SINGAPORE - While the Republic guards against a viral Covid-19 pandemic, it is more important to guard against the virality of hate and xenophobia.
And with racist behaviour precipitated by the ongoing public health crisis, Singaporeans must take a firm stand against hate speech and crimes as one united people - and not take for granted the overall peace and harmony enjoyed by the country today.
Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth Alvin Tan laid this out on Tuesday (May 11) as he responded to questions in Parliament from MP Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson) on Singapore's response to the rising number of anti-Asian crimes globally since the start of the pandemic.
Calling the spate of attacks overseas "troubling", Mr Tan said: "As a multiracial and multi-religious country, we denounce all forms of racism, irrespective of which ethnic community is being targeted, and wherever in the world it may take place.
"Hate crimes and speech fracture our society and threaten the harmony that we worked hard over generations to build."
He added: "Repeated exposure to hate crimes and speech deepens feelings of prejudice and distrust, and sows discord between different communities. It can also desensitise individuals and normalise unacceptable behaviour."
Mr Tan and Ms Tin both referred to two recent incidents in Singapore: One involved a family of Indian expatriates in Pasir Ris accused of "spreading the virus here" and told to "go back"; the other saw a 55-year-old Indian Singaporean woman subjected to racial slurs and kicked in the chest for not wearing her mask above her nose while brisk walking in Choa Chu Kang.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and other ministers have denounced the latter case, which police are investigating.
Ms Tin pointed out that while these were very public cases, there might be other more subtle but no less damaging instances.
Mr Tan said these incidents were symptomatic of how Covid-19 has exacerbated feelings of distrust and insecurity over jobs and health.
He outlined how Singapore deters hate crimes and speech while strengthening societal cohesion.
First, through laws that prohibit and punish hate speech, and bring to justice anyone who threatens to undermine racial and religious harmony in the country.
Under the Penal Code, it is an offence to utter words, make gestures to, or place any object in sight of a person, with deliberate intent to wound their religious or racial feelings.
Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion or race, or committing acts that are prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony could also lead to a jail term of up to three years, a fine or both.
Beyond legal enforcement, there is the role of public discourse to promote mutual understanding and respect.
Mr Tan pointed to several moves taken on this front such as his ministry's 2017 Bridge (Broadening Religious and Racial Interaction through Dialogue and General Education) initiative, its Mission:Unite hackathon in November last year and the Regardless of Race dialogue series organised by OnePeople.sg.
"These are driven by community partners which provide safe spaces and opportunities for dialogue and mutual learning, and are supported by the Government," he said. "Over the years, we've seen how these programmes bring different communities together to candidly and respectfully discuss sensitive issues of race and religion."
Finally, amid an increasingly fragmented and polarised world, there are efforts to grow the common space and provide opportunities for Singaporeans to interact meaningfully, said Mr Tan.
He cited events by the People's Association, Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles, and arts, heritage and sports organisations to bring people of diverse backgrounds together.
Also part of the picture is the Singapore Together movement, started in 2019, to get Singaporeans involved in policymaking, with about 20 Alliances for Action formed under its umbrella. These are cross-sector collaborations to tackle complex issues, and include one on emerging needs and volunteerism.
Mr Tan described such community and social aspects as even more important than the rule of law.
"It's a work in progress since the founding of our nation," he said. "While Covid-19 has taught us to social-distance, we must make sure that we do not socially distance from our different races and our different religions, but we bring people closer together against the forces that threaten to pull us apart."