Freedom Of Speech – Really Free?

by Patrick Liew on March 15, 2017

1. Freedom of expression is not absolute and there’s no standard definition of freedom of expression that’s agreed upon and adopted by every country in the West.

2. It’s viewed and practiced differently in each western democracy.

3. Freedom of expression is defined in each country in accordance with its unique experience, values, culture, customary behaviour, and aspiration.

4. There are restrictions and limitations to freedom of expression in every country, including libel, slander, sedition, incitement, right to privacy, public security and perjury.

5. A commonly-used principle to justify such exclusions is based on the Harm Principle, proposed by John Stuart Mill.

It states that: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

6. Restriction of freedom of expression can also be justified according to the Offense Principle proposed by Joel Feinberg in 1985.

It posits that an expression is deemed to be offensive to society, considering factors such as “the extent, duration and social value of the speech, the ease with which it can be avoided, the motives of the speaker, the number of people offended, the intensity of the offense, and the general interest of the community at large.”

7. Restriction on freedom of expression can be imposed either through enacting a public policy, a legal sanction or a social disapprobation, or a combination of these factors.

8. Interpretation of freedom of expression and justification of such expression is politically and culturally relative and different in every jurisdiction in the West.

9. For example, try denying the holocaust tragedy in many European countries, including Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, and Switzerland?

Or promote the ISIS cause in North America?

10. That’s why when different parties accuse Singapore of restricting freedom of expression and trying to impose their version of freedom of expression on us, they are being absolutely hypocritical.

They define values according to their terms and believe that they have the rights to impose their values on us and we cannot do the same to them.

11. Meanwhile, we have witnessed how moral values of some countries in the West have degraded.

Educational standards have declined. Crime rates have gone up.

It’s generally not safe to walk on many streets in the night.

These countries have spent more money than they can afford and have chalked up huge debts for their future generations.

12. Their political systems are beset with pork-belly jostlings and hustlings.

Many of their political leaders have accepted questionable favours and donations to support their quests to win votes or support.

Such acts are nothing more than legalized corruption.

13. In the name of freedom of expression, these leaders have appealed to base instincts.

They will not stop at using lies of every kind to gain power.

They package these lies as half-truths, fake news, post-truths, alternate truths, and misinformation.

14. Many of their leaders have become so focused on capitalism that they have resorted to finding legal loopholes.

They have skirted around moral conscience to fatten their personal and corporate wallets – under the guise of improving bottom lines.

15. While fulfilling their self-appointed roles as watch dogs, guardians and policemen of the world, they have sometimes become nothing but “bullies on the block.” And they attempt to shape the world to their fallen image.

Are the above-mentioned values what we want in our country?

16. In Singapore, it’s generally accepted that freedom comes with responsibility.

17. Freedom of expression should not endanger the country, community and environment.

18. In particular, freedom of expression should not be used to cause “feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility between different religious groups..”

It should not be “prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious or racial groups and which disturbs or is likely to disturb the public tranquility” (Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act).

19. Freedom of expression cannot be used to justify libel and slander.

An aggrieved party can seek recourse in accordance to the legal system of Singapore.

Our legal system is largely based on the English common law system.

20. When a political leader is being defamed, he has two choices; to seek legal recourse or not to do it.

For example, when somebody accused a political leader of corruption, if he does not sue and clear his name, he may have unwittingly admitted that he is corrupted.

The political leader’s opponents can also persuade others to believe that his silence and non-action is an admission of guilt.

Furthermore, there’s no guarantee that others will not accuse the political leader of worst crimes.

The political leader may also lose his moral authority to lead the country.

His activists and supporters may be disappointed with not just him but also his party.

They may think that the political leader and his party have become corrupted and are abusing the community and country.

Therefore, there are values in standing on principles and defending one’s honour, character and integrity.

21. This is the Singapore way, practiced by even prominent opposition leaders.

That’s why, Singapore has a good standing in the international community for clean government and sound governance.

If you have a chance to travel overseas, you’ll know that Singapore is widely admired and respected in many parts of the world.


I hope this message will find a place in your heart.

By the way, I have also recorded other reflections.

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