SINGAPORE: Members of Parliament (MPs) have voiced their support for Singapore’s approach in restricting hate and offensive speech and suggested various ways how hate speech can be curtailed while allowing “robust and meaningful exchange of ideas” to continue.
This came after Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam delivered a ministerial statement in Parliament on Monday (Apr 1) stressing on the importance of restrictions on offensive speech in public discourse, even when it is not hate speech.
Describing the motion as a "timely" one, MP Christopher De Souza said that inflammatory speech inciting senseless violence "shrouds daily life with a veneer of danger", creating heightened tension.
But while deterring inflammatory speech is important, Mr De Souza also called on the Government to ensure that there remains "robust and meaningful exchange of ideas".
"Therefore, when someone presents a differing view in a respectful, logical and cogently reasoned manner, with evidence to back up their position, with an eye for the good of Singapore, that cannot be taken as hate speech," he explained. "Therefore, in my view, the law as it currently stands ensures and codifies the correct standard."
Nominated MP Walter Theseira suggested that the state could reinforce a secular public policy space to prevent any religion or race from becoming "overwhelmingly dominant".
"The public space is a common resource, a deep wellspring that sustains and refreshes the common spirit," he said.
"But as a multi-racial and religious society, each of our communities has different ideas about that public space.
"Our society must keep that common wellspring clear. If we each seek to dye the water according to our own particular persuasion we will soon find that there is nothing but darkness there.”
He added that Singapore “must directly address, manage, and even reject, when necessary, attempts by religious and ethnic groups to advance public policy based on their own versions of the truth". This is especially so when several religions have a common belief.
MP Murali Pillai called on the Government to explore ways to prevent or deprive commercial entities or persons from financially benefiting, either by being platforms or providing support for hate and offensive speeches.
He added that the state should consider adapting laws that deal with terrorism financing onto hate speech. Mr Pillai also suggested bringing back the judicial review of Government action to ascertain the legality, rationality and procedural propriety of decisions made.
"Our unity and future as a nation will continue to depend in large part on how we manage our race and religious issues," said Mr Pillai.
"It is therefore of paramount importance that we continue to be vigilant and guard against the propagation of hate and offensive speeches that affect the maintenance of racial and religious harmony in Singapore."
EDUCATION AS THE WAY FORWARD
Other MPs said that educating the public on what constitutes acceptable behaviour could be a way to curtail hate speech.
MP Denise Phua described offensive speech as being “a grey zone” with varying degrees of offensiveness, pointing out that there should be a "more effective way" of educating the public on what is and is not acceptable.
"Speech comes on a spectrum and do not fall into neat categories," said Ms Phua. "While it is easier to identify hate speech; offensive speech is not so."
She added that taking an "absolutist approach" of either totally banning or totally allowing all forms of hate and offensive speech, "is not wise".
She said there should be a publicised process on how to report such violations, as are decisions taken by the Government after consultation with relevant stakeholder groups. Ms Phua also asked about what the difference is between public discourse and platforms such as private WhatsApp group chats.
In response to Ms Phua’s questions, Mr Shanmugam noted in his round-up speech on the debate that the Government does not intervene on disagreements and arguments on public issues.
“WhatsApp and other platforms, I think these are legitimate questions. I cannot tell you that I have all the answers on those issues, but we’ll have to deal with them," he said.
MP Rahayu Mahzam pointed out that while casual racism and inappropriate stereotype jokes continue to exist, it is "not practical or meaningful" to legislate regulations for such conduct.
She cited the need for more education and discussions among the different groups, thereby creating opportunities for greater understanding and for strengthening inter-racial relations.
"As a minority in Singapore, there are occasions when some things said or done by others from other races or religion may offend me or my community. Often, such conduct comes from a space of ignorance and not malice,” she said.
"There is therefore a great need to continue to foster relations between people from different communities and allow for better understanding."
READ: Restrictions needed on offensive speech as it creates conditions for discrimination: Shanmugam
MP Saktiandi Supaat also suggested that young people be exposed to programmes that will promote opportunities for them to mingle with people from all races and religion, pointing out that the risk of perpetuating stereotypes can be “fuel” for hate speech and ideology.
He added that while the Government has been "impartial, fair and just" in applying decisions, the state can take further actions to maintain its neutrality.
He suggested that a council be established to advise the deciding minister on matters relating to hate and offensive speech.
"It could help alleviate issues of conflict of interest if, in the future, the deciding minister is of a particular religion or race impacted by the offensive/hate speech or ideology, in particular for future governments," said Mr Saktiandi.
"NO GENERAL BAN ON BLACK METAL GROUPS": SHANMUGAM
Separately, Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh questioned how the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) would assess applications for other black metal groups in the future.
Local black metal bands have been part of Singapore's entertainment ecosystem for many years, he said, and foreign black metal bands have been allowed into Singapore previously.
In response to Mr Singh, Mr Shanmugam said that the population and its reactions "are dynamic".
"Population, reactions, specific bands, time… these are all relevant considerations, but you got to make an honest assessment based on all of those with the reactions that you have, whether it's mainstream reactions and how it will impact on specific security situations as well as the broader security considerations," he said.
"I would add that this doesn’t mean there is a general ban on black metal groups."
Mr Singh also called on the Government to remain neutral in its relations with not just the different religious groups, but other civic groups and citizens.
He added that instead of "a hard policy" such as bans, a "graduated approach" in establishing a range of conditions towards what constitutes hate and offensive speech "may better reflect the compromises required to create and sustain as accommodating and robust a common public space as possible".
Mr Shanmugam noted that there was "broad support" from MPs, based on the speeches for the approaches he outlined, and added that it was "very heartening" that everyone - from Government MPs, the opposition as well as Nominated MPs - broadly agree to these principles.
"The collective position of this House is clear,” he said. "Hate speech impacts racial, religious harmony and members agree generally dealing with hate speech, we have to intervene early and decisively."