Singapore may have made great strides since racially-driven violence marred its early years, but its people have yet to be completely free of racism, says Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam.
Speaking in a recent wide-ranging interview with Yahoo! Singapore, the minister shared his views on racism among Singaporeans, particularly in the aftermath of the incident involving former NTUC membership assistant director Amy Cheong early last month.
“What I don’t accept is the thesis by some that our society has reached a point where race and religion and skin colour are completely irrelevant. I don’t accept that,” he said. “I say we have made a lot of progress, and maybe we have crossed beyond the 50 per cent mark... (but) I do believe those fault lines exist. How deep, how widespread is anybody’s guess, but they exist.”
He stresses that the racism he speaks of is not pervasive and care must be taken to distinguish what may qualify as racist behaviour.
“It is simply that you grew up in a cultural milieu and you know it better. That’s quite different from saying I am in this group and this group is superior, or that I don’t like people of another group,” he said. “We must distinguish between the two. Are there people who fall into the second category? I believe there are. Are they a majority? No. Are they a minority? Yes. But it is there.”
Besides, Shanmugam points out, racism stems from man’s larger tendency to divide himself into small groups that are identified along various lines — be they tribal, religious, geographic or ethnic, for instance, and it is a problem not limited to Singapore.
“It’s not unique to Singapore — it happens everywhere. And these differences are often exploited by people in positions of leadership for purposes of personal power,” he said. “That is the larger picture. I’m simply saying the same can happen here if we’re not careful. As human beings, we are not different from others in other countries.”
‘Legislation won’t solve the problem’
Shanmugam accepts that Singapore’s adoption of English as its official language has helped “put us in schools together and emphasise the importance of multiracialism”, all while preserving each ethnicity’s mother tongues as requisite second languages.
“All of (this) is good, and is why we’ve made the progress we have,” he said. “(But) my point is you cannot by legislation, and you cannot over 50 years, remove the deep-seated feelings along racial and religious lines. That will take a longer time.”
Asked about the view from certain quarters that the presentation of academic performance by ethnic groupings of students has propagated racial sentiments and stereotyping, the minister responded that providing the broken-down information helps ethnic communities to assist students from their races.
“If you don’t acknowledge the problem, then it is difficult to help. You have to look at the facts. As a result of looking at the facts, understanding where the weaker performance occurs... you’re able to form Mendaki and Sinda and CDAC, and target those students.”
Since Singapore’s various race-specific interest groups were formed, academic performance has improved for children in racial minorities, he noted. “Many community leaders support giving the breakdown so that we can help their communities,” he said. “It is better to acknowledge these things and deal with them.”
Shanmugam’s sentiments were more recently echoed by Senior Parliamentary Secretary for education Hawazi Daipi in Parliament this last week, responding to a question on the matter from Nominated Member of Parliament Eugene Tan.
Breaking down exam performance by race, Hawazi said, allows communities to monitor the effectiveness of their existing educational programmes for children from their own race as well.
Other suggestions, such as scrapping race classification in Singapore identity cards, have previously been pitched, but responding to these, Shanmugam maintained that it is preferable to examine the situation and tackle it head-on.
“Some want quick solutions, but there is no quick solution which will immediately make us all non-racial and colour-blind,” he said. “It’s going to require a lot of hard work (and) time. It’s going to require effort from the different communities as well as the government.”
‘If you say the govt is made up of idiots...’
Turning to defamation, a decidedly sensitive topic in Singapore in particular, Shanmugam explained that, as a rule of thumb, the government doesn’t sue for defamation.
“Individuals within government who are personally defamed can sue – for example when you say someone is corrupt. But if you say the government is made up of idiots no one can sue you because that will be considered an opinion, and you are entitled to that opinion, based on your assessment of government policies. If you say the policies are incompetent, anti-Singaporean, you can't be sued,” he explained.
He noted that people do fiercely criticise government policies and that is a right everyone has. “No one can sue you. But if you make a factual allegation like saying a person stole something or has his hands in the till, then you can be sued,” he said.
He also stressed the importance of understanding the impact of existing defamation laws on free speech here — the specifics of which many Singaporeans have for decades not been fully aware of.
“I think you can differentiate between the substance of the law (What is it? Why do we have it?) and the process to make it effective,” he said.
He spoke of the rationale behind defamation laws here, saying, “Should we protect reputation? We protect the right to property. If I steal your property, the Penal Code makes it an offence. If I hurt your body, that’s an offence. If I cheat you, that’s an offence. But if you have worked all your life to build up your reputation and I damage your reputation by saying untruths, why should there not be redress?
“It’s a logical question. But if indeed you are corrupt, then you ought to be exposed and the defamation law does not prevent that.”
The threat of costly defamation suits exacted by members of the government has loomed over the country for years, after opposition politicians such as Chee Soon Juan and J B Jeyaratnam were compelled into bankruptcy when they were unable to pay damages from being successfully sued by then-government leaders.
Newspapers and magazines like The Economist, the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Singapore Herald have previously been sued and had their local publishing licences revoked for this reason as well, leaving in their wake a cloud under which journalists, editors and publishers work cautiously.
This long-standing fear has also driven many government critics online, posting their views under pseudonyms to avoid being associated with their comments.
Despite these, Shanmugam maintained that defamation laws here allow for a wide berth of comments to be made in the public space — even unreasonable ones — that still fall within the acceptable boundary.
“You can say anything you like about people in public life, whether in government or in position or in the corporate world,” he said. “You can pretty much say anything you like about the way they have handled situations. You can call them incompetent. You can critique and criticise fiercely any policy, and these (policies) have been fiercely debated.
“Likewise corporate leaders, you know their handling of public companies’ affairs can be debated and you can attack it; they can’t sue you,” he continued. “But if you make a factual allegation which is untrue about them, then they can sue you.”
With the knowledge that many comments made against public figures — including members of the government — online are written and posted anonymously on a near-daily basis, Shanmugam said he had not given much thought to the possibility of modifying existing defamation laws to suit the internet space, which the government is still figuring out how to work within.
“(Right now) the law applies in the same way both in print media as well as internet media online,” he said. “If you can find the person, you can sue.”
When all is said and done, however, if a person can prove what he or she says about an individual, he or she can say it publicly, he said.
“If what you say is true, you just prove it. That’s what in essence the law of defamation is,” he noted. “There are many caveats and qualifications but in essence that’s the nub of it. It is useful to try and keep people honest in their criticisms and to try to make sure that public debate is focused on the real issues, without scurrilous, false allegations.”