Laws against racial and religious insult tend to backfire: Cherian George

Laws against racial and religious insult tend to backfire: Cherian George

The Hong Kong-based academic cautioned against the over-dependence on technological and legal restrictions, as this underestimates the “scale and stealthiness” of hate campaigns.

Cherian George at Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods
Professor Cherian George making an oral representation at the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods on March 27, 2018. 

SINGAPORE: Introducing an anti-disinformation law against racial and religious insult would “hand hatemongers another weapon”, instead of disarming them, said Hong Kong-based academic Cherian George, who appeared before the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods on Tuesday (Mar 27).

Prof George, who was appearing in his personal capacity, suggested in his written submission that legal sanctions against hate propaganda can do more harm than good, and are not the only possible response to hate propaganda. He researches media freedom, censorship and hate propaganda.

Hate propaganda, which he referred to as “group libel”, is a political strategy that should be distinguished from outbursts of hateful speech by an individual or day-to-day expressions of intolerance, he wrote.

He noted that in Singapore, the term “hate speech” is sometimes used to refer to the causing of racial or religious offence, or insults that hurt feelings but without necessarily instigating harm. 

“It would be a false parallel to liken Singapore’s criminalisation of ‘hate speech’ to European countries’ policies,” he said. “What they tend to prohibit is the promotion or incitement of hatred, not the wounding of racial or religious feelings as is the case here under Section 298 of the Penal Code.”

He pointed out that in his research, insult laws tend to be weaponised by political opportunists. “Groups manufacture indignation and then demand that the state uphold its insult laws by punishing the individuals and groups accused of causing offence,” he explained, citing the vilification and prosecution of former Jakarta governor “Ahok” Basuki Purnama for blasphemy as a “classic case”, that was “by no means unique”. 

Hence, he said that laws against racial and religious insult tend to backfire, noting that while such laws are ostensibly on the books to protect social harmony, they have the opposite effect. 

“Calls for such laws to be repealed are not underestimating the fragility of social harmony. On the contrary, these laws underestimate what we are up against: Agents of intolerance who will exploit any state-sanctioned right to be offended in order to gain the upper hand,” he said.

“If Singapore has so far been spared from the worst side-effects of such laws, it is only because race and religion are not as politicised here as elsewhere,” he added. “To assume that this would remain the case amounts to a major gamble.”

Thus, Prof George suggested that the best defence against hate propaganda is to “defend vigorously” people’s constitutional rights such as religious freedom and racial equality. “With strong anti-discrimination policies and scrupulously fair policing to uphold the rule of law, even incitement to hatred can only go so far.”

Among the possible interventions Prof George suggested to the Select Committee, one was that insult laws, in particularSection 298 of the Penal Code, which criminalises the deliberate wounding of racial and religious feelings, be repealed. 

He explained that the law invites people to demand state intervention when their subjective racial and religious feelings are hurt. "The same law in India and Malaysia, as well as religious insult laws in many other countries, have been weaponised by merchants of intolerance and hate," he said. "It should be repealed before the same happens in Singapore."  


During Prof George’s oral representation, committee member Janil Puthucheary questioned him on this point, noting that the weaponisation of insult laws has not occurred in Singapore, despite the fact that Singapore has these laws.

“I’m sure you’d agree that in other jurisdictions, in the absence of such laws, race and religion have been weaponised for all kinds of purposes, including political,” said Dr Puthucheary. “So the presence of the law doesn’t automatically mean it will be weaponised, and the absence of this law doesn’t automatically mean it can’t be weaponised.”

In response, Prof George admitted that the point he made is “so controversial” he did not expect the Select Committee to recommend repealing Section 298. “But I feel it would be remiss of me not to register what I think is an emerging consensus...that this is a law that needs to be repealed,” he said.

Citing reports and research from other countries, he stressed that Singapore is an anomaly in criminalising the wounding of racial and religious feelings with no ill effects. “And my simple question would be, are we prepared to say that we can guarantee that we won’t slip into what the rest of the world has encountered?” he asked.

Dr Puthucheary also asked Prof George why, despite Singapore’s track record of success in dealing with issues of race and religion, Singapore could not use the same approach of having ground-up initiatives and social policies together with legislative levers, with respect to deliberate online falsehoods.

To that, Prof George responded that Singapore is entering into a new era which may require “qualitatively different thinking”. While he reiterated that he did not expect the Select Committee to recommend repealing Section 298, he said that he hoped that in all sincerity, over the long-term, that the authorities will look deeply into whether the law needs to be tweaked.

“So I would suggest, within the framework of the Select Committee, that when you do draw your laws, try to avoid pegging them to Section 298,” he said. “Of course we would expect legislation to ensure that it keeps up with technological change, and is able to address the public interest in the way our existing laws do.

“All I am counselling is that the new law does not include any section that rides on Section 298 specifically,” he added. “Because the evidence, overwhelmingly, from around the world causes more problems than it solves.”

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam also weighed in on the issue, noting that while the Select Committee may not have the remit to look at Section 298, there is a Penal Code Review Committee headed by the Law Ministry. “We will certainly put your views across to that committee,” he said to Prof George.  

He also pointed out that even without such laws, there are other countries that have seen the abuse of similar types of principles. “Because governments want to do it, or are unwilling to stop others from doing it,” he said.

“So the point is, the absence or presence of the law is not the determinative factor,” he added. “It’s going to be what sort of Government you have – I think that’s going to be the key point.” ​​​​​​​


Prof George explained that Singapore is more familiar with the types of inflammatory speech which tend to be “one-off cases” of individuals who violate social norms, often impulsively and without giving sufficient thought to the consequences.

Besides Section 298, they can also be punished under the Sedition Act.

But he stressed that the kind of hate that is peddled through disinformation is in an “entirely different league”: Large-scale, sustained and systematic campaigns, which operate at multiple, mutually reinforcing levels.

Such campaigns also do not employ classic hate speech, he added. “Instead of going on the offensive by openly instigating harms against the target community – which is both illegal and socially unacceptable in many countries – hate propagandists play the victim,” he said. “They claim that their community has been deeply wounded by the out-group’s cultural products, words and practices.”

“The ingenuity behind modern hate campaigns means that the law can never provide adequate protection,” he added. “The law works when dealing with neatly self-contained messages, but can’t cope with distributed and layered campaigns.”

He stressed that legal solutions provide a “false sense of security” and can backfire, especially if states “make the mistake” of trying to prohibit insult.


Prof George also suggested that the disproportionate attention paid to social media may be counterproductive. “Taking away their Internet tools would not suppress the spread of their viewpoints,” he said. “They would simply find other means, including by going underground.”

He pointed out that while hate propagandists use the Internet when it suits them, they would not be helpless without it, explaining that even in societies with wide and open Internet access, hate campaigns use a “wide range of channels”.

“Face-to-face communication within places of worship and study groups probably play a much bigger role than online messages in fostering religious tolerance,” he said. “In many countries, long-established talk radio and cable television news programmes do more to create intolerant ‘echo chambers’ and ‘filter bubbles’ than social media.”

He added that it would be “wiser” to regard the Internet as “exposing symptoms of underlying conditions”, rather than as an “indispensable transmission mode for hate”.

“Note that in Singapore’s most high-profile cases of preachers mouthing intolerance towards other religions, their objectionable expression was revealed online, but did not originate as online expression,” he said.

“Suppressing the symptoms does not always make a disease less virulent.” 

In rounding off his oral representation at Tuesday’s public hearing, Prof George also said that education, in particular political literacy and civic education, may not have been given enough attention.

“We should learn from other countries’ mistakes here,” he said. “It’s become quite obvious that in the US and Western Europe...they may have underestimated the need for ongoing civic education.

“They dropped the ball, and as a result the populations of the US, Britain and elsewhere became more susceptible to intolerant populous disinformation.”

He suggested that Singapore can do “a lot more” in educating the public about core political values that “need to be entrenched”. “It’s really the basic principle that democracy is more than just a numbers game, that in fact it also includes equal rights for minorities, it’s not that the majority must always win,” he said, adding that these core political values include equal rights, non-discrimination and religious freedom.

“It’s striking how this basic democratic principle has been forgotten in many democracies,” he added. “If you’re talking about long-term intervention, these are the principles that will make Singapore much more resilient against hate propaganda.”

Source: CNA/lc