Shanmugam on hate speech: 'Boundaries must be drawn'

Tributes placed in memory of Ms Heather Heyer at the site in the US city of Charlottesville where a car rammed into a crowd, killing her. Citing the episode, Mr K. Shanmugam said societies cannot just look to "debate and discussion" to build and main
Tributes placed in memory of Ms Heather Heyer at the site in the US city of Charlottesville where a car rammed into a crowd, killing her. Citing the episode, Mr K. Shanmugam said societies cannot just look to "debate and discussion" to build and maintain social harmony in the battle against hate speech.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Shanmugam: Society as a whole has to condemn such rhetoric

Sensible boundaries need to be drawn to prevent hate speech and protect social institutions and people from the harm it can cause, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday.

In a Facebook post where he cited the recent unrest in the American city of Charlottesville, Mr Shanmugam made the point that societies cannot just look to "debate and discussion" to build and maintain social harmony in the battle against hate speech.

Neo-Nazis and white supremacists held a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug 12 to protest against the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

They paraded in the streets yelling Nazi slogans, and clashed with counter-protesters. The protests turned deadly when a white supremacist rammed his car into a crowd near a downtown mall, killing one person and injuring 19 others.

"Charlottesville reminds us that when hate speech is allowed to be routinely uttered and its symbols are paraded openly, it pollutes the discourse and normalises extremist behaviour," said Mr Shanmugam.

Calling hate speech a "precursor to violence", he highlighted the importance of society coming together to condemn such rhetoric, instead of accepting it as part of free speech.

"If society prohibits open expressions of hate, then racists may still only be paying lip service to societal norms. But they have no choice. They have to accept that certain behaviour has no place in the public sphere, and that creates a different dynamic in society," he said.

His post comes as the Government looks at policies to tackle acts that denigrate other races or religions, preach intolerance, or sow religious discord. He first spoke about these changes last year.

At the moment, the Government can use the Sedition Act to take action against those who seek to sow discord among Singaporeans.

In his Facebook post, Mr Shanmugam cited how Germany's school system, laws and social environment "send a clear message that some types of speech or conduct should not be tolerated".

These include certain historians' revisionist denials of the Holocaust massacre and pro-Nazi rhetoric.

In contrast, "open expressions of hate" are becoming normalised in the United States, he said. For instance, white supremacists from the Ku Klux Klan were once shunned as fringe elements of society. But today, they make up the "far right", and are unafraid to show their faces unmasked.

Just a decade ago, it would have seemed "far-fetched" to see people openly parade the language and insignia of the Nazis, he noted.

"Norms take a generation or two to build up, but can be eroded in a relatively short time," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2017, with the headline 'Hate speech: 'Boundaries must be drawn''. Print Edition | Subscribe