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Commentary: ‘Softer’ approach with moral suasion better at dismantling racist mindsets

The law can only go so far in managing the emotive issue of race relations in Singapore. IPS’ Mathew Matthews and Melvin Tay explain why moral suasion is a key new plank that will work better.

Commentary: ‘Softer’ approach with moral suasion better at dismantling racist mindsets

A photo of injuries sustained by Mdm Hindocha Nita Vishnubhai on May 7, 2021 (left) and a screengrab of a man telling off Mr Dave Parkash. (Photo: Parveen Kaur; Screengrab: Facebook/Dave Parkash)

SINGAPORE: The announcement of the new Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the National Day Rally (NDR) signals a shifting of gears in managing Singapore’s race relations.

While the Act consolidates the state’s legislative instruments in dealing with issues of race, of particular significance are its “softer, gentler touches” as PM Lee termed.

These enable the state to compel offending individuals to cease communicating or acting in a manner potentially jeopardising racial harmony.

But more importantly, there will be provisions for those who breach the law to mend ties with aggrieved communities by learning more about them, proffer apologies and cultivate understanding.


This move to codify softer approaches to managing race relations is a paradigm shift from that of yesteryears.

Since Singapore’s independence, although inter-religious and inter-racial closed door dialogues dot the landscape, an array of robust legal implements has been the centrepiece of state policy to cultivate a harmonious social fabric.

Hard legislation such as the Sedition Act and Section 298A of the Penal Code (where any expression or act that potentially offends anyone of a particular race or religion can result in a conviction) coupled with active enforcement are seen as essential to preserving the peace.

They discourage individuals from racially inflammatory acts. Offenders face a penalty of up to three years imprisonment and an unspecified fine.

Students seen in their ethnic wear during the Racial Harmony Day celebrations at Townsville Primary School on Jul 21, 2016. (Photo: TODAY)

A number of cases in recent months involving racist remarks hurled at a hospital nurse, a supermarket cashier, a bus passenger, as well as a Twitter parody account have resulted in jail terms being slapped for offensive statements. Several others have also received fines and stern warnings previously.

Such a strategy is effective insofar as it largely deters blatant acts of racism or religious discrimination in public settings. Its efficacy is evident by how our diverse communities have co-existed peacefully for over half a century despite such incidents cropping up from time to time.

Nonetheless, this approach has its downsides. First, the broad scope of such legislation and strict policing of racial and religious issues can result in an unintended but significant chilling effect on public engagement through framing such issues as matters of crime and punishment.

Reliance on policing and enforcement as main mechanisms to keep the peace shifts attention away from efforts to identify the root cause of any injustices felt, clarify such issues and forestall similar sentiments in future.

Second, merely witnessing the law brought to bear on perpetrators of racism provides scant resolution for transgressors, aggrieved parties and bystanders alike.

For communities on the receiving end of prejudice, there is no guarantee punishment will induce remorse, reflection, and resolve on the part of wrongdoers to set things right; even if it may be immediately gratifying when the perpetrator is taken to task.

In some instances, it may instead strengthen problematic attitudes or beliefs. Individuals on the receiving end of warnings, jail time or financial penalties may well be angered, even resentful – especially if there is no concurrent effort to engage them, shed light on and debunk the logic motivating their behaviour.

Delving into the reasons behind bad behaviour, enabling engagement between invested individuals with distinct perspectives, and rehabilitating wrongdoers are equally, if not more important in securing a long-term resolution.

To be clear, this does not detract from the need to mete consequences for bad behaviour. Hence our current legislative arsenal should be continually fortified. But we must do more than just defining right and wrong with law.


One may refrain from passing racist remarks in public for fear of the potential consequences – such as legal penalties or being “cancelled” on social media.

However, this does not do much to convince individuals to actively check their biases undergirding actions. Innate attitudes and beliefs drive overt actions and behaviours.

Rather than rely solely on the stick of the law, we should also focus on moulding mindsets to enhance public understanding of race relations and encourage individuals to act responsibly.

Against the backdrop of increasing polarisation and a plurality of perspectives globally on identity issues, the need to shape mindsets, promote engagement between individuals with diverse views, and enhance inclusivity has become ever more critical.

For those who have erred unwittingly or otherwise, a sense of self-awareness and openness can aid them to acknowledge responsibility and make amends.

These preventive approaches often yield more durable and long-lasting positive impacts relative to the reactive threat of punishment.

In a recent incident involving a polytechnic lecturer levelling racist remarks at an interracial couple in public, the lecturer has since apologised to the couple and the wider community. This is a first step signalling the transgressor understands the error of his ways and acknowledges the hurt caused.

Listen to Mathew Mathews and other observers discuss what young people in Singapore want out of conversations regarding race on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast

Certainly, apologies or acts of remorse may well be undertaken solely to avoid further punishment. But it goes some way to effect healing for aggrieved parties and opens up possibilities for further meaningful engagement.

Moral suasion is additionally a robust response to the limits of legislation. Laws must be constantly updated in line with new avenues of interaction, online or otherwise, to effectively tackle acts inimical to racial harmony.

Shifting notions of what is socially acceptable over time must also be considered in strengthening legislation. Some actions we consider racist today may not have been perceived similarly in the past.

A few decades ago, wearing facial makeup to depict characters of other races on TV or the silver screen might have been par for the course in eliciting humour. 

Today, with an enhanced understanding of the offence and upset such portrayals engender across various country contexts, blackface or brownface is at best controversial, and at worst, reprehensible, across age cohorts.

Against this backdrop, a focus on cultivating empathy and understanding encourages individuals to conduct themselves virtuously regardless of circumstances or the threat of punishment.

Of course, influencing “hearts and minds” is undeniably a far harder task than checking undesirable behaviour through fear of repercussions. This quest has to be attempted from an early stage, with the role of families and schools critical in inculcating the right values from the start.

President Halimah Yacob waves at the National Day parade at the Marina Bay floating platform on Aug 21, 2021. (Photo: Marcus Mark Ramos)


Our approach to managing race should be one where people feel comfortable enough to embark on candid discussions; yet are cognisant of sensitivities. This can be done by encouraging meaningful interactions and augmenting the common space.

Such engagements will not come easy. It will almost certainly result in tension, frayed nerves and offence on occasion.

It is unrealistic to expect everyone to coherently and dispassionately engage with each other, given how many of us are emotionally invested in, or have lived experiences different from others that shape our views especially for minorities, who expectedly face more challenges in their daily lives.

Yet our natural defensiveness when airing diametrically opposed viewpoints will require skilled, tactful engagement.

For instance, highly personal interactions that can result in visceral emotions, should be held in closed-door settings and ground rules set to ensure all in attendance strive to listen with empathy and withhold judgment.

This should be done with the intent to protect individuals sharing their views from unwanted and unwarranted scrutiny or mischief – from those not privy to context and insidious actors.

Where engagement leads to unintentional offence, we should seek to be more forgiving and empathetic, as opposed to apportioning blame, imposing penance and demanding redress.

Engagement aside, the Government’s refreshed approach to managing race relations may also entail a comprehensive review of the effectiveness of prevailing policies including the CMIO classification, the Ethnic Integration Policy and the role of self-help groups - key planks in how we have dealt with race for decades.

The intention to adjust these, however, should be done carefully. Perhaps with time, as common spaces become wider, we can review these racial harmony workhorses.

The policy change announced during NDR on wearing the tudung in the public health sector is a good first step in illustrating the calibrated approach the Government is taking in ensuring inclusivity.

A commitment to see through the above will enable Singapore to remain socially cohesive, while continuing to reap the benefits of a diverse population.

Mathew Mathews is Head of the Social Lab and Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore. Melvin Tay is Research Associate at the IPS.

Source: CNA/cr


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