Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Tough Laws

On 12th September 2005, Channel News Asia reported that two bloggers(sic) were charged with sedition for posting racist comments online.

Lawyers say the last time the sedition act was invoked in Singapore was at least 10 years ago.

25-year-old Nicholas Lim Yew and 27-year-old Benjamin Koh Song Huat were accused of posting racist comments on an online forum and on their blog site. They were both charged with committing a seditious act, by promoting feelings of ill-will and hostility between races in Singapore.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, describes sedition thus:
"Critical speech, political organization, and mere association between individuals may be considered as "sedition." And though such behaviours may be common in a free society, in societies where sedition laws exist the acts and behaviours which qualify are highly subjective, and typically left to the whims of state agents. Legal definitons of sedition often include subversion of a constitution, or incitement to rebellion or insurrection toward the lawful authority. Sedition may include any commotion, though not aimed at direct and open violence against the laws."

From the perspective of the Singapore Sedition Act:

3. — (1) A seditious tendency is a tendency —

(a) to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the Government;

(b) to excite the citizens of Singapore or the residents in Singapore to attempt to procure in Singapore, the alteration, otherwise than by lawful means, of any matter as by law established;

(c) to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the administration of justice in Singapore;

(d) to raise discontent or disaffection amongst the citizens of Singapore or the residents in Singapore;

(e) to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore.

(2) Notwithstanding subsection (1), any act, speech, words, publication or other thing shall not be deemed to be seditious by reason only that it has a tendency —

(a) to show that the Government has been misled or mistaken in any of its measures;

(b) to point out errors or defects in the Government or the Constitution as by law established or in legislation or in the administration of justice with a view to the remedying of such errors or defects;

(c) to persuade the citizens of Singapore or the residents in Singapore to attempt to procure by lawful means the alteration of any matter in Singapore; or

(d) to point out, with a view to their removal, any matters producing or having a tendency to produce feelings of ill-will and enmity between different races or classes of the population of Singapore,

if such act, speech, words, publication or other thing has not otherwise in fact a seditious tendency.

(3) For the purpose of proving the commission of any offence under this Act, the intention of the person charged at the time he did or attempted to do or made any preparation to do or conspired with any person to do any act or uttered any seditious words or printed, published, sold, offered for sale, distributed, reproduced or imported any publication or did any other thing shall be deemed to be irrelevant if in fact such act had, or would, if done, have had, or such words, publication or thing had a seditious tendency.

Investigations into the case began after "someone" called the police hotline at the ungodly hour of 3 a.m. on June 19 to complain that Koh's blog on www.upsaid.com "discussed topics that would disrupt racial harmony".

Inquiries into that complaint led the police to an online pet forum, www.doggiesite.com, where Lim, a marketing executive, allegedly posted racist remarks.

Koh faced three charges while Lim faced two for remarks made between June 12 and June 17 this year. If convicted, they could be fined up to $5,000 per charge or jailed up to three years, or both.

According to court documents, Lim's forum message began with: "The masses are idiots. 'Nuff said". He went on to make disparaging remarks about Muslims. Then, turning his attention to the Chinese and Indians, he wrote that listening to the complaints of "Chinese and Indians ... was no less irritating". Koh was more pointed. Peppering his blog entry with vulgarities, he directed his tirade at Malays and Muslims. His blog had a picture of a roasted pig's head with "a Halal look-alike logo", according to court documents.

Dr Ang Peng Hwa, director of the Singapore Internet Research Centre at Nanyang Technological University, said someone could "technically" be charged if a racist remark was overhead and reported to the authorities.

"(But) only when the audience size is large enough will the impact of the statement be meaningful," said Dr Ang.

"Many bloggers do not know the law, unlike trained journalists. People assume there is a cloak of secrecy. But you can still track people down. There are a lot of remarks out there (on the Internet) that are defamatory, inflammatory racist remarks. These are not taken seriously in many parts of the world," said Dr Ang. "They are seen as rants and people usually ignore them."

"Singapore is an unusual case."

The source of the hubris stems from a letter written to the Forum pages of the Straits Times:


ON JUNE 3, while I was on a bus, I noticed a taxi with a small dog in it.

The dog was not in a cage and was standing on the backseat beside its owner.

I am curious to know if cab companies allow uncaged pets to be transported in taxis. Dogs may drool on the seats or dirty them with their paws.

Zuraimah Mohammed (Mdm)

Readers were told by the newspaper with circulation exceeding 100,000 that Madam Zuraimah's concerns had a religious basis. Ustaz Ali Haji Mohamed, chairman of Khadijah mosque, was quoted as saying: "There are various Islamic schools of thought which differ in views. But most Muslims in Singapore are from the Syafie school of thought. This means they are not allowed to touch dogs which are wet, which would include a dog's saliva. This is a religious requirement."

On Oct 7, Benjamin Koh Song Huat,, 27, was sentenced to a month's imprisonment while Nicholas Lim Yew, 25, was fined $5000 and jailed for a day, both for posting comments alledgedly attacking the Muslim ethnic Malay community.

Benjamin's online problems started after a trip to East Coast Park in June when he was walking his dogs and had a run-in with some Malay families, who shy away from dogs on religious grounds. He went home later that day and "blasted away" on his blog, and supposedly advocated desecrating Islam’s holy site of Mecca in his online journal. Then came the Internet community's reaction.

"People started posting comments and made nasty remarks about me and my parents. I thought it was another blog war and I didn't really bother," he said. "But the comments didn't stop." Eventually, Koh locked his blog a week later to prevent anyone from posting comments and put up an apology.

It appeased some — but there were others who were still baying for blood. At the end of June, plainclothes police officers went to his home to question him, after a 21 year old female Malay media executive, who subsequently spoke to the press under the pseudonym of "Kalin", dialed 999 to lodge a complaint.

Koh maintained during a 40-minute phone interview that he was not a racist. He said he has many Malay friends from his days at Swiss Cottage Secondary School. So, when news of his arrest broke, he got calls from one of them. "They called me, laughed and said: 'You racist? Come on lah'," said Koh. His friend IT manager Mohammad Hisham Bin Abu Bakar accompanied him to the court sentencing.

Two days before the Muslim new year celebrations of Hari Raya, Koh told Today about the three weeks in his 2m-by-4m jail cell: "I was having a panic attack and it took two officers to calm me down. The psychological relief was the window above my cell."

The former kennel keeper was so nervous that he flushed down the toilet the six slices of bread given for his first meal. He had no appetite and just wanted to sleep. What ate into him were not only the four walls but fear. He was worried about how the Malay prison officers would treat him.

Though by nature a jovial and outgoing man, he made it a point to avoid interacting with other inmates. Kept in solitude, Mr Koh said he only came out of the cell to shower or to borrow books to read. Prison officers nicknamed him "The Blogger" and those who did not read his blog wanted to know what he had written.

Regaining his freedom, however, is not the close of the chapter for Mr Koh, who blogged for the first time after a four-month break the night he was released from Queenstown Remand Prison. In a short entry, he informed his friends of his return to cyberspace. "I now feel demoralised about writing. The feeling (to write) is there but I have to censor myself. Freedom of speech here is a very debatable term. I don't think I am one to censor myself, though of course I must be more careful now."

"I have been punished and it's time to move on," he said. "The racist label was what I hated. I am not a racist. I am not Pauline Hanson or Hitler. But the label will stick with me. I probably will take some time to get over it."

Quite understandably, when his Malay friends invited him to the Hari Raya gatherings at the coming weekend, he said "no".

"I want to go but their relatives will be there. Our generation can understand my situation but I will still feel embarrassed with their relatives around," he explained.