Parliament: Hate speech may be handled differently elsewhere, but Singapore must be strict on it, says Shanmugam

It is only when a country is clear and has firm laws prohibiting hate speech, and deals fairly with all the communities, that it can start building a multi-religious and harmonious society, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - Hate speech is prohibited here and Singapore adopts a strict approach and takes quick action against it, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam.

While this approach has been criticised and Singapore has been told to learn from the United States and the United Kingdom as the "gold standard for free speech", Mr Shanmugam said the Republic has chosen another path.

"Their experiences suggest that serious consequences can follow when you are lax about hate speech," he noted during his ministerial statement on hate speech in Parliament on Monday (April 1).

Singapore recognises that race and religion are "fault lines" and "gut issues", which can be very emotive, and that the potential for violence increases when people feel their race or religion is under attack, he said.

It is only when a country is clear and has firm laws prohibiting hate speech, and deals fairly with all the communities, that it can start building a multi-religious and harmonious society, he said.

During the speech, Mr Shanmugam cited the ways other countries have dealt with hate speech and its consequences.

The US, where hate speech is prohibited only if it is likely to lead to imminent lawless action, has a "high threshold", he said.

He noted that this has allowed inflammatory speeches that are anti-Semitic and denigrate certain groups and religions to be protected.

He cited the example of US Congressman Steve King, who had praised Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders. The latter had called for the closure of mosques in the Netherlands, insulted the Prophet Muhammad, and said the Quran is worse than the Mein Kampf, dictator Adolf Hitler's manifesto.

Over in Europe, some countries have broader prohibitions. However, the restrictions vary, said Mr Shanmugam.

He cited a decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) last year that ruled that the conviction of an Austrian woman for calling the Prophet Muhammad a paedophile did not violate her freedom of expression.

The ECHR ruled that the Austrian court had balanced the applicant's right to freedom of expression with the right of others to have their religious feelings protected.

In Germany, its Criminal Code prohibits the incitement of hatred against or insult of a racial or religious group. The same section also criminalises the glorification of Nazi rule.

In the UK, it is a crime to incite hatred on the grounds of religion. However, it is permissible to ridicule, insult or abuse any religion, belief, practice and its followers.

It was reported in 2018 by the UK media that more than 25 per cent of Britons - more than 12 million people - had witnessed hate speech. The majority of the cases happened on social media and involved anti-immigrant or anti-refugee language, racist abuse or anti-Muslim comments.

"The UK now finds itself fighting on two fronts: against right-wing extremists and Islamic extremists," said Mr Shanmugam.

He noted that the UK's lax approach to hate speech attracted those like radical cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri, who in his sermons described Jews as the enemy of Islam. He also said the UK's free speech ideology has fostered an environment where hate built up.

In Singapore, race and religion still play a large role in the personal decisions of Singaporeans, according to a survey conducted in 2016.

Hate speech is prohibited and quick action is taken against it, the minister said. The Internal Security Department (ISD) will also take action, depending on the severity of what was said and the possible consequences, Mr Shanmugam added.

This approach was conceptualised and crystallised by founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who had said that "no amount of troops would be able to stop the trouble if there was real hatred between the different communities", said Mr Shanmugam.

"I think, I hope, there will be agreement in this House that hate speech, whatever form it takes... will be unacceptable. And that we should continue to prohibit hate speech and deal with it firmly, in the way we have done so far."

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