A CHRISTIAN couple were jailed eight weeks yesterday for distributing and possessing anti-Muslim and anti-Catholic publications, but this did not mark the end of Singapore’s first trial under the Sedition Act.
SingTel technical officer Ong Kian Cheong, 50, and UBS associate director Dorothy Chan Hien Leng, 46, have appealed against the conviction and are out on $15,000 bail each.
District Judge Roy Neighbour decided on a jail term, even though a fine was allowed for under the law, as the couple’s offences affected the very foundation of Singapore society, which is multi-religious and multiracial.
The judge said the sentence in this case was necessary to deter others from committing similar offences. Decked out smartly in executive wear, husband and wife showed no emotion when their sentences were read out to them.
They were convicted of four charges two weeks ago, which included three for mailing seditious or objectionable evangelical Christian tracts to three Muslim civil servants between March and December 2007. Another charge was for keeping about 440 copies of 11 seditious booklets in their Bukit Timah condominium.
The Sedition Act is designed to punish those who stir up feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore.
The punishments the husband and wife of 24 years received, however, were at the lower end of what the prosecution had urged the court to impose.
Deputy public prosecutors Anandan Bala and Sharmila Sripathy-Shanaz had asked the court to keep the couple – first-time offenders – behind bars for between two and six months.
Under the law, the maximum jail term for distributing a seditious publication is three years’ jail for a first offender. The couple, who have a 19-year-old daughter, worshipped at the Berean Christian Church at the time of their offences last year. Judge Neighbour, in a written judgment, explained why he imposed a jail term of just two months.
He noted that it was Ong’s and Chan’s first brush with the law. He pointed out that the tracts were published by a reputable publisher and had been freely available for sale to the public. ‘This may to some extent, have contributed to their complacency in assuming that there was nothing wrong to distribute them to the public.’
Both Ong and Chan had also apologised to the three people who received the offensive mail. But Judge Neighbour said the offences they committed were ‘serious ones’. ‘They have the capacity to undermine and erode the delicate fabric of racial and religious harmony in Singapore.’
The booklets the couple possessed and distributed were not only offensive for religious content but also could promote ill-will or hostility between different races or classes of the population here, the judge added.
Religion is a sensitive issue and a person is free to choose and practise his religion, he also said. The intent in mailing seditious and offensive tracts was clearly done to convince the Muslim reader to convert to Christianity. ‘
It is foreseeable that the faithful have desires to profess and spread their faith. Besides worship, some Christians might even see evangelism as their paramount Christian duty,’ Judge Neighbour said.
But the right to propagate an opinion cannot be an unfettered right.
As Singaporeans, Ong and Chan cannot claim to be ignorant of the sensitivity of race and religion in Singapore’s multiracial and multi-religious society, the judge said.
By distributing the tracts, the couple ‘clearly reflected’ their intolerance, insensitivity and ignorance of delicate issues concerning race and religion in Singapore. ‘Common sense dictates that religious fervour to spread the faith, in our society, must be constrained by sensitivity, tolerance and mutual respect for another’s faith and religious beliefs,’ Judge Neighbour said.
About the case
MARRIED couple Ong Kian Cheong, 50, and Dorothy Chan Hien Leng, 46, were convicted last month on two charges of distributing seditious publications and one each of distributing an objectionable publication and possessing seditious tracts.
The husband, a SingTel technical officer, and his wife, an associate director with UBS, committed the offences in 2007. Two of the recipients, Mr Irwan Ariffin, 32, and Madam Farharti Ahmad, 36, received an evangelistic comic tract titled The Little Bride through the mail. Another recipient, Mr Isa Raffee, 35, was sent a tract titled Who Is Allah?
About 440 copies of 11 seditious tracts were found in the couple’s home. They could have been fined up to $5,000 and/or jailed up to three years on each charge of sedition. For distributing objectionable publications, they faced a fine of up to $5,000 and/or a jail term of up to a year. For possession of such materials, they could have been fined up to $2,000 and/or jailed up to 11/2 years.