Parliament: Singapore prepared to err on side of caution: Shanmugam

Law And Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam
Law And Home Affairs Minister K. ShanmugamPHOTO: GOV.SG

Minister outlines Republic's approach to preserving racial harmony and tackling hate speech

Singapore is prepared to err on the side of caution to preserve racial harmony, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, stressing that good relations among different communities in Singapore "didn't fall ready-made from the sky".

"There is nothing natural about it. We engineered this over many decades," he told Parliament yesterday in a 90-minute ministerial statement on Singapore's approach to tackling hate speech.

"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 traced the smooth ties among Singaporeans to the country's founding leaders, recounting how they were determined for Singapore to be a multiracial, multi-religious society organised horizontally - in which all races and religions are treated equally and on the same level.

"Our uniqueness in this respect should not be underestimated. Equality of races and religions is not the natural order of things; it has to be defended," he said.

Mr Shanmugam quoted founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who had said: "This will not be a Chinese nation, not a Malay nation, not an Indian nation."

The late Mr Lee, reflecting in a New York Times interview, said in 2010: "I believe (our younger generation) has come to believe that this is a natural state of affairs... They think you can put it on auto-pilot. I know that this is never so."

He urged Singaporeans to heed Mr Lee's warning, saying: "What we have in Singapore is precious, hard fought."

In his speech, the minister also dwelt on Singapore's approach to secularism and set out his decision to cancel black metal band Watain's local concert.

Setting out the effects of hate speech, Mr Shanmugam said it "disengages" morality and dehumanises its victims.

Once normalised, such mindsets are hard to reverse and result in deep social divides.

Although offensive speech may not veer into the territory of hate speech, it can have the same impact in the long run. In fact, it can be even more insidious as people are "drip-fed" such harmful notions.

 
 
 

He highlighted how some comedians use racist caricatures in their skits, and recounted a woman making disparaging comments about Malay weddings at void decks. "If we normalise offensive speech, after a while, the tone and texture of public discourse will change."

Turning to the Singapore brand of secularism, he said the Government does not take a hands-off approach on matters of race and religion. It actively works to foster good relations among different communities from a practical, nuanced and neutral position.

This sets it apart from countries like France, where secularism means the state will not interfere in religious matters and people can publish material that vilifies any religion, Mr Shanmugam said.

"Why should that right to publish override the right of a religious group not to have its texts, beliefs, practices ridiculed?" he asked. "What about obligations of citizens to preserve harmony and unity?"

When deciding on such issues, the Government assesses the reaction of the majority in the affected community, the security implications of that opinion, and where the weight of mainstream opinion lies.

On the Watain ban, Mr Shanmugam quoted an interview with the band's frontman Erik Danielsson, who had said: "I totally encourage any kind of terrorist acts committed in the name of Watain... That is the way rock and roll works."

Critics of the Watain ban had hit out at the Government's "self-righteous" behaviour, with some saying people can listen to the band without being influenced by its beliefs, and churches can urge their members not to attend such concerts.

Seen in isolation, these are valid points, Mr Shanmugam said, adding that Singaporeans should look at the bigger picture.

If the Watain concert got the go-ahead, the Government would have to permit future shows with similar themes.

Over time, this could deepen racial and religious faultlines and normalise hate speech, he said.

 
 

He also dismissed online comments suggesting a "Christian conspiracy" influenced the Government's decision, and that Christians are over-represented in institutions of power.

"They tried to turn it into a 'Christian versus others' debate. These people are nasty, opportunistic and dangerous," he said. "No one, Christian or otherwise, influenced me. I am not a Christian. I also decided to ban two Christian preachers in 2017. So, what does one make of that?"

He added in his closing speech that one of the risks of a weak political leadership is it seeks favours from specific religious groups, warning that this approach "will lead to disaster".

"So, many governments, both in this region and outside, have gone down that route. It is one of the easiest ways to get votes," he said. "You really need a strong political leadership which is fair between the different religions."

Mr Shanmugam also said hate speech has travelled faster and farther because of social media, and Singapore needs to do more to deal with it as social media platforms are unable or unwilling to do so.

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill is one step, but further steps must be taken, he added.

In all, 16 MPs spoke after his speech, with some such as Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC) and Nominated MP Walter Theseira asking about the grey areas where offensive speech is concerned.

"It is inevitable that one man's belief or culture, when put into the public sphere, may give offence to another," Dr Theseira said, citing how the consumption of specified food may be normal for one religious group but offensive to others.

Ms Phua added: "Where is the line between public discourse and platforms like private WhatsApp group chats?"

Yesterday, the House observed a minute of silence to remember the victims of the attacks on two New Zealand mosques last month.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2019, with the headline 'Singapore prepared to err on side of caution: Shanmugam'. Print Edition | Subscribe