SINGAPORE: There has to be restrictions on offensive speech in public discourse, even when it is not hate speech, as over time it creates an environment “conducive for discrimination and eventually violence”, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam on Monday (Apr 1).
“If we normalise offensive speech, after a while, the tone, texture of public discourse will change. Giving offence to others will become normalised,” he said in a ministerial statement in Parliament on restricting hate speech to maintain racial and religious harmony in Singapore.
Offensive speech, which imply that its target lacks morals, intelligence, and dignity, can be “even more insidious”, Mr Shanmugam said.
Citing ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, the minister said: “He peddles in offensive views on racism and sexism. He performs to sell-out crowds in America and is one of the highest paid comedians in the world. His audience are mainly white Americans.”
Closer to home, he cited the case of Amy Cheong, a former assistant director with NTUC who in 2012 made “nasty” comments about Malays and those who have their weddings in void decks.
“Listeners may get a false sense that they are not internalising this sort of descriptions because they are funny. But you are being drip-fed the notion that the out-group is stupid, ignorant, immoral, sinful, and ultimately leads to dehumanisation.
“When you think of the out-group as sub-human, therefore you may no longer be bounded by moral constraints. Subconsciously, the brain won’t feel empathy for them,” he added.
While it could take time, the end results are the same, said the minister.
Over time, Mr Shanmugam said the effect will be felt in every aspect of life – in schools, jobs, neighbourhoods and politics.
“The environment will be conducive for discrimination, eventually violence. This is why we have restrictions on offensive speech,” said the minister.
Citing the ideals in the Singapore pledge, he said: "How can we be one united people when it is accepted every day that one race or another, or one religion or another can be publicly insulted, ridiculed, attacked?”
THE SINGAPORE APPROACH
The Government has so far taken a practical and nuanced view that offensive speech should generally not be allowed in public discourse, he said.
Spelling out the approach, Mr Shanmugam said: “First, we look at the words, the material - how offensive are they? Second, we look at what is the likely impact of the speech? How would, for example, the community which is the target of the offensive speech react?”
Other factors considered include occasion and reach.
“There is a difference between saying it to 50 people in a private setting compared with publicising it generally,” he said.
READ: Watain concert cancelled based on Christian community’s reaction to initial approval: Shanmugam
The assessment of impact is partly subjective, and based on the nature of the words used, the other factors, and the likely impact on the targeted community, Mr Shanmugam said, adding each group react differently to different things.
There are also security aspects to consider in terms of preserving harmony and preventing unrest.
Mr Shanmugam highlighted that the security implications of any reaction could be immediate, but there could also be longer-term issues with deepening fault lines, creating more tension.
Still, the approach is guided by common sense, he said, adding that there are two possibilities which will allow an absolute, objective approach.
“Ban everything that is deemed insulting, offensive by anyone, or allow everything that is insulting, offensive. I have explained why that will eventually lead to trouble. I think Members will see that the absolute approach is undesirable.”
The pragmatic approach the Government takes is the only tenable one for Singapore society, said Mr Shanmugam.
“It can be a bit messy, but it has worked so far, with relative success, and with a bit of give and take.”