NDR 2021: New law to deal with racial offences, promote harmony through softer approach

The law will vest authorities with powers to order someone who has caused offence to stop and make amends by learning more about the other race.
The law will vest authorities with powers to order someone who has caused offence to stop and make amends by learning more about the other race.ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - Singapore will introduce a new law on racial harmony to encourage moderation and tolerance between different racial groups, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday (Aug 29).

The new Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act will consolidate all existing laws dealing with racial issues, which are currently scattered under various pieces of legislation, such as the Penal Code.

Apart from providing for punishments to deal with racial offences, the new law will also incorporate "softer and gentler touches" that focus on persuasion and rehabilitation.

For instance, it will vest the authorities with powers to order someone who has caused offence to stop and make amends by learning more about the other race.

This softer approach will help to heal hurt and mend ties between races, rather than leaving resentment in the wake of such incidents, PM Lee said.

The Prime Minister devoted a third of his National Day Rally to the topic of race and religion, noting that race relations have come under stress during the Covid-19 pandemic.

While the real solution to racism is to change attitudes, which takes time and effort, legislation can play a role, he said.

"Laws may not, by themselves, make people get along with one another or like one another," PM Lee noted. "But laws can signal what our society considers right or wrong, and nudge people over time to behave better."

He pointed to the existing Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, which the new law will be modelled on.

The law has never been used since it came into effect in 1992. But its very existence has helped to restrain intolerance and promote religious harmony, he said.

Similarly, the new law on racial harmony will signal the "overriding importance" of this issue to Singapore society, he added.

In his speech, PM Lee made reference to several recent high-profile racist incidents, noting several of these have targeted Indians.

There are two reasons for this, he surmised. One could be the large number of Indian work pass holders in Singapore, while the other could be linked to the Delta variant of Covid-19, which first emerged in India.

But it is illogical to blame these issues on Indians and let these frustrations impact racial harmony, PM Lee said.

"Just as it is illogical to blame the Alpha variant on the English, the KTV cluster on the Vietnamese, or the initial outbreak in Wuhan on the Chinese," he added.

"We must address the real issues - manage the work pass numbers and concentrations, and improve our border health safeguards."

While these racist incidents are a reminder of the fragility of Singapore's harmony, they do not negate the country's multiracial approach which has worked well, he said, adding that racial harmony did not happen spontaneously here.

He outlined how Singapore has worked hard to achieve the current delicate balance, where people of different races and faiths live peacefully together.

Even so, racial harmony is still a work in progress and will be for a long time, PM Lee said. He noted that everyone retains racial or religious preferences, which are natural in every society.

"But sometimes, it goes beyond racial and cultural preferences to become biases and prejudices. Then it is a problem," he said.

He gave the example of job advertisements which require Chinese speakers even though it is not clear that this is a genuine job necessity. He also cited individuals who are rejected for rentals after property agents find out they are not Chinese.

People from minority groups experience these things more acutely because they are the ones most affected by such racial discrimination, PM Lee said.

"They feel angry, hurt, disappointed that the words in our National Pledge are still an aspiration, still not fully achieved," he added.

"I know it is harder to belong to a minority race than to the majority. And this is true in every multiracial society, but it does not mean that we have to accept this state of affairs in Singapore."

This is why Singapore must keep working at the issue, PM Lee stressed.

The majority must be more sensitive to minority concerns, while individuals must also have the moral courage to take a stand against racist behaviour, he said.

This means expressing clear disapproval of racist incidents, and also calling out deliberate racist agitation that masquerades as something else.

The campaign against the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement with India (Ceca), for instance, claimed to be about putting Singaporeans first but had a strong racial undertone, PM Lee said.

The new Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act is part of keeping Singapore’s policies on race and religion up to date, PM Lee said, noting that racial and religious harmony is dynamic.

Societal views and beliefs shift over time, with each new generation holding different perspectives on racial issues.

Older Singaporeans who lived through the racial riots that marked Singapore’s journey towards independence usually believe that such issues are best left alone.

“They think: Discussions can become disputes, disputes can become quarrels, better don’t talk about such things too much,” he said.

But younger Singaporeans, who have largely grown up in an environment of peace and harmony, think differently.

They believe that as the country is now mature and stable, issues of race and religion must now be discussed more openly, and existing policies and assumptions re-examined, to improve the status quo.

“These generational differences in views are perfectly understandable and should be accommodated,” he said.

The Prime Minister then turned his attention to how Singaporeans are influenced by external religious trends in a changing world. 

For instance, many Christians think of themselves as members of a worldwide communion, while Muslims consider themselves to be part of a global ummah, or community of believers.

“So when religious norms elsewhere shift, norms and practices in Singapore are also affected,” PM Lee said.

This is similar to how Singapore is exposed to, and subsequently influenced by, external political developments, he added. These include the Black Lives Matter movement in America, or the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza.

“Our own circumstances and context are completely different, and these are not our quarrels,” he noted. “But they do affect our people.”

Such changes are why Singapore needs to adjust its policies on race and religion from time to time. But it must do so based on its own needs, rather than simply reacting to trends abroad, PM Lee stressed.

And as it makes such changes, it must proceed with caution.  This is because race and religion will always be highly sensitive issues, he said. 

“We have to take the time to discuss respectfully, make sure everybody understands, and build a consensus before we make any move.”

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