Parliament: Hate speech must be dealt with firmly, says Shanmugam

Singapore adopts a strict approach and takes quick action against hate speech, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam in Parliament yesterday.

The approach has been criticised and Singapore has been told to learn from the United States and the United Kingdom as the "gold standard for free speech", he noted.

"But their experiences suggest that serious consequences can follow when you are lax about hate speech," he said during his ministerial statement on hate speech.

Singapore recognises race and religion are fault lines and involve "gut issues" which can be emotive, he said, adding that the potential for violence increases when people feel their race or religion is under attack.

It is only when a country is clear and has firm laws prohibiting hate speech and deals fairly with all the communities, that it can start building a multiracial, multi-religious, and harmonious society, he added.

Mr Shanmugam cited the ways other countries have dealt with hate speech and its consequences.

The US, where hate speech is prohibited only if it is likely to lead to imminent lawless action, has a "high threshold", he said.

 
 
 
 

This has allowed inflammatory speeches that are anti-Semitic and denigrate certain groups and religions to be protected. He gave the example of Congressman Steve King, who had praised the Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders, who called the Prophet Muhammad a terrorist, among other things.

Over in Europe, some countries have broader prohibitions, but the restrictions vary. Last year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the conviction of an Austrian woman for calling the Prophet Muhammad a paedophile did not violate her freedom of expression.

In Germany, laws prohibit the incitement of hatred against or insult of a racial or religious group. The glorification of Nazi rule is also criminalised. In Britain, it is a crime to incite hatred on the grounds of religion. However, it is permissible to ridicule, insult or abuse any religion, belief or practice and its followers.

Last year, it was reported that more than 25 per cent of Britons - over 12 million people - had witnessed hate speech. Most cases happened on social media and involved anti-immigrant or anti-refugee language, racist abuse or anti-Muslim comments. "The UK now finds itself fighting on two fronts: against right-wing extremists and Islamic extremists," said Mr Shanmugam.

In Singapore, the Internal Security Department will act, depending on the severity and possible consequences.

Mr Shanmugam said the country's approach against hate speech was crystallised by founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who said "no amount of troops would be able to stop the trouble if there was real hatred between the different communities".

Mr Shanmugam said he hoped the House would agree that hate speech in any form is unacceptable. "And that we should continue to prohibit hate speech and deal with it firmly, in the way we have done so far."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2019, with the headline 'Hate speech must be dealt with firmly: Shanmugam'. Print Edition | Subscribe