Why offensive speech needs to be curbed

Offensive speech overlaps with hate speech and, if normalised, can change the nature of public discourse, said Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday.

Explaining why offensive speech, while not hate speech, needed to be restricted, he said normalising the former could in the long run result in the same outcomes as hate speech, creating an environment conducive for discrimination and violence.

"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?"

Singapore's position to offensive speech has been practical and nuanced, Mr Shanmugam said in a ministerial statement on hate speech.

"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 Sedition Act tackle offensive speech. Singapore bases its assessment on factors like how offensive the words are and their likely impact on the feelings of the targeted groups.

In regulating offensive speech, assessments are made on whether the words are 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 religious communities here. In 2015 and 2016, Mr Yee was convicted of hate speech against Christians and Muslims.

Another factor to consider was the likely impact of the offensive speech. This could include the prominence of the speaker or his platform. 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 are also considered.

 
 
 
 

Another consideration to note was that followers of different religions react differently, he added.

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," he said. "On that basis, we take a practical approach to assess the impact on reaction of the different communities."

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."

Tan Tam Mei

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2019, with the headline 'Why offensive speech needs to be curbed'. Print Edition | Subscribe