Racially offensive speech no, race discussion yes, says Shanmugam as he seeks clarification from Raeesah Khan

The approach gives greater protection for minorities by making it safe for them to speak about their experiences, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam.
PHOTO: The Straits Times file

SINGAPORE - Singapore's approach, in strictly prohibiting offensive speech on race, but not the sharing of opinions on these matters, gives greater protection for minorities by making it safe for them to speak about their experiences, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam on Monday (July 5).

He added that if racially offensive speech by all is tolerated or allowed, it can be expected that more of such speech will be directed towards minority communities, who will then bear the brunt of it.

Mr Shanmugam was replying to Ms Raeesah Khan (Sengkang GRC), who had asked if laws against racist hate speech here are consistent with recommendations by the United Nations that state how measures to combat racist speech should not be used as a pretext to curtail expressions of protest.

Singapore's laws against racist hate and offensive speech are consistent with these recommendations, said the minister.

He said that under the Penal Code, it is an offence to commit acts that deliberately wound the racial feelings of any person, promote enmity between different racial groups, or conduct acts that are prejudicial to the maintenance of racial harmony.

"These laws apply equally to everyone, regardless of race," said Mr Shanmugam. He shared two incidents when such laws were used.

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In the first, in January 2019, a Chinese man was charged under the Penal Code for deliberately intending to wound the racial feelings of the Malay population. The man had scrawled racist messages about Malays on walls in void decks and sheltered walkways in Geylang and Aljunied.

In the second, in June 2020, a Malay man who used a Twitter account with a Chinese name "@sharonliew86" to make racist remarks against people of different races was similarly charged.

While noting that a significant amount of discussion, commentary and sharing of experiences on race takes place, Mr Shanmugam said that Singapore takes a strict approach to offensive speech and hate speech.

This approach applies equally to all, regardless of majority or minority, which he said gives greater protection for minorities by making it safe for them to speak about their experiences, and to give their views.

Should racially offensive speech be tolerated or allowed, more of such speech will likely be directed towards minority communities, added Mr Shanmugam.

"That will ironically reduce the safe space for discussion of such issues, and increase minority community concerns for safety and security. These are not hypotheticals. This is what has happened in several other countries," he said.

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"We need to be careful about changing what has worked reasonably well in Singapore (though it is not perfect), and replacing it with policies which have not worked so well, in other places."

In his reply, Mr Shanmugam also noted that the UN recommendations have similarly taken the view that the protection of people from racist hate speech is not incompatible and is not "simply one of opposition" against the freedom of expression.

The minister added that is not clear in Ms Raeesah's question if she is suggesting that whenever anyone claims to be protesting against "injustice, expressing social discontent, or speaking in opposition", they should be exempted from the Penal Code and be allowed to engage in hate or offensive speech.

The Ministry of Home Affairs has invited her to clarify this, said Mr Shanmugam.

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.