No ban on things just because some people find them offensive: Shanmugam

A list of four songs with offensive lyrics handed out in Parliament included pop hits like Ariana Grande's God Is A Woman and Lady Gaga's Judas.
A list of four songs with offensive lyrics handed out in Parliament included pop hits like Ariana Grande's God Is A Woman and Lady Gaga's Judas. PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - People may find many things offensive but that does not mean the Government will ban all of them, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam on Tuesday (April 2).

He was responding to a Facebook post by Workers' Party MP Chen Show Mao which gave some people the impression that certain songs with offensive lyrics would be banned.

"People who did not listen to the speech may misunderstand that the list contains songs which have been banned or are going to be banned. All of that is untrue," said Mr Shanmugam, who on Monday gave a 90-minute ministerial statement in Parliament on restricting hate speech to maintain racial and religious harmony in Singapore.

Mr Chen, an MP for Aljunied GRC, had posted a picture of a list of four songs with offensive lyrics, handed out in Parliament on Monday, with the caption: "Lesson of the day. Ministerial handouts."

The songs included pop hits like Ariana Grande's God Is A Woman and Lady Gaga's Judas. Heresy by rock band Nine Inch Nails and Take Me To Church by Irish musician Hozier were also on the list.

Mr Shanmugam said the list was meant to illustrate what people might find offensive. "Doesn't mean that it can all get banned, just because some people find it offensive," he said.

On Tuesday evening, Mr Chen responded to say the illustration of the offensive lyrics raised several questions.

"Should we allow unrestricted offensive speech in general mainstream discourse, in religion, politics, media and entertainment, even if it is not hate speech?" he wrote. "If we agree that there have to be restrictions on offensive speech even when it is not strictly speaking hate speech, what should be the extent of the restrictions?"

 
 
 
 

Institute of Policy Studies senior research fellow Mathew Mathews noted that there are different degrees of offensiveness.

"A fair number of Christians have come to accept that some artistic expressions may ridicule some aspects of their faith," he said. "They probably are not happy with that but have come to expect and accept that. But there will certainly be art forms which are deeply offensive."

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan added: "What is offensive to one person may not be offensive to another. But the Government is signalling that there should instead be a focus on responsible speech, given our social make-up."

In his speech in Parliament, Mr Shanmugam said words are just one of the criteria the authorities look at when assessing potentially offensive speech. They also consider who is speaking, where it is being delivered and the reach.

"It has more salience, for example, if it was said from the pulpit (or) at an election rally," he said. "There is a difference between saying it to 50 people in a private setting compared to publicising it generally."

He added: "We have to assess where the weight of mainstream opinion lies. And we cannot be directed by the viewpoint of a person or persons who are extremely sensitive."