Parliament: Singapore prepared to 'err on the side of caution' to preserve racial harmony, says Shanmugam

Spectators at the National Day Parade. Mr K. Shanmugam said Singapore's racial and religious harmony "didn't fall ready-made from the sky" but was engineered over many decades, and that multiracial meritocracy was not unassailable. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Hate speech has travelled faster and further because of social media, and Singapore needs to do more to deal with it, as social media companies have proved unable or unwilling to do so, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said on Monday (April 1).

Addressing Parliament in a ministerial statement on restricting hate speech for racial and religious harmony, Mr Shanmugam added that the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill is one step, but further steps must be taken.

Social media platforms have not taken real responsibility for the content circulating on their platforms, he said.

"They earn money by advertising. The more eyeballs, the better," he added. "Using algorithms, they can deliver news reports that are likely to elicit outrage and responses."

He gave the example of how Facebook failed to quickly shut down and remove the live stream of the recent Christchurch shootings, and how the video was also circulated widely on WhatsApp. Facebook owns the WhatsApp messaging service.

Rounding up his speech, Mr Shanmugam spoke on how Singapore has consistently strived to preserve racial and religious harmony.

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On the spectrum of race and religious relations, he said it is in the "positive part of the spectrum" because of the way it has structured its legal and social framework.

This includes ethnic quotas for housing to prevent racial enclaves, the Group Representation Constituency system to ensure minority representation in Parliament, and protection of minorities written in the country's Constitution.

"Our current racial and religious harmony didn't fall ready-made from the sky. It is not part of the 'natural order' of things," Mr Shanmugam said. "There is nothing 'natural' about it. We engineered this over many decades. People accuse us of 'social engineering'. So what?"

Unlike most other countries in Asia, Singapore is organised horizontally with equality between the various races and religions, he said.

"If anything, we are prepared to err on the side of caution - and risk overreacting to preserve harmony, rather than take chances - and risk explosions," he added.

"We are only 54 years old - multiracial meritocracy is unique, but not yet so deeply embedded to be unassailable."

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