Forum: Laws prevent escalation of discourse on racism into violence

We refer to the letter by Mr Brent Lim Zi Jian (Correct solution to racism is not a legal one, Dec 29, 2020).

We agree with Mr Lim that dialogue is necessary to deal with racism. It builds trust, goodwill, and understanding among our various communities, and fosters appreciation of commonalities and differences.

The Government will continue to support initiatives towards this end, such as the Regardless of Race series of dialogues organised by OnePeople.sg

However, dialogue alone is not sufficient.

We have plenty of recent examples which show that offensive speech that denigrates another race (or religion) often triggers angry responses, and the discourse then quickly becomes charged and negative.

With social media, racist comments spread quickly and infuriate easily. Violence often results, society becomes more and more polarised.

This is not a theory, this is what has been happening in the last few years in several countries that believed that discourse is the solution to all such issues.

We have avoided those consequences because while we promote discourse on such issues, we also have laws which define the boundaries of acceptable discourse, and ensure that the Government can quickly take action to stop offensive speech which crosses these boundaries.

Hence, for example, we have legal provisions in the Penal Code and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act to safeguard against hate speech.

The recent events in Washington show how thin the veneer of civil discourse is, and how quickly it can degenerate, even in countries with strong institutions and traditions.

We must encourage civil discourse, while having laws to prevent the escalation of such discourse into violence.

Lim Zhi Yang

Senior Director, Policy Development Division, 

Ministry of Home Affairs

Shaun Goh

Director, Community Relations and Engagement,

Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth