Parliament: Offensive speech can become hate speech if normalised and not dealt with, says Shanmugam

In regulating offensive speech, assessments are made on whether the words are in themselves derogatory, offensive or insulting to a particular race or religion, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam in Parliament on April 1, 2019. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Offensive speech overlaps with hate speech and, if normalised, can change the tone and texture of public discourse, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam in explaining why the former, while not hate speech, needed to be restricted.

Normalising offensive speech could, in the long run, also result in the same outcomes as hate speech, creating an environment conducive for discrimination and eventually violence, said Mr Shanmugam during his ministerial statement on hate speech in Parliament on Monday (April 1).

He said: "How can we be one united people when every day it is accepted that one race or another, one religion or another, can be publicly insulted, ridiculed, attacked?"

Making the distinction between acceptable commentary on race and religion which may be factual observations necessary to find solutions or for public policy reasons, the minister said Singapore's position to offensive speech has been "practical" and "nuanced".

"We take the view that offensive speech should generally not be allowed in public discourse," he said, adding that various sections of the Penal Code, Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act and the Sedition Act tackle offensive speech.

Beyond the legal framework, Singapore also bases its assessment on factors like how offensive the words are and the likely impact of it on the feelings of the targeted groups.

While Mr Shanmugam's statement covered offensive speech related to race and religion, he said that in the broader context, offensive material would include those regarding social mores and values, like child abuse material.

In regulating offensive speech, assessments are made on whether the words are in themselves derogatory, offensive or insulting to a particular race or religion, said the minister.

He cited the derogatory remarks made by teenage blogger Amos Yee against various groups, including the Muslim, Christian and Buddhist communities here.

In 2015 and 2016, Yee was convicted for hate speech against Christians and Muslims.

Another factor to consider was the likely impact of the offensive speech, and this could include the prominence of the speaker or the platform on which the offensive speech occurred, for example, if it happened at the pulpit or at an election rally, or if it was said by religious or political leaders.

"The impact will be different, depending on who says it and the context," said Mr Shanmugam, adding that the nature of the event and its reach were also considered.

He said assessment of the impact is partly subjective and is based on non-exclusive factors. Another thing to note was that followers of different religions react differently.

In measuring impact, the Government also considers the immediate or longer-term security implications of reactions from the ground that could deepen fault lines and create more tension, said Mr Shanmugam.

"The Government is neutral. We proactively accommodate the different groups, recognising their different histories and traditions and we make practical adjustments. On that basis, we take a practical approach to assess the impact on reaction of the different communities," he said.

Mr Shanmugam also noted that the Government has to assess the impact and reaction of the majority in the specific communities, to gauge where mainstream opinion lies.

"We cannot be directed by the viewpoint of a person or persons who is (or) are extremely sensitive. Our approach is guided by common sense."

He added that the "absolute" and "objective" approach to either ban or to allow everything would be undesirable.

"That brings us back to the pragmatic approach the Government takes as the only tenable one for our society," he said.

"It can be a bit messy, but it has worked so far with relative success and with a bit of give and take."

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