At Esquire Singapore, we are all about breaking Singaporeans out of our culture of silent conformity to foster critical thinking and productive conversations. As such, we have re-launched our Esquire Talks series to debate hot topics affecting Singaporeans; a safe space for thought leaders, industry experts, and Esquire readers to gather and engage in thought-provoking discussions.
To kick off our new series, we tackled the issue of freedom of speech in Singapore. And where better to host our rebranded Esquire Talks series than at the recently opened Origin Bar in the Shangri-La Hotel; which, fun fact, is actually the first Shangri-La hotel in the world. With delicious canapés (in particular, those deep-fried chicken bites) and a steady flow of classy cocktails concocted just for the event (we loved the vodka-based Miss Joaquim as well as the Manmaker, a concoction of bourbon, coffee cold brew vermouth and chocolate) the panelists—comedian Sharul Channa, contemporary urban artist Sam Lo, improviser Prescott Gaylord, and poet Jennifer Anne Champion—debated the night away; fielding questions from the audience and speaking frankly about their personal experiences with freedom of speech in Singapore.
Watch the video below for highlights of the night.
Topic: Freedom of speech in Singapore
Call it stereotype, label it ignorance, or just file it under ‘myopic millennial madness’—is that a thing? It should be a thing—but it often comes as a surprise to many when I tell them that Singapore actually has a constitutional right to freedom of speech. Say what? True. Story.
Article 14(1)(a) of The Constitution of the Republic of Singapore provides that “every citizen of Singapore has the right to freedom of speech and expression”, but this right is subject to restrictions under article 14(2)(a): namely, where the restrictions are designed to:
- protect the privileges of Parliament (for example, you can’t insult or defame a speaker or member of Parliament); or
- provide against any contempt of court, defamation or incitement to any offence (including speech that lowers the authority of a court or judge; known as ‘scandalizing the court’); and
where Parliament considers that doing so is “necessary or expedient” in the interest of:
- Singapore’s security (think: protection from danger, but also includes protection of information considered vital or essential for the administration of Parliament);
- friendly relations with other countries;
- public order; or
Now, I’m not a Singapore legal practitioner (though, in my previous life, I did practice law in Australia for four years), but any reasonable person reading Article 14 can see that there are some onerous restrictions to the right of freedom of speech in Singapore.
First, if you’re not a Singapore citizen, forget it. You don’t have a right to express your thoughts in Singapore. And if you are a citizen of this great city-state, your constitutional right to speak your mind is curtailed by various restrictions that the Parliament considers “necessary or expedient” for the objectives stated in Article 14(2)(a)—a phrase that has been interpreted by the High Court in Chee Siok Shin v Minister of Home Affairs  as conferring upon Parliament “an extremely wide and discretionary power and remit that permits a multifarious and multifaceted approach towards achieving any of the purposes specified in Art 14(2) of the Constitution.” In short, the balance of power lies with Parliament to knock down freedom of speech where it sees fit.
Can there be progress without questioning the status quo?
Do you think freedom of expression culminates into public nuisance?
Is the government adequately reflecting the values and morals of Singaporeans?
These questions, plus many more, were tackled at our Esquire Talks event.
Stay tuned to our podcast for an upcoming episode on freedom of speech.
Poll: Where do you stand on freedom of speech in Singapore?
After watching the highlights video above, have a read of these opinion pieces on censorship from:
and then cast your vote on the following poll questions—the same questions we asked our audience members at the Esquire Talks event.