Free Speech

Article 14 of the Singapore Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression in Singapore for Singaporeans. However, this right is not unfettered as the Singapore Parliament may legislate:

  1. To protect the privileges of Parliament;
  2. To provide against any contempt of court, defamation or incitement to any offence;  or
  3. Where it considers necessary or expedient in the interest of Singapore’s security, diplomatic relations with other countries, public order or morality.

For instance, section 298 of the Penal Code stipulates that it is an offence to utter a word within hearing distance of a person, with the deliberate intention to wound that person’s religious or racial feelings. Arguably, this restriction is necessary in the interest of Singapore’s public order due to the need to uphold racial and religious harmony in the country.

Although the right to free speech is guaranteed for Singaporeans, it is more of a principle than a rule. This means that it must be balanced with other principles including national security, public order and morality.

Right to Not be Offended?

Currently, the right to not be offended does not exist in any legislation or constitution. However, the limits to free speech has given rise to situations where we seem to be protecting the feelings of others. By a simple extrapolation, more people are starting to claim and rely on the right to not be offended to resist the free speech of others.

In Washington, US, a school superintendent refused to allow the school’s woodwind ensemble to play “Ave Maria” at their graduation ceremony because she believed the piece to be religious in nature. Even though the student musicians proposed to play the music instrumentally and that the superintendent did not know that “Ave Maria” is Latin for “Hail Mary”, the Court agreed that the school acted reasonably in trying to avoid offending anyone. From the Court’s perspective, the school authorities could limit the students’ right to free speech to prevent those attending graduation from being offended.

Can the right to not be offended be sustained?

Yet, by sanitising the schools of any and all religious content, it is not simply a matter of silencing those who are religious but also an annihilation of the cultural landscape for the entire student population. So much of art, music and literature was inspired by religion or at least influenced by religion. Should we also then forbid our art students from studying Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel because it has religious content?

Beyond the specific subject matter of religion, the right to not be offended would undermine the fundamental freedom of speech. With the issues of art, religion, politics and even food, there are bound to be different opinions and interpretations. Invariably, when opinions clash, someone is likely to take offense at what someone else says or does. There can be no single unifying opinion unless we are coerced to a place where political correctness triumphs in the name of the right to not be offended.

Disagreement in the public discourse is a means for new meaning to emerge and for rationality and language to evolve. When asked why his right to freedom of speech should trump a person’s right not to be offended, Dr Jordan Peterson (a clinical psychologist and public speaker) replied that you have to “risk being offensive” to be able to think. 

Imagine a world where we could not disagree and that we could only debate on things that we already agree on. The term “debate” would cease to have any meaning and our identities as rational beings would be whittled away.

Can we learn to develop the art of civility, i.e., the art of trying to work through to an agreement rather than take offense when we disagree? See this video to learn more.

Singapore Context

Authorities in Singapore intervened to condemn a vulgar rap video (Prettipls) in which two Indian rappers slammed those of the Chinese ethnicity. This rap video was posted in response to a controversial ‘brownfacing’ advertisement where a Chinese actor had darkened his skin to portray an Indian character and put on a headscarf to portray a Muslim Malay woman.

The Singaporean police stated that they will not “tolerate any offensive content that causes ill will between races”. Shanmugam, the Minister for Law and Home affairs, emphasised the importance of racial harmony and of ensuring that all the races and minorities feel safe. 

While free speech is not about sanctioning a form of self-expression that deliberately seeks to offend others, there must be a sufficient forum for debates to take place where people are prepared to take offense in a bid to contribute to public discourse. While we discuss the ramifications of the vulgar rap video, are we also prepared to debate about the controversial advertisement which started the furore in the first place?

 Questions for further personal evaluation: 

  1. How would you have debated the issue of race relations regarding the controversial advertisement? Do you think the vulgar rap video crossed the line of free speech?
  2. What is the value of free speech and why must it be balanced by other values or  principles?

Useful vocabulary: 

  1. extrapolation’: predict by projecting past experience or known data
  2. discourse’: verbal interchange of ideas

Here are more related articles for further reading:

  1. The Guardian: Free speech is empty without the right to offend

[T]ry thinking about this: I find it offensive that in many parts of the world people are regularly beaten, jailed and murdered for daring to follow a different belief system, for voicing their sexuality, or for suggesting they want a democratic government. I find it offensive that the majority of decisions in the UK parliament, in the judiciary, in the arts, are made by a small group of people who can shut out the views of large swaths of the population. I find the portrayal of women by much of the British media offensive. These things make me angry. But the fact that I find them offensive or anger-inducing cannot, and should never, be used as an excuse for shutting down their speech. Because that is exactly how millions of people are silenced the world over, how repressive regimes thrive – through law, or through violence, or both. And what protects people’s rights to say things I find objectionable is precisely what protects my right to object.

Violence is how the mob silences the minority, the terrorist its target. As the historian Timothy Garton Ash pointed out in our discussions last Friday, the so-called “heckler’s veto” – the threat of disorder being used to silence speech – has in the case of Charlie Hebdo, and now Copenhagen, been replaced by an attempted “assassin’s veto” – using the threat of murder to silence any of those with whom we disagree. And we cannot let that happen.


  1. The Guardian: Singapore’s “Fake News” law and its ramifications on free speech


The law, which passed on Wednesday, will require online media platforms to carry corrections or remove content the government considers to be false, with penalties for perpetrators including prison terms of up to 10 years or fines up to S$1m ($735,000).

Technology giants including Google and Facebook have said they see the law giving Singapore’s government too much power in deciding what qualifies as true or false.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch said the new law was a “disaster for online expression by ordinary Singaporeans, and a hammer blow against the independence of many online news portals”.

“Singapore’s leaders have crafted a law that will have a chilling affect on internet freedom throughout south-east Asia, and likely start a new set of information wars as they try to impose their narrow version of ‘truth’ on the wider world.”