Police probe Facebook post linking holy texts, toilet paper

It's very offensive, says minister; social media platform blocks S'pore users' access to post

Access to a post deemed offensive to Muslims and Christians has been blocked by Facebook for Singapore users, and the police are now investigating, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday.

Describing the post as "very offensive" to the two religious communities, Mr Shanmugam said on his own Facebook page that the authorities asked the social media platform to disable access to the post here. "We take a serious view of these type of statements," he said. "We highlighted how such offensive remarks have no place in multiracial and multi-religious Singapore."

On Wednesday, the Facebook page named NUS Atheist Society had posted an image of the Bible and Quran, which are holy texts in Christianity and Islam respectively. An accompanying caption read: "For use during toilet paper shortages."

Separately, the page yesterday posted an image of what appears to be a message from Facebook sent at about 10.40am, indicating that access to the page's offending post had been limited in Singapore due to "local legal restrictions".

In a statement the same day, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said it received a number of complaints about the post.

"(Police) would like to remind members of the public to be mindful when participating in online discussions, and not post any remarks which are prejudicial to the maintenance of racial and religious harmony in Singapore," MHA said. "Online hate speech on race and religion has no place in Singapore."

In a statement on its official Facebook page, the National University of Singapore (NUS) said it is not linked to the NUS Atheist Society or its Facebook page, and the page's contents "do not represent the views, opinions and position" of the university.

NUS added that it had asked Facebook to look into the account's legitimacy on Thursday, as well as last year, but the social media site said the content was not likely to confuse people and it was not able to take action. NUS said it would continue pressing Facebook to get the page to drop all references to NUS.

Before it was blocked to Singapore users, the offending post was criticised by several people on Facebook in their comments.

User Christopher Njo said the page had crossed a line with something that many people treat as holy and sacred, and said he hoped Facebook would remove the post. "It is ignorant and insensitive people like you who cause unnecessary tensions and problems," he said.

Another commenter Alex Lin said the post was inciting hatred.

In a post providing more information on the group dated December 2015, the page, which has about 1,000 followers, said there is no official atheist group in NUS.

It also made reference to Christopher Hitchens, the late prominent British-American intellectual who wrote, among other works, the book God Is Not Great.

The 2015 post also said: "We are open to all who do not profess any belief in gods, as well as to those who are uncertain about their beliefs in the supernatural and wish to hear our side of the argument."

In a statement on its website, the Humanist Society (Singapore) said the post was "neither reasoned nor compassionate" and unhelpful given Covid-19, which affects all regardless of race or religion.

"We would like to encourage productive and rational dialogue during this crisis. We should focus on disseminating facts, providing comfort, and promoting public unity amidst the pandemic."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2020, with the headline 'Police probe Facebook post linking holy texts, toilet paper'. Print Edition | Subscribe