Friday, January 30, 2009

The Curious Case of Tecman & Tracts

A legal case that has gained my attention lately is the case in which a married couple is charged with sedition and currently being trialed for distributing and possessing religiously objectionable/seditious materials.

According to local news reports, the married couple, both Christian, has been mailing people with Christian comic tracts published by US-based Chick Publications; at least two recipients of these tracts found them objectionable and action was taken against the married couple after a complaint was made to the authorities.

What gained my attention about this was the statement reportedly made by Mr. A. R. Madeei, the Media Development Authority (MDA)’s senior assistant director for publications, in court in response to a question by the married couple’s defense lawyer.

Mr. Madeei was reported to have said that “it is not possible for the MDA to examine each and every publication sold in bookshops here as close to two million books are imported” and that the MDA allows “the industry to self-regulate and refer to us [the MDA] publications that are in doubt” (Both these quotes are extracted from “Couple on trial for anti-Islamic tracts: Booklets available in store, says lawyer”, Straits Times, 29/1/2009).

Hmm… I would have thought that, in light of the strong emphasis placed by local authorities on maintaining religious harmony and the local authorities’ vigilance towards political materials, the local authorities (in this case, the MDA) would be more pro-active in checking the spread of potentially religiously seditious/objectionable materials within Singapore or at least not to adopt as passive a stance as to wait for people to refer to it such materials.

[Aside: sardonically speaking, I suppose that this may be interpreted as evidence that, contrary to what its detractors have said about it, Singapore is not an omnipotent and omniscient Orwellian police state]

Also, curiously enough, it would seem that while the MDA has restricted access to the website of Chick Publications, it has not imposed a similar ban on the publications produced by it, considering how the comic tracts in question were available at Tecman, a Christian bookstore located at Bras Basah Complex. This, to me, would be akin to if the MDA banned pornographic websites but allowed for pornographic magazines to be freely imported and sold by local bookstores (of course, the MDA bans both pornographic websites and magazines). I do not know about you all but it is rather perplexing to me how although the MDA has the discretion to restrict access to the website of Chick Publications, it does not act similarly when it comes to publications produced by the same company.

And if I have interpreted correctly what Mr. Madeei has said, it would seem to me that if no complaints were made against the comic tracts in question, no action would be taken against these tracts and their circulation in Singapore would continue to be allowed or at least go undetected by the MDA. In light of this, I cannot help wondering about if there are similar materials out there in local bookstores which remain undetected because nobody has referred them to the authorities.

Moving on, it is also perplexing to me how although the authorities discovered quantities of religiously objectionable/seditious comic tracts at the residence of the abovementioned married couple on 30th January of last year, it was only on the 28th of January this year that the authorities raided Tecman (i.e. the bookstore from which the married couple acquired their comic tracts) and seized the entire display of tracts by Chick Publications at the store (and it seems that this action was taken only after it was revealed in court by the married couple’s defense lawyer that such materials were available at the store).

This would thus imply that there was a time gap of almost a year from when the married couple was arrested to when action was taken against the bookstore from which they gotten the tracts that they are being charged for possessing! Why was such action only taken after so long? Surely, the authorities would have, in their course of questioning the couple, found out from the couple, or at least asked them, where they have acquired the comic tracts? I cannot help but wonder if during this time gap of almost one year whether there was any form of instruction/warning from the authorities to Tecman to cease their selling of comic tracts produced by Chick Publications. If there was no such instruction/warning, then I wonder how many copies of these tracts were being sold by the store before and during this time gap of almost one year.

Finally, I find it rather curious that it seems to me that there have been, as of this moment in time, no statement and/or comment from the local Christian community and/or their leaders regarding this case. I mean, we frequently hear calls for the moderates within the local Muslim community to disavow the ideology and tactics employed by Islamist (not Islamic) terrorists and the local Muslim community, in my opinion, has responded to these calls. Hence, in light of this, I cannot help but feel that the silence by the local Christian community with regards to this case is rather deafening. I would humbly suggest that the local Christian community and/or their leaders come out to disavow the evangelical methods employed by the married couple or at least the ideas propagated in the comic tracts, lest their silence be misinterpreted as perhaps a tacit endorsement of the couple’s actions and/or of the ideas contained within the comic tracts produced by Chick Publications.

[Aside: I also find it rather curious how there have been no calls, apart from mine, for the local Christian community to make some form of statement about this case. Why the disparity? If one argues that there is no need for the local Christian community to do because the actions of the married couple and the ideas of Chick Publications are not representative of Christians/Christianity, then that begs the question of why there, on the other hand, is a need for the Muslim community to do so with regards to the ideology and tactics of Islamist terrorists?]


Anonymous said...

What I find most striking is that, as you mentioned, the tracts in question were not regarded as objectionable material by the MDA. I do not see how law-abiding citizens, or bookshops, would be forewarned or be able to take appropriate steps to avoid coming foul of the law when material is only considered objectionable at the point when a complaint is lodged and the MDA charges you, especially if the material in question has been available for many years, as in this case.

Anonymous said...

It is impossible to task MDA with screening all religious books and publications for content that may have tendency to incite ill will or hatred towards others of different religions. If that's the approach you will hardly have many new books on religion on the market. Moreover, MDA is not a religious expert to police all religious writings done by writers of various religions, unless you are singling out one religion, in this case Christianity.

In fact, it can be argued that almost anything in print can have tendency to incite ill will if one wants to take the approach of being easily offended, and being more led by the heart than by the head. For example, during the trial passages were read from the book of militant atheist Richard Dawkins who wrote on page 31, "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant
character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."

I wonder if the MDA officer would have opined that the above has the tendency to incite ill will and hatred. Whether book or tract, the content IMO is offensive to the Christian. Yet this book is readily available in the national libraries and bookstores. Should MDA then conduct a witch hunt and take action against them all, to be consistent? Will the upset Christian have as strong a case in court to indict anyone for recommending the book to anyone to read and getting that someone charged?

LCC said...

To both Anonymous (03/02/09 01:53) and Anonymous (05/02/09 14:55),

Thank you for your comments.

To Anonymous (05/02/09 14:55),

I can understand your point of view.

And, yup, I agree that "It is impossible to task MDA with screening all religious books and publications for content that may have tendency to incite ill will or hatred towards others of different religions".

Yet, perhaps I did not make it clear in my post, I am not advocating that the MDA screens all religious and/or non-religious books to see if they contain content which may be religiously objectionable/seditious.

What I have said in my post is that it is rather curious that the MDA would adopt as passive as a stance as to wait for complaints/referrals before it act against any potentially religiously objectionable/seditious publications.

Such a stance, as pointed out by Anonymous (03/02/09 01:53), places people in the unenviable position of being potentially charged for distributing/possessing religious seditious/objectionable publications if and when materials that they have bought legally from local bookstores suddenly become religiously seditious/objectionable because of complaints.

In addition, I would like to reiterate the fact that although the MDA has restricted access to the website of Chick Publications, its publications are strangely available for sale in Singapore. Just think about it, the fact that the MDA decided to restrict access to the website suggests that it is aware that stuff by that organisation is potentially objectionable. Thus, in light of this, it is rather curious that the MDA did not prohibit materials by the same organisation from being sold in Singapore (note: it was only by 31/1/2009 that the MDA "notified book importers to consult the authority on material by 'Chick Publications' before putting them up for sale or distribution"). As I have said in my post, this disparity "would be akin to if the MDA banned pornographic websites but allowed for pornographic magazines to be freely imported and sold by local bookstores".

One would think that the MDA would have the sense to, since they have already restricted access to the website of Chick Publications, notify local book importers/sellers beforehand that materials by this organisation should not be freely available for sale.

Anonymous said...

Actually the "passiveness" of MDA is a result of the "light touch" regulatory approach towards the media, and so far I think it is the preferred approach Singapore has taken between totalitarian control of the media content and the freedom of the press. Thus MDA will only take action when complaints has been received. As to why MDA did not clamp down on TECMAN after so long, I have no idea. Perhaps it was never mentioned or MDA was not told that you can buy Chick materials at TECMAN. Blocking the Net is easier than raiding bookstores. Of course the other thing MDA can do is to send all bookstores a letter directing them not to carry Chick stuff and to inform all citizens that Chich publications are banned.

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