SINGAPORE: While racism exists in any multiracial society, the frameworks and processes in place here help safeguard racial and religious harmony, said Minister for Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam on Sunday (Sep 29).
This includes regulating offensive speech, where the Government plays an active role in setting the tone on how race and religion is discussed.
Mr Shanmugam noted this approach differs from other countries such as the United States - where religious texts such as the Bible or the Quran can be burned in public due to the primacy given to free speech.
Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, a “long tradition of debate” means controversial issues are aired openly in places such as the Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park in London, based on the understanding that this can lead to clarity on issues.
This thinking is ultimately "idealistic", he said, pointing to the example of controversial London-based Muslim cleric Abu Hamza, who had been allowed to preach radical beliefs at London’s Finsbury Park Mosque for almost eight years before he was arrested in 2004.
Abu Hamza was charged in 2006 with inciting violence and racial hatred and is currently serving life imprisonment in the US on terrorism charges.
“When you come to race and religion, you don’t necessarily get logic. You get rhetoric, you get people worked up,” he said.
As such the authorities here take “very swift action” against hate speech, and the proposed amendments to the Maintainence of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA), which are aimed at strengthening laws against offensive speech.
If passed, the amendments will require those who post inflammatory content online to take down their posts, among other revisions to the Act.
SINGAPORE NO "POST-RACE NIRVANA"
Mr Shanmugam was speaking at the second round of sessions for "Regardless of Race - The Dialogue" at the Asian Civilisations Museum on Sunday.
About 130 members of the public attended the four-hour session, which aimed to address issues raised in the first discussion held last Saturday.
These sessions - discussing race relations here - are organised by racial and religious harmony body OnePeople.sg in partnership with CNA and are supported by inter-faith group Roses of Peace.
Mr Shanmugam noted other countries have seen a rise of populist politics, with politicians campaigning using either explicit or implicit racist language.
However in Singapore, while the Group Representation Constituencies (GRC) have been viewed as disadvantageous to the opposition, they ensured minority representation in Parliament and helped prevent racial politics from taking root here.
While there has been progress on the issue of racial harmony over the years, it would be mistaken to think that Singapore has become a "post-race Nirvana", said Mr Shanmugam.
"But to achieve real, true racial harmony, we need to go beyond the Government," he added.
BROWNFACE AND "PUNCHING UP"
In response to questions from the audience, Mr Shanmugam also commented on the recent “brownface” controversy, where YouTuber Preetipls and her brother rapper Subhas Nair were made to take down a profanity-laden rap video.
The video was made in response to an advertisement featuring Chinese actor Dennis Chew in "brownface" portraying an Indian man.
The minister shot down the idea that the siblings’ video could simply be ignored on the grounds that it was an example of “punching up” – a term which refers to critiquing those with more power and influence – and said laws had to be applied fairly.
“Can I draft laws that say that minorities can say this about the majority, but the majority cannot say this about minorities?” he asked.
One dialogue participant asked if it might be possible to impose rules on hiring to ensure racial diversity in workplaces, similar to the Ethnic Integration Policy for Housing Board flats.
Mr Shanmugam said this was easier said than done, and employers may work around such rules and may even take their businesses to other cities.
“If you put in quotas, it looks nice in theory, but if employers can’t make money, they can’t make a business, and they don’t have the flexibility (to hire who they want), they’ll just go somewhere else,” he said.
Furthermore, Singapore’s unemployment rate of about 2 per cent indicates there is no “substantial unemployment” among either the Indian or Malay communities that would necessitate such a policy, he added.
Other participants brought up the possibility of inculcating racial harmony at a pre-school level, as well as the possibility of creating more “open spaces” where issues such as race can be more freely discussed.
Speaking to the media after the event, Mr Shanmugam said issues of race and religion are still “spiky” and that it was important to bring such discussions to a broader group of people.
Speaking as part of a four-person panel discussion earlier in the day, Mr David Reddy, who heads content creation and influencer marketing at BlackBlue Media Group, said social media plays a big part in how racial issues are viewed.
He was part of a panel together with former Institute of Policy Studies researcher Leonard Lim, National University of Singapore communication and new media adjunct associate professor Adrian Heng and lawyer Nadia Samdin.
Mr Reddy, who is Indian, said the tendency on social media is to see anger as the only response to racism.
“As a person who creates content, (I know that) the more aggressive the content, the better (the response). And that’s problematic when it comes to race,” he said.
He added racial divisions can easily be exploited online, and regulations are needed to keep the “darkness of the social media space” at bay.