SINGAPORE - Groups have been capitalising on Singaporeans' anxiety over jobs to fan the flames of xenophobia and racism, and such racist behaviour will become normalised if Singapore is not careful, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam.
Calling on "responsible" opposition parties to take a stand on the matter, he urged all members of the House to condemn racist behaviour in Singapore.
"The majority of Singaporeans are decent and not racist, but if we continue to fan the flames of racism, we will get to a more uncomfortable position," Mr Shanmugam said in Parliament on Tuesday (May 11).
"(Singapore) will fail if we allow racism and xenophobia to become prevalent, and it is contrary to everything that has made us successful and proud to be Singaporean."
Responding to Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) on the steps the Government will take to nip racism arising from the pandemic in the bud, he noted that a recent case of an alleged attack on a woman last Friday appears to be racist conduct, based on her account.
Madam Hindocha Nita Vishnubhai, 55, had been brisk walking towards Choa Chu Kang Stadium at about 8.30am last Friday when she had a run-in with a 30-year-old Chinese man.
He had shouted racial slurs at her for lowering her mask below her nose and kicked her in the chest, even though she told him that she was exercising.
Madam Nita suffered scratches on her arm and hands due to the incident. The private tutor, an Indian Singaporean, lodged a police report on Friday night. Police are investigating the case.
Mr Shanmugam said while racism has always existed in Singapore, like in other countries, such sentiments have been stoked lately, both locally and across the globe.
In the midst of the pandemic, Asians, particularly the Chinese, are being attacked in the United States, with the coronavirus described as the "Chinese virus" or the "Wuhan virus" - as if viruses have a nationality, he noted. "We condemn that. Equally, we have to condemn such behaviour in Singapore."
Singaporeans have legitimate concerns about foreigners taking over their jobs, which have been fuelled by unfair employment practices that favour hiring foreigners and discriminate against locals, among other things, he said.
"It is a minority who behave like this, but it naturally makes Singaporeans unhappy," he said, adding that the Government has taken steps to deal with such bad practices.
But he said parties in Singapore have also deliberately stoked these fears, much like what is seen in the US, by encouraging racism and xenophobia as well as engaging in "dog whistling" - the use of coded or suggestive language that seems innocent to a general audience to communicate something more insidious to a particular group.
"That is dangerous for Singapore. Because first, it'll be expat Indians. Then, it will come to Singaporean Indians... If we go down this route, eventually all Indians can be a target of hate," said Mr Shanmugam.
He noted that not everyone can distinguish between foreign-born Indians and Singaporean Indians, and that the woman who was allegedly attacked has been a citizen for 25 years.
His remarks came a day after multiple Cabinet ministers spoke out against the incident, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Flagging websites that deliberately fan racism, Mr Shanmugam said: "They are anti-Government, and that is perfectly okay. But don't play with race.
"Comments on these sites have Indians being called 'cockroaches', 'rapists', and so on. We should be ashamed that, in the name of free speech, we allow such comments," he said.
When such comments are called out, people cannot seek to justify them by pointing to government policies, the bad behaviour of a specific racial group or free trade agreements like the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca), he added.
The minister said there have been "several canards" about Ceca, adding: "If anyone here believes that Ceca is a problem, put it up for a motion, debate it openly, and let's hear whether Singaporeans benefit or lose from it."
At this point, he threw down the gauntlet to Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP): "I'm looking at you, Mr Leong. I invite you to put up a motion to debate Ceca. You know that most of what is said about Ceca is false."
In response, Mr Leong told Mr Shanmugam his party is "very interested to take up the Ceca issue at some point in time".
"However, I must state at the outset that PSP, and myself, is not being xenophobic. We are just stating the economic effects that some of these free trade agreements have had on our economy, the feedback gathered from many suffering Singaporeans," said Mr Leong.
The NCMP has raised the issue of foreign talent on multiple occasions in Parliament, and crossed swords with People's Action Party MPs - including over his remarks that DBS was "still without a home-grown CEO". The bank's current CEO, Mr Piyush Gupta, was born in India and became a Singapore citizen in 2009.
"We still need to know the situation better, but we are definitely not xenophobic, and definitely racism has no place in our overall thinking. It is all about economics, about livelihoods," added Mr Leong.
Leader of the Opposition and Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh later said the WP agrees with Mr Shanmugam's statement.
"There is no place for racism in Singapore - no ifs, no buts," Mr Singh said.