One thoughtless comment can cause a mass reaction: PM Lee

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong cited developments abroad and at home to underline the importance of being sensitive and respectful, as actions can provoke and give offence.

An edited excerpt of what he said:

Race and religion remain sensitive even in countries where different groups have long lived together:

  • Post-independence Sri Lanka has been riven by ethnic and religious tensions and conflicts, first between the majority Buddhist community and Hindu Tamil minorities, then between Buddhists and Muslims.
  • Anti-Muslim sentiments rose in France after the Charlie Hebdo killings by a French Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) supporter. Mosques were attacked and defaced.
  • After the recent deaths of several black youths in different American cities, tensions have erupted into violence, especially in Baltimore.

ISIS in the Middle East is causing people in many countries to become radicalised, and to try to join it, or carry out violent attacks in their own countries.

Race and religion are sensitive issues in neighbouring countries:

  • There are tensions in Malaysia between Muslims and non-Muslims over the use of the word "Allah" by Christians, and the introduction of hudud punishments under Islamic law.
  • There are tensions from time to time in Indonesia between groups like Sunni Muslims, Shi'ite Muslims, the Ahmadiyahs, and Christians.

Developments here can also affect racial and religious harmony:

  • Singaporeans are becoming more religious, and taking their faiths more seriously.

"This is, in itself, positive, because religious faiths are strong anchors for good morals and caring communities.

"But religious fervour can also lead to separation and mutual exclusion between different groups.

"People's social circles can shrink down to only their own group, leading to less mixing between different faiths. And people may feel less respect and tolerance for other groups and may proselytise more aggressively, offending others."

  • The Internet and social media have made it easier for people both to cause offence and to take offence.

"When someone puts up something provocative or offensive, it doesn't just affect the coffee shop in which you let off steam, it reaches the whole of cyberspace, maybe even stretches beyond Singapore if it goes viral. "And one thoughtless comment can cause a mass reaction. But instead of a judicious response, it may provoke a self-righteous mob reaction and a public lynching, which is even worse than the original provocation."

  • As society develops and becomes more diverse, from time to time religious issues will overlap with social and moral questions. "For example, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues, or dealing with income inequality. On such issues religious groups will have their views. And yet they are not just religious issues, because they are also subjects of public policy or social policy. And also they are contentious issues, where achieving consensus will be elusive."