SINGAPORE: Singapore will fail if the country allows racism and xenophobia to become prevalent, said Minister for Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam on Tuesday (May 11).
Mr Shanmugam was responding in Parliament to a question from Mr Murali Pillai (PAP-Bukit Batok), who pointed to an incident last Friday when a 55-year-old woman of Indian descent had allegedly been kicked in the chest and subject to racial slurs for not wearing a mask while brisk walking.
The alleged assault - which is currently being investigated by the police - drew condemnation from several ministers, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who said it “goes against everything that our multiracial society stands for”.
Mr Murali asked Mr Shanmugam for his assessment of “the security situation arising from this racial incident connected with the pandemic”, and what steps the authorities would take to address the situation.
Noting investigations need to be done before conclusions can be drawn, the minister said the attack appeared to be racist based on the victim’s claims.
This was consistent with other cases of racism that had risen internationally amid the pandemic, he said, pointing to incidents in the United States where Asians - particularly Chinese - were attacked for supposedly spreading COVID-19.
Such behaviour should be condemned, said Mr Shanmugam.
Singapore has been able to manage racism and over time “sought to reduce it”, he said, though this has been stirred up recently.
“Around the world economic pressures have led to populism and the populists have been seeking political profit by exploiting people's fears over jobs and economic insecurity, blaming foreigners, blaming immigrants, for all of their country's problems,” he said.
While Singapore has avoided the worst of such populist attitudes, there are legitimate concerns about foreigners taking jobs from locals, said Mr Shanmugam.
These have been fuelled by unacceptable practices, he said.
“For example, unfair employment practices that favour hiring foreigners and discriminate against our locals. It is a minority who behave like this, but it naturally makes Singaporeans unhappy,” he said, adding that the Manpower Ministry has taken steps to deal with such practices.
On top of this, Mr Shanmugam said that certain parties - which he did not identify - had been “deliberately stoking the fears, encouraging racism and xenophobia, and dog whistling”, which is “dangerous for Singapore”.
“Because first, it will be the expat Indians. Then, it will come to Singaporean Indians,” he said, noting not all would be able to distinguish between Indians born in Singapore and those born overseas.
“The lady who was attacked has been a citizen for 25 years. If we go down this route, eventually all Indians can be a target of hate,” he said, suggesting this could create an “outgroup” based on race.
“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,” he said.
Mr Shanmugam pointed to certain websites which were anti-government - which he said was “perfectly okay” - but also deliberately fomented racism, with comments describing Indians as “cockroaches” and “rapists”.
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“We should be ashamed that in the name of free speech, we allow such comments,” he said.
“This bad behaviour and open expression of racism – I invite all here to condemn.”
Such racist behaviour cannot be justified by saying “the Indians are behaving badly” or blamed on Government policies such as the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), he said.
“There have been several canards about CECA, promoted by a whispering campaign,” he said, adding that any Members of Parliament who believed the agreement was a problem could put up a Motion for debate.
He singled out Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai, who had previously said he was “deeply disappointed” that DBS Bank did not have a “homegrown” chief executive and whose Progress Singapore Party (PSP) had called for agreements such as CECA to be reviewed.
“I am 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,” he said.
Racist comments could become normalised if the country is not careful, said Mr Shanmugam.
“I hope responsible opposition parties will take a stand on this, notwithstanding that many of these sites that promote xenophobia support you.”
Mr Leong later responded by saying neither he nor the PSP were xenophobic.
“We are just stating the economic effects (that) some of these free trade agreements have had on our economy,” he said, adding he intended to take up the challenge from Mr Shanmugam for a debate at “an appropriate time in the future”.
Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh later said the Workers’ Party was in agreement with Mr Shanmugam’s statement.
“There is no place for racism in Singapore - no ifs, no buts,” he said.
Closing his speech, Mr Shanmugam said: “Singapore is 725 sq km of rock. We have to make a living by being open to the world.
“We will fail if we allow racism and xenophobia to become prevalent, and it's contrary to everything that has made us successful and proud to be Singaporean.”