Laws against racist speech don't ban discussions on race, says Shanmugam

Laws against racist speech don't ban discussions on race, says Shanmugam

Shanmugam synagogue religious leaders ISA (4)
Minister K Shanmugam having a private discussion with Jewish and Muslim leaders at Maghain Aboth Synagogue on Mar 10, 2021. (Photo: Marcus Mark Ramos)

SINGAPORE: Singapore’s laws against racist speech do not prohibit commentary and sharing of opinions or experiences on race, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said on Monday (Jul 5).

He was responding to a parliamentary question by Member of Parliament Raeesah Khan (WP-Sengkang), who asked how the Government ensures laws against racist speech do not curtail “expressions of protest at injustice, social discontent or opposition”.

Ms Khan contextualised her question in light of Singapore's ratificaton of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which recommended that measures to monitor and combat racist speech should not be used as a pretext to curtail those expressions.

“The law does not prohibit speech on race which does not cross into hate speech, or racially derogatory speech. Neither does it prohibit commentary and sharing of opinions or experiences on race,” Mr Shanmugam said in a written reply.

“Members will know that on racial issues, a significant amount of discussion, commentary, sharing of experiences, and more, takes place, regularly.”

READ: 'Take the extra step' to make minorities feel comfortable, says Lawrence Wong in speech discussing racism in Singapore

Despite that, Mr Shanmugam said the Government, under the Penal Code, takes a strict approach to offensive speech across all races to give greater protection to minorities and make it safe for them to speak about their views and experiences.

Mr Shanmugam also asked Ms Raeesah to clarify her question, saying it was not clear if she was suggesting that "whenever anyone claims to be protesting at injustice, expressing social discontent, or speaking in opposition", then the person should be exempted from the laws against hate speech and be allowed to engage in hate or offensive speech.

In a situation where racially offensive speech by all is tolerated or allowed, and both majority and minority communities engage in such speech, Mr Shanmugam said it is expected that more of such speech will be directed towards minority communities.

“And it will be the minority communities who will then bear the brunt of such offensive speech. That will ironically reduce the safe space for discussion of such issues, and increase minority community concerns for safety and security,” he said.

Mr Shanmugam said this has happened in other countries, pointing out that the Government needs to be careful about changing what has worked “reasonably well” but not perfectly in Singapore, and replacing it with policies that have not worked so well in other places.

“Our laws are the subject of scrutiny in Parliament, and enforcement of the laws is done through the courts,” he said.

The CERD committee is of the view that protection of persons from racist hate speech is not incompatible and is not “simply one of opposition” with the freedom of expression, Mr Shanmugam continued.

The committee’s recommendation also emphasises that legislation against racial discrimination is “indispensable” to combating hate speech effectively, he said.

“These views of the CERD committee are consistent with our approach,” he added.

Source: CNA/hz(ac)

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