to my main point.
Amos was charged under Section 298 apparently for a YouTube video that he had created which was said to have “contained remarks against Christianity, with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of Christians in general”.
This fulfills the requirements of the law.
However, the law does not seem to have been equally applied.
First, as many Singaporeans have also highlighted, there was a similar incident in 2011 where a certain Jason Neo “had posted a religiously and racially offensive caption to a photograph which he uploaded on his Facebook page,” the Channel NewsAsia had reported.
He had written in the caption of his photo: “Bus filled with young terrorist trainees?”
Mr Neo later issued an apology and was forgotten.
He had said: “I hereby offer those within our Muslim community and anyone else offended my most sincere and unreserved apology.”
It was later discovered that at least three police reports were made against Mr Neo but it has since been 4 years but no action has been taken both by the police and by the AGC.
Mr Neo was also known to be from the Young People’s Action Party (YP) and had volunteered at the Meet-the-People sessions in Sembawang but has since resigned.
I would also like to bring out another case of Member of Parliament (MP) Seng Han Thong.
Mr Seng had said in an interview with Blog TV in 2011: “I notice that the PR mention that some of the staff, because they are Malay, they are Indian, they can’t converse in English good, well enough…”
Mr Seng was roundly criticised for his remark, as Mr Neo was.
However, Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam then spoke up for Mr Seng and said, “The mistake… was that he misquoted the MRT officer and said that the officer had referred to Indian and Malay drivers having poor English language skills, when in fact the officer had referred to all three races.”
Mr Shanmugam defended Mr Seng and said that he “is not a racist”.
Later, Mr Seng also apologised and said, “In my interview with blogtv.sg, I made a regrettable mistake in my language, which may be misconstrued as me saying that people speak bad English because of their ethnicity. I sincerely apologise to all Singaporeans, who have been offended by this error.
He was also given a chance to explain himself: “The point I was trying to make is that this should not prevent people from trying to communicate, especially in times of emergency.”
Mr Seng is also a People’s Action Party (PAP) politician. He is still a Member of Parliament.
From the examples of Mr Neo and Mr Seng, it is clear that they should have been charged under Section 298 as Amos has been.
However, they were not. In fact, the police has been investigating Mr Neo’s case for 4 years now and there has still been no updates on the investigations.
It is thus perplexing why the police and/or AGC has still not taken action against Mr Neo and Mr Seng but in Amos’s case, he was arrested and charged within 2 days of uploading his YouTube video.
The actions by the police and AGC would thus seem disproportionate and uneven.
First, Amos is only 16 years old. This is as compared to Mr Neo who was 30 years old and Mr Seng who was 61 years old at the time of their incidents. Amos should have been protected under the Children and Young Persons Act. Instead, he was arrested and charged as an adult.
Second, both Mr Neo and Mr Seng were given the opportunities to make an apology and were let off. However, Amos was not. Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) which Singapore is a signatory of, instead of “judicial proceedings”, other measures “such as care, guidance and supervision orders; counselling; probation; foster care; education and vocational training programmes and other alternatives to institutional care” should be considered first instead.
However, these alternatives were not taken. The AGC decided to charge Amos immediately.
It is shocking that first, Amos was charged as an adult and second, that the state did not explore other alternatives before taking the harshest step towards a child, no less.
It is also disproportionate that where Mr Neo and Mr Seng, both adults, were allowed to apologise and be let off that Amos was not given the same opportunity but was immediately persecuted, especially since he is also a child.
Such disjointed actions has put doubt among Singaporeans about the double-standards of the Public Prosecutor and the relevance of this particular law.
If Mr Neo and Mr Seng can apologise to allow the matter to be closed, surely Amos could do the same as well. If Mr Neo and Mr Seng need not be criminalised under Section 298 but Amos would be subjected to it, and if the law cannot be evenly applied, then first, the application of the law is problematic if it is not being applied consistently and second, the law is clearly irrelevant if it can be so easily forgone and brushed aside.
As such, Section 298 is clearly irrelevant and redundant and should be abolished. Otherwise, where its application can be so haphazard and ad-hoc, this would create the idea that this particular law was intended for purposes other than the stated intentions.
Perhaps if I may, may I enlighten you with Amos’s own words.
Amos had said: “Now I know that a police report was filed to the Grassroots leader who wanted to chop off my dick and put it my mouth (emmmm..). I’m making the assumption that the person who made the police report was a fan of my Lee Kuan Yew video, and I’m going to predict that like Jason Neo, he will not be charged because being a grassroots leader, he is closely affiliated with the Government.”
“Of course, that’s completely unfair,” he also said.
But Amos also said: “But you see if it were me, I wouldn’t want him to be punished because of his words. Not only do I want to be acquitted from those charges against me, I want those laws to be completely abolished because quite evidently, they are absolutely horrible.
Even though Amos is a child, he exhibits wisdom well beyond his years. He does not want unjust laws to continue to exist. Similarly, we should not allow the unjust application of laws to exist as well.
I note that the AGC’s vision is to be the “Guardian of the Public Interest; Steward of the Rule of Law”.
Also, the AGC says that its mission is of “Serving Singapore’s interests and upholding the rule of law through sound advice, effective representation, fair and independent prosecution and accessible legislation.”
As such, I hope that the AGC will have the professionalism and integrity to reform any area of the law that is seemingly unjust and inconsistent, so as to improve the law and continue to ensure reliability for Singaporeans, as your values also propound.
In addition, since 2002, the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCCs) was set up with the aim to “deepen people’s understanding of the various faiths, beliefs and practices”.
Also, the IRCCs’ mission is to “Build familiarity and strengthen relationships among and between ethnic, religious and community leaders” and to “Promote mutual understanding and appreciation of the different religions, cultures and practices among Singaporeans”.
Moreover, Singapore Management University law lecturer and ex-Norminated Member of Parliament Eugene Tan had said on Thursday, when he shared the findings of the study, “Keeping the Faith: A Study of Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion in ASEAN”: “You can’t legislate tolerance, accommodation, and understanding that is sustainable because people comply for fear of being punished … The soft-law approach is better able to mould behavioural norms and right-size attitudes.”
He also said that, “We certainly need to get away from the view that we shouldn’t talk about religion … but we need that graduated pace.”
As such, both Section 298 and the Sedition Act clearly has no place in Singapore’s social landscape, not least because the latter is archaic but also because they cannot be consistently applied or understood.
And where the government clearly has other forms of recourse, such as by way of apologies and deepening the understanding of individuals, such methods should be rightfully taken for more productive results, as the examples of Mr Neo and Mr Seng have shown. Clearly, if the government can adopt these more effective and less punitive methods with the PAP members, it can do so with non-PAP members as well.
As such, to keep Section 298 and the Sedition Act is weak in its basis and these pieces of legislation should be abolished. It also goes without saying that this charge against Amos should be dropped as well, for the above-mentioned reasons.
Finally, may I also point you to the United Kingdom (UK) which has in 2009 abolished its seditious laws.
Jo Glanville, left, Editor of Index on Censorship, had then said: “We are well rid of these insidious laws. Every month, we receive reports from around the world of governments using sedition and defamation laws to suppress legitimate criticism. In many cases, just the threat of prosecution is enough to scare journalists and campaigners into silence. I hope that the removal of these laws in the UK will inspire other countries to follow suit.”
Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN, had also said: “Time and again, we have found that sedition laws in the UK provide a convenient excuse for regimes around the world to retain their own oppressive laws. Abolition in the UK removes that excuse, and is a great symbolic victory for our shared human right to freedom of expression.”
Indeed, The Library of Congress also explained that, “The sedition laws date back centuries and were originally designed to protect the Crown and government from any potential uprising.” The Sedition Act (and similarly its offshoot Section 298) is thus an intended law designed to protect the government.
On why UK finally decided to abolish its seditious laws, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, Claire Ward, said: “Sedition and seditious and defamatory libel are arcane offences – from a bygone era when freedom of expression wasn’t seen as the right it is today… The existence of these obsolete offences in this country had been used by other countries as justification for the retention of similar laws which have been actively used to suppress political dissent and restrict press freedom…
“Abolishing these offences will allow the UK to take a lead in challenging similar laws in other countries, where they are used to suppress free speech,” she added.
It is thus clear that Section 298 and the Sedition Act has no place in the modern society, especially not in a First World society such as Singapore.
As such, I appeal to the good senses of the AGC to revise the legislation and redraft the law.
Where the Attorney-General is independent in his role as a Public Prosecutor, and is not subject to the control of the Government, this should give greater confidence among Singaporeans that unjust laws will be abolished, and fairness and justice, and the rule of law, will regain their rightful position in Singapore once more.
As Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon had said, “Clean and honest dealing is one of our key competitive advantages and corruption compromises the predictability and openness which Singapore offers and investors have come to expect. This is a hard-won prize achieved through our collective efforts as a society and we must not allow these to be undone.”
I look forward to your favourable consideration of the abolishment of Section 298 and the Sedition Act.