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Who's freedom of speech are we talking about here?

Thomas Paine famously wrote: “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that reach to himself.”

There are very few cases besides free expression that this statement holds more weight. In the recent furore regarding this particular basic human right, Dr Lee Wei Ling has proclaimed several times on her Facebook page that the editors at The Straits Times allowed her no such freedom, hence her decision not to continue writing there. Janadas Devan, who once edited her pieces for ST and was also named in Lee’s Facebook posts, dismissed this accusation of censorship as mere editing of her writings, which he described as ‘sailing through a fog’.

Here, I do not wish to pick a victor in this media circus, but to address two concepts of rights: Universality and Inalienability.

Universality simply means that a right is something that everyone has. It is not a favour to be given out to deserving individuals, but a right for everyone in a society, country and indeed, every human being. Put in the context of Paine’s proposal, this essentially means that, if you stand idly by when your enemy’s right is taken from him, you are surrendering the same right for yourself.

Dr Lee’s complaints about having no freedom of speech have met with some harsh backlash online for this very reason. She has never spoken up about this universal human right when others like Dr Chee Soon Juan or even Amos Yee have had their free expression suppressed. It suggests that she views herself as more deserving of this right than them; it is not universal in her mind, only meant for herself.

Needless to say, this creates problems. How can one who doesn’t believe in freedom of speech for others ask for freedom of speech for herself? Does she believe that she is in some way more deserving? What criteria then, shall we use to measure how deserving each citizen is, and how much freedom to gift him with?

In this, perhaps we may observe an important lesson: beware of violating or supporting the violation of the freedoms of your fellow citizen, no matter how evil or brutish you believe them to be. You are essentially surrendering your own freedom when you award the power to your government to remove this freedom from any citizen as long as a ‘good reason’ is provided.

For example, a number of Singaporeans might be highly displeased at Amos Yee, an individual whom I consider unsophisticated and whose arguments I consider worthless. What then? Am I to call upon the power of the police force and the Media Development Authority to have his videos or posts removed? No, because if I do, I am handing the fate of my own expression to the authorities to remove on the whim of the next person who dislikes my written and spoken output.

In this context, Inalienability refers to a right not being subject to repudiation, regardless of circumstance. We better understand it by asking this question: Should there be some circumstances where this right can be removed? I make no value judgement again, but advise you to also consider the following: Who gets to decide these circumstances? Isn’t there an old joke about how the man who has the job of reading all the pornography to decide what should be censored, ends up being the most depraved himself?

To decide what is fit for everyone to read and write is to claim absolute knowledge on the subject matter, an obvious impossibility for anyone. If you allow this figurative (and sometimes quite literal) old man to decide what circumstances freedom of speech does not apply, you again enter a quagmire. This time, how do you know that these circumstances will never apply to you? Most of the time, the circumstances are rather arbitrary in definition, leaving the final call to whichever power you appointed to decide how much freedom of speech you have.

In essence, a ‘right’ is both universal and inalienable. Everyone has it, and it is not to be taken away for whatever reason. The absence of freedom of speech invariably follows with destructive circumstances – think of the murders involving The Satanic Verses or the plight of Pakistan’s Asia Bibi. As distasteful as it might initially appear to you, defend your enemy’s liberty as if it were your own, because it is your own.


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