Cartoonist’s arrest – not just about alleged sedition

By Andrew Loh

The news is all over the Internet now – cartoonist Leslie Chew, 37, of Demon-cratic Singapore, arrested for alleged sedition. Since the news broke late on Tuesday night, the number of “likes” on his Facebook page has jumped by about almost 2,000.

Apparently, officers from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) were waiting for Leslie at his parents’ house on Friday evening, around 10.30pm. Leslie had just returned from an overseas trip. When I spoke to him on Tuesday afternoon, he told me that initially there were just 3 officers, but the number grew to about 10 or more as they started to look through his things in the house. Eventually, they confiscated his handphone, hard disk, laptop, and asked him to surrender his passport.

He was then brought to the police station at Cantonment complex. There, he stayed for the night – in a lock-up, on a hard floor with just a blanket – until about noon the next day. That was when the “interview” took place. Leslie said there was only one investigation officer who spoke to him. The officer, one ASP Alvin Phua, pointed to two cartoons in particular, which are the subject of the investigation and his arrest.

The first one had to do with a possible contempt of court charge. The second one is, perhaps, the allegedly seditious one, having to do with how the government supposedly “suppressed” the Malay community here.

Leslie gave several statements to the police subsequently. He was then asked to call his friends to post bail for him, which was set at S$10,000, he said. He was released on Sunday night at 8.45pm.

Leslie has not been charged. He is required to report back to the police on 30 April.

The news of his arrest was kept from the public because virtually no one knew that he had been arrested. And after his release on Sunday night, Leslie was so tired he slept through the whole of Monday. He said the concrete floor in the jail cell didn’t allow him proper rest. On Monday evening, word got around that he had been arrested.

The news was reported by Yahoo on Tuesday evening and it quickly created an uproar online – with most condemning the authorities for the arrest, and others taking issue with the nature of Leslie’s cartoons itself.

Whether one agrees with his views expressed in his drawings, or with the way he expresses them, or not, what should concern Singaporeans is, firstly, why it took so long for news of such an arrest to be made known. Secondly, how does one inform anyone of one’s arrest? Thirdly, what are the rights, including access to a lawyer, which one has in such an event?

These are questions and issues which Singaporeans – and bloggers and online practitioners, in particular – should acquaint themselves with.

Besides these, there are also other concerns, such as the interpretation of the provisions of the Sedition Act, which has been used in several instances on bloggers and online commentators in recent years, and our defamation laws. What protection does the Constitution provide in terms of free speech and expression?

There may also be questions of the Attorney General’s use of his prosecutorial discretion, a subject which was put before the courts in 2012.

The recent spate of legal action by members of the Government is also disconcerting in themselves. It has given rise to all sorts of conspiracy theories of a government clamp-down campaign on the Internet.

Whatever it is, it shows a government (and society) trying to navigate the relatively new terrain of cyberspace. How it will turn out may depend on the answers to the questions raised above; and on how much self-restraint the government is willing to exercise, in recognition of citizens’ rights to free expression. The issue of one’s rights will increasingly become more pronounced as Singaporeans assert their desire to express themselves more freely, especially on social media; and the Government reacts in the most familiar ways it knows how.

In the meantime, those like Leslie will continue to push the boundaries, even at the risk of inadvertently running into trouble with the authorities who, for now, do not seem very amused with his cartoons – or at least two of them.

But in that process of testing the limits, perhaps more clarity will emerge on the various aspects and applications of our laws. This latest incident is thus not just about any alleged seditious behaviour. It is about more than that.

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