Why free speech is not a priority in Southeast Asia

Many people in Southeast Asia prioritise protecting social harmony over rights to free speech, according to a recent study

Filipino press freedom activists protest the killing of a journalist in 2022 (photo: DW)
Filipino press freedom activists protest the killing of a journalist in 2022 (photo: DW)


Southeast Asian countries are ranked amongst the worst in the world for standards of press freedom and media rights. Forced closures of independent newspapers and the imprisonment of activists for their public comments have become a source of tension between the autocratic governments and Western democracies in recent years.

However, governments in Southeast Asia — which range from one-party, communist states in Vietnam and Laos to tentative democracies in Indonesia and the Philippines — tend to agree that they must severely limit free speech in defence of national "harmony".

This is according to the Pew Research Centre's Buddhism, Islam and Religious Pluralism in South and Southeast Asia report, focused on the role of religion in different societies in South and Southeast Asia.

In the section on religion and politics, the report found that "free speech and democracy are not always widely embraced in the region."

These findings are also reflected in global press freedom rankings measured annually by organisations like Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

In RSF's latest World Press Freedom Index, Vietnam was ranked third-worst in the world, after China and North Korea, while junta-led Myanmar was also in the bottom 10 countries.

The rest of the region was in the bottom half of the rankings, except Malaysia (in 73rd position).

Deteriorating standards of free speech internationally "is the result of increased aggressiveness on the part of the authorities in many countries and growing animosity towards journalists on social media and in the physical world," Christophe Deloire, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, said in a statement.

"The volatility is also the consequence of growth in the fake content industry, which produces and distributes disinformation and provides the tools for manufacturing it."

Another index, Freedom House's Freedom on the Net, which monitors online free-speech conditions, showed recently that Myanmar tied with China for last place on "internet freedom".

Two other Southeast Asian countries — Vietnam and Thailand — were ranked among the 20 worst-performing countries.

However, the Pew study differs from annual press freedom rankings by focusing on the thoughts of ordinary people towards free speech issues.

According to the report, published in early September, a majority of respondents in three of the four surveyed Southeast Asian states agree with their governments that national "harmony" must come before free speech.

Though the majority of respondents in the four states said they thought people should be allowed to publicly criticise their governments, a significant minority in Malaysia (36 per cent) and Singapore (41 per cent) said they thought citizens shouldn't be able to do so.

Respondents were then asked to pick from two statements: "harmony with others is more important than the right to speak one's opinion" or "people should be allowed to speak their opinions publicly even if they upset other people".

Only in Thailand did a majority (59 per cent) think that free speech should come first before social harmony. Some 64 per cent of Singaporeans, 67 per cent of Indonesians and 69 per cent of Cambodians said social harmony must trump freedom of speech.

"A combination of traditions of social harmony and years of authoritarian rule in so many Southeast Asian countries, and such pressure on free speech rights, have all had an effect on views of free speech as a priority," Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, told DW.

However, some arguments advocating free speech are "getting through," particularly among the younger generation, he added.

Indeed, the Pew survey found that younger and more educated respondents were both more likely to support having the ability to criticise a government and to put free speech above concerns about social harmony.

The report also found differences based on religion. For instance, whereas almost half of Thai Muslims (52 per cent) said harmony with others is more important than free speech, only 38 per cent of Thai Buddhists took the same stance.

Thai authorities say that the country's strict lese-majeste laws, which makes insulting the monarch and his immediate family punishable by three to 15 years in prison, is necessary because the institution defines "Thainess".

The Cambodian government defends its tough restrictions on free speech with accusations that opposition politicians and independent newspapers are a threat to the country's hard-won peace, following a three-decade civil war that ended in the late 1990s.

Communist governments in Vietnam and Laos assert that the national community must come before an individual's right to say what they want.

The government of Singapore, another multi-ethnic and multi-religion state that experienced "race riots" in the 1960s, has expanded its "hate speech" laws in recent years.

"In Singapore, we take action against both hate speech and offensive speech. And we do not allow any race or religion to be attacked or insulted by anyone else," home affairs minister K. Shanmugam said in a 2021 speech. "For us, free speech stops at the boundary of giving offence to others."

However, critics have questioned whether Southeast Asia's harsh "hate speech" laws and other legislation actually defends social "harmony" in practice.

A 2021 report from the Asia Centre, a Thailand-based research group, said that the introduction of "harmony" and other laws "continue the dominance of the ethno-religious majority, limit (Freedom of Religion or Belief) and continue to muzzle the airing of grievances by minority communities. Ethno-religious dominant governments in the region remain all too eager to exploit societal divisions for political gain".

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