The cartoonists of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo would have been told to stop publishing their works had they been in Singapore, and if they had continued, they would have been arrested, Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.
He made the point when emphasising that Singapore does not allow any religious group to be insulted or attacked.
"The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, if they were here, they would have been told to stop. If they didn't stop, ISD (Internal Security Department) would visit them and they would have been arrested.
"We believe that we can build a multi-religious, multiracial society based on trust, and only by taking a firm stance against hate speech and dealing with all communities equally and fairly," he added.
Mr Shanmugam, who is also Law Minister, was speaking at a seminar of the Religious Rehabilitation Group, held at Khadijah Mosque in Geylang.
He said that in France, secularism means the government will not intervene in religious matters or stop publications that attack religions. Freedom of speech in France is "quite absolute", to the extent that it even includes the right to blaspheme, he added.
But this did not happen overnight, said the minister.
He recounted how the Church was extremely powerful in the Middle Ages, but the balance shifted over the centuries. The principles of separation of state and religion and secularity of the state gradually developed.
At the same time, France faced greater immigration post-World War II. But the French government did not engage in any active efforts to integrate the new immigrants, nor did it look at whether its approach needed to be reconsidered in the light of the changing demographics of the population.
The result, when the state takes a hands-off approach, is that publications like Charlie Hebdo can publish "repulsive, highly offensive" cartoons and articles on religions in the name of free speech, he said, adding that this was something he could not accept.
France will have to find a way to bridge the gulf between its principles of secularism and freedom, and the expectations and beliefs of its people who do not accept that their religions should be offensively caricatured, he said.
He acknowledged the debates in Singapore that ask why the Government is not allowing free speech and being defensive on issues of race and religion.
"Because if we take a hands-off approach, then people will say since the Government won't do something, I will do something, and people are going to be upset with each other. The national harmony will be affected, and the majority of people will be affected."
Lim Min Zhang