I have many happy memories of my primary school days. Among them was a measure of freedom of speech which I miss.
My classmates and I did not back-stab one another. We complained openly and honestly and got one another into trouble. There was no problem as not many took offence. We were still the best of friends. Our friendships remained intact without grudge or malice.
Would adults behave the way we did in primary school? I don’t think so.
Otherwise, I would not have to wonder if there could ever be such a thing as complete freedom of speech. My parents would not have to worry about what I write in this newspaper. They keep reminding me to be careful about what I write.
My mother’s advice is: “If you have nothing good to say, don’t say it. It is the best guideline to stay out of trouble.”
My father’s mantra is: “Make sure it is politically correct.”
What can I say? I don’t want to be restricted.
I want to express my thoughts and feelings without having to worry whether they are politically correct or not. I want to call a spade a spade.
The question is: Can I?
When in K1, I expressed my opinions frankly and without fear. I told one teacher that she looked like a witch and told another that she was like a bear with a small head and a big body.
I am afraid my descriptions were brutally accurate as they became very unfriendly towards me. At the time, I did not understand why.
Fearing for my well-being after these teachers expressed their displeasure to her, my mother arranged for me to attend another tuition centre.
She warned me to mind my words and painted a frightening scenario of what the teachers could have done to me.
That was my first lesson on the freedom of speech, or the lack of it.
Now that I am older and presumably wiser, I realise that freedom of speech comes with responsibility. I have to be sensitive to other people’s feelings just as I want others to be mindful of mine.
It is easy for me to say one should be mature enough to accept criticism. However, it is a different thing entirely when one is at the receiving end. I don’t know if I can be that mature or stoic. Therefore, I accept the constraints on freedom of speech for a peaceful co-existence.
What would you do in the following situation, assuming that there were no law against smoking in lifts?
Say you are in a lift with a burly guy with a sinister look. He is puffing away merrily, while flaunting his tattoos.
Would you tell him off in the name of freedom of speech and get your head smashed in? Or would you keep quiet and share his cancer-causing smoke as if you were enjoying it?
You could say he should be more considerate. You would be right, but consideration for others is obviously not his strong point.
You would be right to say the act should not be condoned and that he should accept your criticism. But if you open your mouth, he may not hesitate to rearrange your face.
Of course, you could tell him nicely.
If you are lucky, he would ignore you. But he would probably growl and tell you to mind your own business.
To protect your health, the Government has imposed a law against smoking in lifts.
Now, what if the burly guy complains against the restriction on his freedom of expression and wants more space?
He shows his displeasure by defying the law. It would be your bad luck if you were to find yourself in a lift with him again.
Do you want to exercise your right of free speech, or learn to live with each other’s weaknesses? It is like being caught between a rock and a hard place, isn’t it?
(This journal entry was printed in TODAY newspaper on 30 November 2004.)