Sunday, October 09, 2005

A threat to blogosphere?

Sedition law's use stirs up Singapore blogging community

SINGAPORE--Singapore, wary of alienating its Muslim Malay minority, has cracked down hard on two men who posted racist remarks on the Internet, but the move caused concern in the growing community of bloggers.
In a landmark ruling Friday, two ethnic Chinese men became the first persons in multi-racial Singapore to be punished under the Sedition Act, which dates back to British colonial rule and was last used in 1966.

Benjamin Koh, 28, was given two concurrent one-month jail terms while Nicholas Lim, 25, was jailed for one day and fined 5,000 Singapore dollars after they pleaded guilty to making strong anti-Muslim remarks.

The case was triggered by a letter to the Straits Times newspaper from a Malay Muslim Singaporean woman, Zuraimah Mohammed, who in a query to taxi firms said uncaged dogs may drool on seats or dirty them with their paws.

Under the Syafie school of thought to which most members of the local Muslim community belong, contact with dog saliva is prohibited.

The two men, who attacked Islam and its believers in reaction to the letter, issued public apologies after pleading guilty.

Koh, an animal shelter assistant, admitted he was "behaving exactly and no better" than a "fanatic" while Lim, an assistant marketing manager, said the episode showed the forgiving nature of Islam and other religions.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had told a foreign media forum Thursday that Singapore wants to ensure that no disaffection takes root among people who might feel excluded in society.

"And so, racial harmony and religious harmony are of utmost importance in Singapore, which is why when somebody went and published some racist blogs recently, we came down very hard," he said.

"All you need is one crazy guy and a disaster takes place and an enormous rent happens, a tear in the fabric of society."

Judge Richard Magnus, who handed out the sentences, said the Internet postings threatened to disrupt racial harmony, a bedrock social principle in Singapore.

Magnus recalled the 1964 racial riots and reminded young Singaporeans that "callous and reckless remarks on racial or religious subjects" can spark social disorder.

The judge also told bloggers who have made similar offending remarks to remove such postings, warning that the court will not hesitate to impose stiffer penalties in the future.

With a growing number of Singaporeans taking to the Internet to express their views in order to bypass the pro-government mainstream media, some fear the ruling could have wider implications.

"People will become more cautious," said Sinapan Samydorai, executive director of Think Centre, a group pushing for greater political freedoms in the tightly-governed city-state.

"People are already cautious in Singapore, but they would become more cautious. Blogging is one of the areas where people thought they could express themselves, but now I think they would have to exercise more caution."

Samydorai, who made it clear he was against making racial remarks, described the one-month sentence on one of the bloggers and the use of the Sedition Act as harsh.

"I don't think the bloggers had any intention to disturb the security of Singapore and create racial violence," Samydorai told Agence France-Presse.

He said Think Centre's work would continue despite the ruling but the group "will keep within the law."

Bloggers were divided, with some saying they would tone down their comments, while others maintained they would not be affected.

"I wouldn't feel censored because I would not post such remarks anyway," a university student who has her own blog told Agence France-Presse.

"I wouldn't be too worried. There are blogs out there that comment openly on government policies. I think there is room for this expression as long as your views are rational and you can substantiate them."

Another blogger said, however, that he would be more careful.

"Yes, I will tone down. The government has a lot of things up its sleeves they can use against me," he said.

Both bloggers spoke on condition they are not identified.

Ethnic Chinese make up 76 percent of Singapore's resident population of 3.4 million with Malay Muslims accounting for 13.7 percent followed by ethnic Indians, Eurasians and other racial groups.

While ensuring that anti-Muslim feelings are kept in check following September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, Singapore also bars Muslim schoolgirls from wearing veils in government schools, saying the institutions must remain secular.

(1 US dollar = 1.683 Singapore dollars)



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