Police reports on racial, religious friction nearly doubled in 2020: Shanmugam

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People wearing protective mask cross a street in Singapore.
People wearing protective mask cross a street in Singapore. (PHOTO: Suhaimi Abdullah/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — Police reports in Singapore involving racial or religious friction nearly doubled last year, up to 60 cases from 31 in 2019, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said in a written parliamentary reply on Monday (5 July).

The police reports come under Sections 298 and 298A of the Penal Code, which cover acts that deliberately wound the racial and religious feelings of any person; promote enmity between different racial and religious groups; or are prejudicial to the maintenance of racial and religious harmony.

There were 23 such cases reported in 2016, 11 in 2017 and 18 in 2018.

Shanmugam was replying to a parliamentary question by Seah Kian Peng, Member of Parliament for Marine Parade GRC, who had asked about the number of racially-charged incidents reported to the police over the past five years.

Level of racial and religious harmony is high: Shanmugam

Sean also asked about Singapore's readiness to navigate polarisation, which Shanmugam said is a growing concern all over the world.

The minister cited a 2018 survey conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and OnePeople.sg (OPSG), in which about 97 per cent of respondents said the level of racial and religious harmony in Singapore was either moderate, high, or very high. 

He also cited the 2019 Gallup World Poll, in which 95 per cent of respondents in Singapore reported that Singapore was “a good place to live” for racial and ethnic minorities. 

"The global average was about 70 per cent. We were ranked first worldwide among 124 countries polled for this question," he said in his written reply.

"That said... we must accept that there remain fault lines along race and religion. And racism is also present. In the same 2019 IPS-OPSG survey, about a third of minorities perceived discrimination at work at least sometimes."

Prosecuting every allegation could escalate tensions instead

Shanmugam added that the Singapore government will have to continue to be an objective and neutral arbiter, and take action against anyone who commits acts that sow enmity and threaten our racial harmony. 

"This gives confidence to all communities that they can trust the Government to safeguard their interests and to hold the ring on our race relations," he said.

Not all allegations and accusations cross the lines for prosecution or legal action, said Shanmugam.

"If we prosecute every allegation, no matter how trivial, this could stoke people into making police reports for any perceived racial slight, real or misunderstood, or deliberately exaggerated," he said. 

"Over time, this could instead escalate tensions between races and undermine our hard-earned social harmony.

"The law cannot be the solution in every situation. It is important that we come together as a society to guard against social fractures and commit to growing our common space. While we should speak out against clear acts of racism, we should be judicious in how we raise issues, in ways that bridge differences and not deepen fault lines."

Speeches on race that doesn't cross into hate are not prohibited

Shanmugam also responded to a parliamentary question by Sengkang GRC MP Raeesah Khan, who asked how the government is ensuring that the law against racist speech do not curtail “expressions of protest at injustice, social discontent or opposition”.

“The law does not prohibit speech on race which does not cross into hate speech, or racially derogatory speech. Neither does it prohibit commentary and sharing of opinions or experiences on race,” the minister said in a written reply.

“Members will know that on racial issues, a significant amount of discussion, commentary, sharing of experiences, and more, takes place, regularly.”

He added that the government has nevertheless taken a strict approach under the Penal Code to offensive speech across all races, to give greater protection to minorities and make it safe for them to speak about their views and experiences.

Otherwise, in a situation where racially-offensive speech by all is tolerated or allowed, and both majority and minority communities engage in such speech, it can be expected that more of such speech will be directed towards minority communities. 

"It will be the minority communities who will then bear the brunt of such offensive speech. That will ironically reduce the safe space for discussion of such issues, and increase minority community concerns for safety and security," Shanmugam said in his written reply.

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