Published: 01 April 2019
Mr Speaker, Sir
1. On 7 March 2019, the Government cancelled the permit for a concert due to be performed by Watain.
2. 8 days later, on 15 March 2019, a white man shot and killed 50 people, all Muslim, in 2 mosques in Christchurch, NZ.
3. 3 days after that, on 18 March 2019, a man of Turkish origin shot and killed 3 people in Utrecht, Netherlands.
[Has been classified as murder with terrorist intent]
4. 5 days after, on 23 March 2019, ISIS’ last stronghold fell.
5. 4 events in 4 different countries, over 16 days. All 4 tell us how different societies deal with race, religion.
6. Is there a larger picture showing the interconnections among the 4 events? I will suggest to this House that there is such a larger picture, with possible lessons.
7. Sir, the relationship between hate speech and racial and religious harmony is an issue of considerable consequence to our society.
8. I therefore am making a Ministerial Statement on the matter. It is also important that we hear MPs. I will therefore move a Motion at the end of my Statement for it to be considered by Parliament. That will allow MPs to speak on the Statement.
9. I hope that we can reach some level of clarity and agreement on how we should frame and apply our rules on speech to maintain racial and religious harmony.
A. Preliminary point, as a matter of record
10. Sir, one point to note, as a matter of record. The regulation of content of entertainment, in general, is one of MCI’s important functions.
11. Ensuring, among other things, that we deal with hate speech – to prevent conflict and violence between people of different races and religions and maintain internal security – is one of MHA’s core functions.
12. My Ministry as a whole, and ISD, in particular, spend a lot of time on this.
13. My speech will focus on this latter aspect – hate speech, racial and religious harmony.
14. I will cover the following areas.
15. First – I will deal with what hate speech is. For example, a political leader calling members of a racial or religious group “vermin” that need to be exterminated. I will share – using recent research in neuroscience – how hate speech interacts with the brain, and how logic and reasoning can be ineffective in dealing with hate speech.
16. Second – I will touch on the experience of other countries, and how they have attempted to deal with hate speech.
17. Third – I will discuss offensive speech, as opposed to hate speech, and our approach toward it.
18. Fourth – I will briefly discuss the Christchurch shooting, and the lessons that we can learn from it.
19. Fifth – I will discuss the cancellation of Watain’s concert.
20. Sixth – I will deal with the arguments that have been made against our approach in dealing with offensive speech.
21. And finally – I will discuss the role of social media in propagating hate speech.
II. FUNDAMENTAL PROPOSITION
22. Sir, first, I assume, and certainly hope, there will be a unanimous agreement in this House that we must preserve racial and religious harmony in Singapore.
23. Assuming we do, we then have to consider:
(a) First, the degree to which hate speech can impact racial and religious harmony.
(b) Second, the steps that should be taken to deal with hate speech.
(c) Third, the continuum between hate speech and speech which is offensive on race and religion. There is an overlap between the two. So what do we do about offensive speech?
III. HATE SPEECH: ITS IMPACT ON RACIAL AND RELIGIOUS HARMONY
A. What is hate speech
24. Hate speech has been defined as all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote, or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, or other forms of hatred based on intolerance.
[From Council of Europe Committee of Ministers - 1997]
25. Hate speech can fall into different categories and be delivered on different platforms.
(a) First, religious hate speech. This can be powerful.
(b) Second, political hate speech. This can be powerful too, especially if the politician is charismatic.
(c) Third, hate speech can be communicated in general discourse and in the mass media.
(d) Fourth, it can also be delivered as part of entertainment, like in music and theatre.
26. This list is illustrative, but not exhaustive.
B. The impact of hate speech
27. What impact can hate speech have? It can cause deep social divides. Repeated exposure to hate speech can increase people’s prejudices, feelings of being threatened, and propensity to violence.
28. How so? Hate speech desensitises individuals. It normalises behaviour which is otherwise unacceptable. It stokes anger and fear, and provides a surge of stress hormones. It engages the amygdala, which is the brain centre for threat. It makes it harder for people to control their emotions and think before they act.
29. People don’t have to be extremists to be moved by incendiary rhetoric. Studies show that just about any person could be susceptible under the right conditions. A psychologist from Princeton has shown that distrust and hate of an out-group is linked to impulses towards violence against that group.
C. Hate speech: can disengage morality
30. Most people, at most times, are moral creatures. Just picture morality as being in gear. At times, it can be pushed to neutral. Our morality can get disengaged when we redefine our actions as honourable; when we believe what we are doing is a matter of honour; and that the victims are deserving of their punishment, because we believe they are an “out-group”, not quite human even.
D. Hate speech and dehumanisation
31. Dehumanisation can happen when morality is disengaged, and you treat a specific group as sub-human. Distrust and contempt against the group can then be built up.
32. Neuroimaging studies have shown that when you dehumanise an out-group, you don’t think of them as social beings.
E. When hate speech becomes normalised
33. It becomes socially acceptable to discriminate and oppress a particular “out-group” when hate speech is systematically developed.
34. Civilisation must intervene early to prevent such hate speech from being normalised. Once it is normalised, the dehumanisation of the out-group is difficult to reverse.
35. Let me set out some real world consequences of hate speech.
F. Some examples from around the world
36. The Holocaust is a classic and extreme example of how hate speech can mobilise a population to commit terrible atrocities. The Jews were considered “vermin” by Nazi Germany, requiring fumigation by the Aryan State.
37. Rwanda, 1994. Tutsis were slaughtered by their Hutu neighbours. They had lived side by side for a long time. 800,000 were killed within 3 months of senseless violence. The Tutsis were called “cockroaches”, and described as the devil and the enemy.
38. A Hutu mother beat a child who lived next door to death. The government had told her that the Tutsi were her enemies. She justified the slaughter as “doing a favour” to the orphaned child, as its parents had already been murdered.
39. In Pakistan, hate speech incorporates terms associated with honour and shame. A person who has the courage to defend Islam and the Prophet by killing a “kafir” (a person who is said to have insulted the religion) is regarded as a “true Muslim” and a “hero”. For example, the former Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by his security officer. Taseer had been critical of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. His attacker was hailed as a hero by hard-line Islamist groups. After he was hung, thousands attended his funeral.
40. Next, Sri Lanka, a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, with a Sinhalese Buddhist majority, and minorities Tamil-speaking Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. Hard-line Buddhist extremists promoted hate and violence against minorities. They painted a picture of Buddhism constantly under threat. For example, the group Bodu Bala Sena has claimed that an increasing Islamic religiosity threatened the place of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. The group’s leader, Gnanasara Thero, suggested that Halal certification was an “evil conspiracy”, which “was spreading across the island in various guises and casting its dark shadow”.
41. What do these countries have to do with Singapore? Why is it that religious leaders don’t say these things in Singapore? This is not pre-ordained. In fact, in Singapore, even the population opposes religious leaders saying these things. Why? Because of our laws and the 54 years when we have done many things to try to build a society based on mutual respect and harmony.
42. In Myanmar, hate speech has been directed towards the Muslim Rohingyas. Rohingyas have been referred to as “outsiders”, and derogatorily as “kalar” or “Bengalis”. The leader of the 969 Movement, Wirathu Ashin, has called mosques “enemy bases”, and has urged Buddhists to boycott Muslim businesses and shun interfaith marriages.
G. Logic/Reason ineffective against hate speech
43. Logic and reason will not work when an entire architecture of hate has been built up and hateful emotions have been engaged. The concept of “a marketplace of ideas” does not work in these circumstances.
H. Impact of Reducing Access to Hate Speech
44. A 2018 study by 2 PhD students at Warwick University suggested that hate speech triggered hundreds of violent crimes against refugees in Germany.
45. They saw a pattern. The violence sharply decreased when people in places where there were more anti-refugee attacks had their access to hate speech limited.
46. Germany’s Federal Ministry of the Interior’s 2015 Annual Report highlighted that:
“…uninhibited hate speech on the internet can lead to individual or collective radicalization… Hate speech creates the pressure to take immediate action. Right-wing extremists aggravate the situation by spreading their ideology and warning of alienation and the threat of ‘race extinction’. This provides fertile soil for militancy and violence. This becomes particularly obvious when it comes to the numbers of criminal and violent offences committed against accommodation centres for asylum applicants and motivated by right wing extremism. While 170 criminal offences were committed in 2014, more than five times as many were registered in 2015.”
I. Hate songs
47. Songs can also be used to spread hate. Studies have shown that music can create powerful emotions in the listener. Listening to violent music stimuli, even without lyrics or videos, can cause greater aggression than listening to no music at all.
48. Songs have been a very powerful medium for spreading hate speech.
49. “Hate music” has been used to label, devalue, persecute, and scapegoat particular groups of people, often minorities.
50. White racialists use White Power music to deny the humanity of African-Americans. African Americans have also been dehumanised by being depicted in drawings with stereotypical physical features that robs them of their humanity.
51. Examples of hate music lyrics include:
(a) Skrewdriver, White Power from the UK: “I stand watch my country, going down the drain/we are all at fault now, we are all to blame/ we’re letting them takeover, we just let ‘em come/once we had an empire, and now we’ve got a slum/ White Power! For England!
(b) Rahowa, Declaration of War from Canada: “Bloody riots on the streets, the niggers run amok/ Tremble in fear, white man, the reaper’s in the shadowland/ Save your children, lock your door/ You can’t come out here no more/ Now you’re faced with a nigger foe”
52. There are many others, not mentionable, and much less in Parliament.
53. In the 1990s, there was a study of skinheads in the US, to determine factors that distinguished terrorist skinheads from non-terrorist ones. White Power music was found to be important in the construction of the identity of the terrorist skinhead. Approximately 91% of terrorist skinheads limited their music consumption to White Power bands. The German government has described skinhead music as the number one gateway to violence.
54. Members may have heard about Malay Power music festivals in Malaysia. The Malay Power movement believes that Malaysia should be an exclusively Malay nation, that immigration should end, and non-Malays should be expelled. A Malay Power band member has said:
“…the lesson that we can learn from Nazism is that we can take extreme racist action if the position of the Malays is affected by these factors.”
55. A music fest featuring Malay-power nationalists – Rebellion Fest – was recently cancelled in Malaysia.
56. In summary, hate speech denigrates the out-group, suggesting that the out-group is the source of problems for the in-group. It dehumanises the out-group, making violence against them justified.
57. The Christchurch killings were motivated by white supremacist ideology. White supremacist graffiti covered the attacker’s rifles.
58. The New Zealand Prime Minister has called for a global fight against right wing extremists. Meanwhile, Islamic militant groups are using the Christchurch attacks to push their own message of hate – that the West is at war with Islam.
59. What should we do about all this?
IV. DEALING WITH HATE SPEECH – THE EXPERIENCE OF OTHERS
60. Before we look at Singapore, it is useful to look at how other countries deal with hate speech. The UN Secretary-General also spoke on this topic recently.
61. In the US, speech is prohibited if it is likely to lead to “imminent lawless action”. This is a high threshold. The US Supreme Court has held inflammatory speech – even speech advocating violence by Ku Klux Klan – to be protected unless the speech is directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action, and is likely to incite or produce such action.
62. So in the US, we see speeches that are anti-Semitic and that denigrate African-Americans and Hispanics.
63. We also see politicians who denigrate other religions and ethnic groups. One example is Steve King, a US Congressman. Steve King has praised Geert Wilders, who called the Prophet a “paedophile, mass murderer, terrorist and madman”. He has also said the Quran is worse than Mein Kampf, and called for the closing of mosques.
64. In Europe, some countries have broader prohibitions than America.
65. In 2018, there was a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decision on whether the Austrian courts had, in convicting a woman, violated her freedom of speech. She had called the Prophet Muhammad a paedophile.
66. The ECHR ruled that the conviction did not violate her freedom of speech. The ECHR ruled that the Austrian court had balanced the applicant’s right to freedom of expression with the right of others to have their religious feelings protected.
67. The German Criminal Code criminalises the incitement of hatred against, or insult of, a racial or religious group. The same section also criminalises the glorification of Nazi rule.
68. An insult may not fall squarely within the rubric of hate speech. I will come back to this later.
69. In the UK, it is a crime to incite hatred on the grounds of religion. But you can ridicule, insult, abuse any religion, beliefs, practices, followers.
70. In 2018, more than one quarter of Britons witnessed hate speech. That is more than 12 million people. The majority of cases were on social media and involved anti-immigrant or anti-refugee language, racist abuse, or anti-Muslim comments.
71. The UK now finds itself fighting on two fronts – against right-wing extremists as well as Islamic extremists.
72. The security services are now investigating potential contact between the Christchurch gunman and right-wing extremists in the UK.
73. The UK’s Lead Anti-Extremism Commissioner said that a “frightening amount of legal extremist content online” was fuelling far-right activism.
74. At one point, there was a preacher named Abu Hamza, who was Britain’s most high-profile hate preacher. He was finally convicted in 2006 for soliciting murder and inciting racial hatred in his inflammatory "sermons". He had been preaching since 1997.
75. In his sermons, he described Jews as the enemy of Islam, told followers to bleed the ‘enemies of Islam’, and that they should not rest until they had created a Muslim State.
76. Britain has an admirable, long tradition of debate. The thinking is that you debate different positions and then you can get clarity.
77. But hate speech targeting ethnic or religious communities do not appeal to logic, and is not capable of being rebutted by logic. The recipients of hate speech are intended to be filled with hatred. They are turned into hate machines in the false belief that God requires that. How does logic and open debate counter that?
78. Britain’s lax approach attracted a lot of people like Abu Hamza who went about spreading his message of hate. London became a haven for many of these hate mongers.
79. Finsbury Park mosque where Abu Hamza preached has been described as a global magnet for militants. From the late 1990s to 2003, its attendees included Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, and Zacarias Moussaoui, one of the 9/11 attackers.
80. Shortly after the Christchurch incident, New Zealand’s chief censor banned the shooter’s manifesto, “The Great Replacement”. The censor argued the manifesto tried to inspire murder and terrorism.
81. This led to debate that free speech was being curtailed. The usual argument surfaced: better to trust people to form their own conclusions, than suppress hate speech altogether.
82. The shooter himself confessed he developed his views from the internet. He said: “You will not find the truth anywhere else.” The conclusion he formed was to kill as many Muslims as he could find.
83. In February 2019, the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, called hate speech a “menace to democratic values, social stability, peace”. And he pointed out the dangers of allowing hate speech to move into the mainstream. He said, “With each broken norm, the pillars of humanity are weakened.” He has assigned his Special Advisor for the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, to lead a UN Team to scale up response to hate speech, and present a global plan of action, on a fast-track basis.
84. We are told regularly that we should be more like the US and the UK, which set the gold standard for free speech. But their experiences suggest that serious consequences can follow when you are lax about hate speech.
V. DEALING WITH HATE SPEECH – OUR EXPERIENCE
85. What is our experience? We recognised that race and religion contained fault lines and involved gut issues, which could be very emotive.
86. The 2016 CNA-IPS survey showed that race and religion still play a large role in the personal decisions of Singaporeans. If they feel that their race or religion is under attack, the potential for violence increases.
87. Mr Lee Kuan Yew has said:
“No amount of troops would be able to stop the trouble if there was real hatred between the different communities. The decisive factor would be dependent upon the goodwill between neighbours.”
88. We prohibit hate speech. We also take quick action. The speaker will be advised to stop. ISD will take action depending on the severity of what was said and the possible consequences. The person who crystallised our approach on this was Mr Lee Kuan Yew. In 1999, he said:
“We did the easier part, getting raw, basic clashes to be muted, distributing the population into mixed housing estates, sending them to the same schools, preventing them from segregating.
It will take much more to get them to finally accept each other and begin to trust each other. And it takes just one mishap and you will find segregation begins all over again…
The past is valuable in telling us how we got here, and having us understand what are our perils, what are our fault lines, and do not mistake them. They are not going to disappear in 20, 30, 40 years. But if we are aware of it, it is like living with an earthquake fault. We can build buildings which may be able to stand the shocks…
And I say, let us find common ground, because those are the cards that we were dealt with... So, having gone through that stress, we came to the conclusion that we have to be the opposite, tolerant of each other, accommodative, multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-religious, multi-cultural. In other words, I am not foisting myself on you.”
89. PM Lee Hsien Loong has also set out our approach in a speech in Helsinki in 1987, more than 30 years ago. He said then that:
(a) The most straightforward way to destabilise Singapore is to foment racial and religious discord.
(b) In a fragile, vulnerable multi-racial society, we can never assume that free and open discourse will magically lead to truth and enlightenment.
(c) In Singapore's experience it has led to riots and mayhem.
(d) The 1950 Maria Hertogh riots led to 18 killed, 173 wounded.
(e) In 1964, a Malay language newspaper alleged Chinese majority were suppressing the rights of the Muslim Malay minority. This ended in riots sparked off by a procession to mark Prophet Mohammed's birthday. 36 people were killed.
(f) The Malaysian riots of May 13th 1969 – 50 years ago next month – spread to Singapore.
(g) The Singapore Government has been unwavering in pursuing multi-racial policies. We have always been firm in taking action against chauvinist agitators, as a result, since 1969 all the races have lived together in peace and harmony.
(h) But that does not mean that we can now afford to ignore racial sensitivities. In race we come up against deep, atavistic human instincts which will take generations to overcome. Racial emotions can still be whipped up and passions inflamed by irresponsible rabble rousing. Once blood has been shed, many years of nation building and patient strengthening of inter-racial trust and understanding will come to naught.
90. The experiences of Singapore and other countries show that when you have clear, firm laws prohibiting hate speech, and deal fairly with all communities, then you can start building a multi-racial, multi-religious, and harmonious society.
91. I think, and I hope, that there will be agreement in this House that hate speech, whatever form it takes – whether religious, political, entertainment or otherwise – is unacceptable.
92. And we should continue to prohibit hate speech, and deal with it firmly in the way we have done so far.
VI. OFFENSIVE SPEECH
93. This brings me to my next point – how should we deal with offensive speech? Speech does not fall into neat categories.
94. Speech is a continuum; a spectrum. There can be acceptable commentary on race and religion. There can be offensive speech. There can be hate speech. Offensive speech can segue into hate speech. And they can overlap.
95. I refer to the definition of hate speech again – all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote, or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, or other forms of hatred based on intolerance.
96. I mentioned the German Criminal Code earlier. It criminalises insults of a racial or religious group.
97. There may be factual observations about people of different races and religious which are necessary. For example, in a multi-racial society, we have to speak frankly about the issues facing one community or other, in order to focus on the issues and try to find solutions.
98. There may be a need to point out the differences among the races for a variety of public policy reasons. That sort of speech is necessary and unavoidable.
99. Let us leave that aside.
100. Should we allow offensive speech in general mainstream discourse, even if it is not hate speech?
101. Say you are allowed to, regularly, in public discourse (including theatre, songs, politics and religion), joke, insult, laugh at, or even denigrate people of another race or religion. What do you think will happen?
102. Take offensive theatre for example. Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham’s puppets include Jose the Mexican immigrant and Achmed the dead terrorist. He peddles in offensive views of various races and women. 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.
103. Members may remember a lady – Amy Cheong – who made nasty comments about Malays here who have their weddings in void decks.
“How many fcuking days do Malay weddings at void decks go on for??? Fcuk!!! Pay for a real wedding u asshole, maybe then the divorce rate wont be so high! How can society allow ppl to get married for 50 bucks? kns!”
104. If this sort of expression becomes common, in public discourse, what happens?
105. If we normalise offensive speech, after a while, the tone and texture of public discourse will change.
106. Giving offence to others will become normalised. Offensive speech, in the long run, can also lead to dehumanisation.
107. There is emerging work in the field of neuroscience: if an individual observes another member of his own species experiencing pain, he would experience non-conscious neuro-simulation, which leads to empathy. But such empathy is only triggered when the other person is part of your in-group.
108. Offensive speech, which imply that their target lacks morals, intelligence or dignity, can be insidious. 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. This can ultimately lead to their dehumanisation.
109. When you think of the out-group as sub-human, you may therefore be no longer bounded by moral constraints towards them. Subconsciously, the brain won’t feel empathy for them.
110. It is a slower process compared with hate speech. Hate speech moves on a turbo charge. Offensive speech is on the same trajectory, but works perhaps at a slower pace. It can take time, but it has the same end.
111. The ideals in our pledge:
“We, the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion”
112. 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?
113. Over time, the effect will be felt in every aspect of life – in schools, jobs, neighbourhoods, and politics. The environment will be conducive for discrimination, and eventually violence.
114. This is why we have to have restrictions on offensive speech, even when it is not strictly speaking, hate speech.
115. I hope this is another point on which Members of this House can agree. The question is: what should be the extent of the restrictions on offensive speech?
116. It will be useful to hear from Members.
VII. DEALING WITH OFFENSIVE SPEECH
117. Do we think Singaporeans are sui generis, that unlike others, we will not engage in offensive speech and hate speech, because such is our nature? If we had not tried so hard for so long to keep them under check, through laws, and work on racial and religious harmony? Let me give you a few examples:
(a) In 2009, a couple was charged for distributing highly offensive material on the Prophet and Islam to Muslims.
(b) Nicholas Lim posted anti-Muslim remarks in response to a letter in the Straits Times’ Forum page which asked whether taxis could carry uncaged pets.
(c) Benjamin Koh posted that Muslims are pigs, “mosques are brothels” and displayed a pig’s head picture on a Halal look-alike logo.
(d) Gan Huai Shi made comments describing Malays as “rodents” and ridiculed pilgrimage to Mecca.
(e) And recall Amy Cheong: “How many fcuking days do Malay weddings at void decks go on for??? Fcuk!!! Pay for a real wedding u asshole, maybe then the divorce rate wont be so high! How can society allow ppl to get married for 50 bucks? kns!” [Amy was a Malaysian residing in Singapore]
118. I can provide other examples. But thankfully we have fewer such incidents of offensive speech than in other countries. Most people think that this is unacceptable. The key question is: why has that been so? Are Singaporeans naturally benign, or is it because of the approach we have taken?
119. Our position so far has been practical and nuanced. We take the view that offensive speech should generally not be allowed in public discourse.
120. Our current legal framework is as follows:
(a) Penal Code: Sections 298, 298A
(i) Criminalises deliberate wounding of a person’s racial or religious feelings
(ii) Punishes knowing promotion of disharmony, ill-will, hatred, on grounds of religion or race
(b) Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act: Section 8
(i) Allows Minister to make Restraining Orders in certain situations. It restrains religious figures from causing enmity, from addressing congregations, among other orders.
(c) Sedition Act: Sections 3, 4
(i) Offence to utter seditious words, or commit act with seditious tendency
(ii) Seditious tendency: tendency to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between races or classes in Singapore
128. This framework requires us to assess, inter alia, the impact of the offensive words on the feelings of the targeted groups.
129. We approach it this way. First, we look at the words and the material – how offensive are they? Second, what is the likely impact of the speech? For example, how would the community which is the target of the offensive speech react?
130. In this context, let me make one point clear again. I am speaking about offensive speech in relation to race, religion, and in the context of preserving racial and religious harmony, to prevent unrest and violence.
131. In a broader context, materials may be offensive for other reasons. These reasons include social mores and values. For example, child sexual abuse material.
132. The regulation of content in the broader context is handled by IMDA. MHA deals, more narrowly, with the prevention of violence, and the security aspects arising from offensive speech that is directed at racial and religious divides.
133. Let me now deal with these two points.
A. The Words Themselves
134. First, are the words, in themselves: derogatory, offensive, and/or insulting to a particular race or religion?
135. These are some illustrations of offensive words:
(a) Amos Yee:
(i) “Muslim community is dumb. They follow a sky wizard and a paedophile”
(ii) “Christians are cunts, Buddhists are delusional, Taoists are just plain stupid, Islam is absolutely fucking horrible”
136. The US has given him asylum.
137. These are some illustrations of offensive lyrics:
(a) Hozier – Take me to Church:
(i) Take me to church/ I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies/ I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife.
B. The Likely Impact of the Speech: The Platform of Delivery, Occasion, Reach
138. The second factor is the likely impact. Who says it? It has more salience, for example, if it was said from the pulpit, at an election rally.
139. Let us consider the possible range of actions:
(a) A religious leader criticising another religion, and telling his people that people of particular religion should be ostracised.
(b) A political leader saying that people of a certain religion or race should not have rights in Singapore, and that these people are not good for Singapore.
(c) Throwing a pig’s head into mosque grounds. This happened in Philadelphia in 2015. The mosque also received a voicemail: “God is a pig. God is pork.” This has happened in regional countries more recently as well.
(d) Entertainment which is denigrating and disrespectful of a race or religion.
140. The impact will be different, depending on the speaker and the context.
141. We also consider the occasion (meaning the nature of the event), and the reach (meaning the difference between saying it to 50 people in a private setting or publicising it generally).
142. These factors are not exhaustive.
143. The assessment of impact is partly subjective, and based on the nature of the words used, other factors, and the likely impact on the targeted community.
144. We should also keep in mind that different religions have different histories, traditions, and theologies. These shape their outlook, even today. Each group reacts differently to different things.
145. Additionally, when considering impact, it is not just the immediate reaction. We also consider the security implications of the reaction, which could be immediate or longer-term, such as deepening fault lines and increasing tensions. We have to assess.
146. The Government is neutral.
147. We proactively accommodate different groups, recognising their different histories and traditions. We make practical adjustments. And on that basis, we take a practical approach to assess the impact on, and the reaction of, the different communities. Decisions to allow or ban something often involve an assessment of the potential reaction of the targeted community.
148. One important point: we have to assess the impact and reaction of the majority in the specific community, and the security implications of that opinion, which I have referred to earlier. We have to assess where the weight of mainstream opinion lies. We cannot be directed by the viewpoints of a person, or personsm, who are extremely sensitive.
149. Our approach is guided by common sense.
150. I would like to hear from Members whether we should change this approach.
151. There are two extreme possibilities, both absolutist in nature. We can either ban everything that is deemed insulting or offensive by anyone, or allow everything that is insulting or offensive.
152. I think Members will see that neither approach is desirable.
153. That brings us back to the pragmatic approach the Government takes. It is the only tenable one for our society. It can be a bit messy, but it has worked so far, with relative success, and with a bit of give and take.
C. Examples of How We Have Applied Our Approach
(i) Books, Films
154. How has this approach been applied in practice? We banned Satanic Verses in 1989. It is considered a literary work by many. However, every Muslim country banned it. Our mainstream Muslim community took offence.
155. But we have allowed other books, films even when other religious communities were unhappy, based on our assessment of security implications as well. For example, western traditions accept wider contestation, and Singaporeans will agree that it is unthinkable to ban a lot of western literature and philosophy because some may find it objectionable. For instance, would we ban Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not A Christian” – because it is critical of the faith? Of course not. Would we proscribe Edward Gibbons’ “Decline + Fall of Roman Empire” because it had a famous section detailing what he thought were the deleterious effects of Christianity on civilisation? Again, of course not. We have to take into account the context.
156. The context of what is acceptable in Western traditions is relevant. We are not as liberal as many Western societies. This is why we have allowed some books, movies, performances and concerts – even though various religious groups found them objectionable.
157. As such, we have to assess the reaction of our community, and whether there are immediate or longer-term security issues. Reaction itself is part of the mix in assessing security issues, as I have explained earlier.
(ii) Foreign Preachers
158. What about our approach to foreign preachers?
159. In 2017, MOM, in consultation with MHA, rejected the applications of two foreign Christian preachers to speak in Singapore.
160. One of the preachers had described Allah as "a false god", asked for prayers for those "held captive in the darkness of Islam", and referred to Buddhists as "Tohuw people" – which is a Hebrew word for "lost, lifeless, confused and spiritually barren" individuals – who can be saved only by converting to Christianity.
161. The other preacher had variously referred to "the evils of Islam”, and "the malevolent nature of Islam and Mohammed". He said Islam was "not a religion of peace", and "an incredibly confused religion" interested in "world domination".
162. Another example is Mufti Menk, a Zimbabwean Islamic preacher. Mufti Menk had preached segregationist and divisive teachings. He holds the view that it is a sin and crime for a Muslim is to wish a non-Muslim ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Deepavali’.
163. Another example is Dr Zakir Naik, an India-born preacher and televangelist. He said that
“There are many Jews who are good to Muslims, but as a whole … The Koran tells us, as a whole, they will be our staunchest enemy.”
164. If there was a choice between a Muslim and a non-Muslim, Muslims should vote “100%” for Muslims during political elections. He also claimed that Muslims should not take Jews and Christians as awliya (Arabic word for “protector”/ “friend”). Otherwise, they would become Jews or Christians.
165. Thankfully, Singaporeans take a different view from Dr Naik.
166. A 2019 IPS study show that overall, 82% believe that a religious leader should not be influencing people’s votes in elections. 82% of Muslims in Singapore believe that too.
167. We disallow foreign preachers even if they may not say something offensive in Singapore. We disallow them if they have been offensive elsewhere, or if their offensive teachings are available online. By allowing them into Singapore, we would allow them to build up a following. Eventually, we will have a society where there are members who believe in not shaking hands, or not greeting people of different faiths, or not voting for candidates of another race or religion.
168. If this takes root and becomes widespread, what happens to racial and religious harmony?
169. Sometimes we won’t know everything the preacher has said elsewhere. And sometimes, we have to judge the degree to which what he has said elsewhere is offensive.
(iii) Preachers in Singapore
170. Let me now turn to how we have dealt with preachers in Singapore.
171. In 2017, a preacher in a local mosque – Imam Nalla – recited a supplication that called for God to grant victory over Jews and Christians during Friday congregational prayers. This passage is not in the Quran. A video of his supplication was uploaded online. Imam Nalla was charged. He was fined $4,000. He was on a Work Pass and was asked to leave Singapore.
172. Why did we take this step? I have explained in Parliament. Charging a cleric is a serious step. I was concerned again about the normalising effect of such a sermon.
173. If we allowed an imam to exhort victory against Christians, can we prevent Christian pastors from saying similar things about Muslims, or followers of other religions?
174. These things have a momentum, action and reaction. Let’s say we have this on a regular basis, what do you think the atmosphere will be like in our common meeting places?
175. And so we charged the Imam. A line was drawn. He apologised to Christian leaders and the Rabbi.
176. To show that this was a matter of principle, and that we accepted that the Imam meant no ill will or malice, I met him openly, in a mosque, after his conviction, and had breakfast with him. Nonetheless, the principle was established.
177. In 2010, a Christian pastor named Rony Tan had, during a religious session, insulted, trivialised, and ridiculed the beliefs of Buddhists and Taoists. This was recorded on video and uploaded on the church’s website. The video became available on YouTube and other websites. ISD spoke with him. He apologised.
178. In 2010, videos of another Christian pastor, Mark Ng, denigrating Taoist beliefs, were circulated online. He compared praying to Taoist deities to “seeking protection from secret society gangsters”. ISD intervened. Ng and his church apologised.
179. Mr Speaker, I repeat: this Government makes no apologies for its zero tolerance of bigotry.
(iv) Should Government be hands off – because it is secular?
180. Some have argued that Singapore is secular. And we should not be banning material that is offensive to Christians or any other religious group.
181. Let me respond by referring to France.
182. France has this ideology that the State will not intervene in religious matters because it is secular. They term it laicite.
183. French secularity means that people can publish material that is offensive to any religion.
184. Take for example Charlie Hebdo.
(a) Cartoon on the Trinity – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – having anal sex.
(b) Cartoon of Pope holding a condom like a sacrament, saying “This is my body”.
(c) Cartoon of Pope saying: “That dung/manure! I had my doubts” under the headline: “God doesn’t exist”.
(d) Cartoon on Islam: a van running over two people, both dead and lying in blood. Caption: “Islam, religion of peace… eternal.”
(e) Cartoon of Muslim scholar accused of rape with an erection. Caption: “I am the sixth pillar of Islam”.
185. The Catholics were deeply unhappy. They brought law suits.
186. Terrorists didn’t sue. Instead, they used it as an excuse to attack in the name of Islam. There is no excuse for what they did.
187. After the Charlie Hebdo attack, Bilahari Kausikan, our then Ambassador-at-Large, gave a speech. He said that the French state had hobbled itself by its own absolutist belief systems, and that the state should be able to stop such publications.
188. The EU and French Ambassadors responded in the Forum pages of the Straits Times. They said that Europe did impose some constraints against the abuse of freedom of speech, especially against anti-Semitic speech.
189. Bilahari responded and pointed out the double standards. They protected one group (the Jews) while acquiescing in the vilification of another religion (Islam) in the name of freedom of speech. I will add here that there was also vilification of Catholics.
190. Essentially the French position holds that the right of anyone to vilify a religion is absolute. One can legitimately ask – why should that right to publish override the right of a religious group not to have its texts, beliefs, practices ridiculed? And what about obligations to preserve harmony, unity? Don’t citizens have such obligations? And if free speech is really absolute, then why prevent only anti-Semitic speech?
191. Should we adopt the same absolutist ‘secular’ approach? Take a hands off approach, and allow cartoons and other offensive material directed at any religion?
192. This secular Government is completely neutral. It does not privilege any religious group. But nor does it allow any religious group to be insulted and attacked.
193. This secular Government also guarantees freedom of religion, and protects all, including minorities, from threats and violence.
194. The Government works closely with IROs, IRCCs, and religious leaders to ensure common understanding of what binds us as Singaporeans, that we all work towards religious harmony.
195. That is the fundamental assurance one gets in Singapore. It doesn’t matter who you are or what religion you believe in. You are free to believe in any religion, including not to believe. You and members of your faith will be protected from hate speech and unacceptable offensive speech. The State will strive, in every possible way, to achieve racial and religious harmony.
196. That is the secularity we should adopt. That is different from saying that the Government should take a hands-off approach in the name of secularity, allow people to spread hate speech and promote violence.
197. The French approach is illustrative of another interesting point. It is guided by a dark history that the rest of Europe shares. Specifically, the anti-Semitism which led to the Holocaust, and the complicity of (almost all) European countries in the persecution of Jews during WWII. It is thus an offence to deny the Holocaust in some European countries. This includes Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.
198. Does one wait until a Holocaust-type of nightmare occurs against any particular group before you act against hate speech?
199. It is not for us to say the French or European approaches are right or wrong. Europe has a long tradition and a proud heritage. But so do we. And our experience of nationhood and the value system of our respective cultural traditions convince us the European approach won’t work for us.
200. Now, they are grappling with other issues such as immigration and multi-culturalism. And anti-Semitism is again on the rise in Europe.
201. Extreme right-wing populist movements are rising across Europe. Obviously, the liberal values that allowed such extreme views to be propounded, these liberal values are themselves not shared by a significant number of Europeans. Tolerance of hate speech does not breed tolerance of difference.
202. We have to decide what works for us. Singapore is only 54 years old this year. Racial and religious tolerance is slowly being rejected in older societies than ours, which claim to be liberal. We should not take for granted our current tolerant values.
203. You look at our history and our fault lines.
204. The 2016 IPS Survey on Race Relations was generally positive. But some findings are worth highlighting.
Table 1: Majority Chinese Privilege
Majority (Chinese) Privilege
Non-Chinese are more likely to believe that there is majority privilege/advantage.
Strongly Agree / Agree
% of Total
% by Race
Being of the Majority Race is an advantage in Singapore Society
C - 49%
Table 2: 40 % of minorities felt majority race was demanding for more rights
Race Based Rights
· About 30% of respondents felt that the races were pushing for their cultural rights.
· About 40% of minority respondents felt that the majority race was demanding for more rights.
· Nearly 30% of the majority race, felt minority races were demanding for more with nearly 40% of Malays agreeing to this too.
Strongly Disagree / Disagree
Strongly Agree / Agree
The majority race has been getting too demanding in their push for their racial/cultural rights.
Minorities have been getting too demanding in their push for their racial/cultural rights.
Table 3: Relevance of Policies
Relevance of Policies
· More than 70% of Respondents viewed various policies meant to safeguard racial/religious harmony as helpful in building trust between races.
· Racial Harmony Day Celebrations were viewed positively by most respondents.
Helps build trust between the races
Fosters greater interaction between races
Safeguards Minority Rights
Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act
CMIO Racial Categorisation
Racial Harmony Day Celebrations
Table 4: Racism as a Persisting Concern
Racism as a Persisting Concern
· Nearly half the respondents acknowledge the persistence of racism as a problem.
· This recognition was consistent across age groups.
· Chinese respondents were just as likely to acknowledge this as Malays.
Racism may have been a problem in the past, but it is not an important problem today.
Table 5: Perceived Racism of Self & Close Circle
Very Racist / Moderately Racist
Hardly Racist / Not Racist
Table 6: Openness to Race Discussion
Openness to Race Discussion
· About two thirds of respondents noted that discussions of race were disconcerting in that it could be offensive and lead to tension.
· About half of respondents (including minorities) cited that minorities are being over-sensitive about racial issues.
Strongly Disagree / Disagree
Strongly Agree / Agree
Talking about racial issues causes unnecessary tension.
It is very hard to discuss issues related to race without someone getting offended.
Minorities get too sensitive when people talk about racial issues.
204. The IPS Surveys, as a whole (over the years), show that we have done well. But the fault lines remain, and they run deep. They can be exploited.
205. When 2/3 of Singaporeans believe that mere talking about racial issues cause tension, what about offensive speech?
206. Studies have shown that we react differently to people from other races. It has been shown that “the human brain fires differently, when dealing with people outside of one’s own race”. In addition, we are more likely to trust those from the same race as us. “Shutting our eyes to the complexities of race does not make them disappear, but does make it harder to see that colour blindness often creates more problems than it solves.”
207. Look at the former Yugoslavia. Muslims and Christians had lived side by side for centuries (and not just 54 years). They have a substantially similar genetic makeup, and a shared history.
208. But when Yugoslavia broke up, there was genocide and atrocities.
VIII. CHRISTCHURCH SHOOTING
209. I turn now to New Zealand, which just suffered its worst ever mass shooting.
210. A right-wing terrorist acted out his hate-filled ideology in a bid to sow fear among the Muslim community in New Zealand.
211. The response by the New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern, and the Kiwis have been quite amazing. There is much for us to learn from them.
212. PM Ardern embraced the Muslim community. She showed she sincerely shared in their pain and loss.
213. The people of New Zealand have displayed great strength and resilience. They have shown the world how to respond to a terrorist attack. Not with hate, but with rejection of the message of the terrorist.
214. In Singapore, we have been building up the resilience of our citizens through the SGSecure movement.
215. We don’t have the history that New Zealand does, and our population is much more diverse. Nevertheless, I hope that as a nation, we can respond in the same way in the face of terror.
216. New Zealand has a small Muslim population. Nonetheless, the New Zealand Police have in recent years taken steps to understand and engage their Muslim community. They employed a number of our officers for this purpose, including 2 Muslim officers from our Security Command who have relocated there.
217. Now, let me turn to the Watain concert.
218. The lyrics and beliefs of the band denigrate Christianity in a seriously offensive manner.
219. Their own fans acknowledge this. It is natural therefore that Christians would take offence.
220. IMDA received the application from the organiser at the end of December 2018. The sequence of events is as follows:
(a) MHA was informed of the application.
(b) After considering it, MHA told IMDA that MHA objected to the concert.
(c) IMDA then requested a reconsideration of MHA’s position.
(d) IMDA also proposed its detailed licensing conditions and requirements for the concert.
(e) The restrictions for the concert were:
(i) The concert would be classified R18;
(ii) Potentially sensitive songs be removed;
(iii) There would be no use of religious symbols during the concert;
(iv) There would be no references to religion in the band’s on-stage dialogue;
(v) Its content should not denigrate any faith or promote cult practices, nor advocate or promote violence in any way; and
(vi) There would be no ritualistic or satanic acts.
(f) These were in addition to other conditions.
(g) MHA then informed IMDA that, while it was still concerned, it would leave it to IMDA to decide on issuing such a restricted licence.
(h) IMDA issued the restricted licence on 5 March.
(i) On 7 March 2019, MHA asked IMDA to consider cancelling the concert. IMDA cancelled the licence in view of MHA’s serious concerns.
223. The initial assessment was that, if they do not perform offensively in Singapore, it should be ok.
224. However, two days before the concert, MHA received reports of mainstream Christians being very concerned and offended. My officers met with Christian leaders and leaders of other religions. Our MPs, both Christian and non-Christian, also gave feedback. Many others also provided feedback.
225. Given that many Christians felt this was deeply offensive and denigrating, MHA advised IMDA to cancel the concert. It was my decision that MHA should so advise IMDA.
226. My officers and I took into account both the reaction of the Christian community, and the consequent security issues in the medium and longer term.
227. We made a judgment call. The band comes from a largely Christian Country – 67% of Swedes belong to the Church of Sweden. With the restrictions imposed, it was assessed that the concert should be alright.
228. Our assessment was different from what actually transpired. When you make assessments, sometimes the reality will turn out to be different.
229. Why were the Christians offended such that they did not want Watain to perform in Singapore under any conditions? Because of what Watain stood for; because of its philosophy.
230. We need to understand a bit about Watain.
231. The frontman of Watain, Erik Danielsson, has said this about his creation:
“…movement by default has potential to attract fanatical people with relatively extreme and controversial ideas, that much has been clear since the beginning. Anyone who believes that is wrong or strange has a very naïve conception of Black Metal.”
232. He added:
“I would have hated to see Black Metal become a political movement where the lawlessness, violence, crime, madness would have been motivated by anything else than the love for the Devil and the primal urge to express it.”
233. So he knows that his music attracts fanatics with extreme ideas. He is aware of the lawlessness, violence, crime, madness, that can follow. He said:
“We are talking about lawless darkness, we are not talking about ethics and morals, we are talking about the very reverse side of this world, where no laws exist, where no morals exist...”
234. His views on Christians:
“I wish we would have a little more daring opponents and enemies. All of our enemies are Christian sheep who don’t dare to confront their enemy. We go about doing our thing, pissing in their living rooms while they sit still and watch their TV shows.”
235. He was asked about the criticism against heavy metal, that it has the potential to make people do bad things. He was asked whether he feared or was concerned that a fan may misunderstand the material, go to a mall, and start shooting people. This was his response:
“That wouldn’t be a misunderstanding, that would be taking things in the very right way, and I totally encourage any kind of terrorist acts committed in the name of Watain, absolutely, that’s the way rock and roll works.”
236. The interviewer then repeated the question:
“I have to stop you right here. Are you sure you want that published?”
237. He doubled down:
“Yes, sure, absolutely. We’ve always been encouraging music to take a physical form, and that’s what happened in Norway in the early 90’s when churches were burned, and it happened many other times as well. To me it’s the very natural consequences of rock n’ roll, in the end, being the Devil’s music. It consists of energies that, at some point, need to manifest and they will, no matter if people want it or not, they will manifest.”
238. In another part of the interview, when asked about church burnings, he replied:
“It’s not the act of tearing down a building, that doesn’t matter, what matters is the effect that it has, and the effect that those church burnings had on the people was terrible! People were f------- afraid, they were sh-tting in their pants, because, according to the media, there were a bunch of Satanists burning down churches and murdering people. That’s the outcome, not the wooden building with a cross on it that goes into flames, it’s the message, the iron grip that takes hold around people’s throats. That’s what was important about the church burnings, and that’s what will be important any time a church is set on fire.”
239. He was also asked about the band committing crime:
“What would it take for Watain to go beyond onstage rituals and into the realm of criminal activity?”
240. He responded:
“There's never been any line that we've been afraid to cross... To put it simply, our stance on crime is as simple as this: We have never been interested in following anyone else's rules or ethics or moral codes. We have never been particularly interested in following anyone but our own true will. And, of course, when you feel that way, you have to cross certain lines that are considered illegal in society or at least very offensive. But if you have something that you truly love and that you truly believe in, then the fact that you'll step on someone else's toes when you do what you, that has to be a secondary thing that you consider. The most important thing to consider is that you're doing what you're here to do.”
241. I have asked for these quotes to be circulated to Members. To those who say context is important, I agree. I have set out the context, as provided by the band itself. The band’s lyrics are denigrating in and of themselves. But Members can now read them with the background of the philosophy motivating the lyrics. I have reproduced the lyrics in the handout for Members.
242. ;Members may ask, given all this, why give them permission to perform in the first place? The answer, as I said earlier, is that we had thought if we told them not to perform songs with lyrics offensive to Christians, and imposed the other conditions, we would have struck an appropriate balance.
243. The church leaders whom we spoke with understood our rationale, but nevertheless felt that we should not have allowed this particular performance. When we concluded that this was the mainstream Christian view and assessed the consequent security issues, we decided the concert had to be cancelled.
244. Our assessment of public sentiment turned out to be correct. Based on a Reach survey, 60% of the population was aware of the cancellation. 86% of Christians - a majority, agreed with the cancellation. Overall, 64% of all who had heard about the cancellation (Christian and non-Christian) agreed with the cancellation, while 28% thought the concert should not have been cancelled. Amongst Buddhists and Muslims, nearly 70% agreed. Amongst Free Thinkers, 44% agreed.
X. ARGUMENTS AGAINST OUR APPROACH
245. I recognise that some Singaporeans disagree with the Government.
246. For example, Ms Chew Wei Shan, a former teacher, set out her views articulately. There were also others. They said the Government was “self-righteously” trying to govern other people’s lives and decisions. They said the audience could listen to metal music without being influenced by a band’s beliefs. NCCS and churches could advise their members not to go to the concert; there was no need for a ban.
247. Seen in isolation, these are valid points. The argument is essence is: why should I not listen to what I want to? Why should you, the Government, or the Church, tell me I can’t listen to this music?
248. However, the reality, as we have seen, is not so simple.
249. The larger picture is not about whether the Government should tell you what music you can or cannot listen to. You can listen to Watain through Spotify, for example (at least as of now). The issue here is about whether the Government should give Watain a licence to perform publicly in Singapore. And the Government has a responsibility not just to the individuals who like Watain music, but also the majority of Singaporeans who would be offended. And it is not just one Watain concert. If we allowed Watain, we would have to allow other such concerts.
250. And what about other performance arts – drama, and other visual performances? We must allow similar hate or offensive speech in all those platforms.
251. And what about political and religious discourse? Logically, we should allow hate speech to enter those arenas as well, based on the same reasoning.
252. But assume for the time being that we say no to such speech in political, religious discourse, and we only allow it in entertainment.
253. You will then still have a lot of hate speech in the mainstream, through entertainment. The question then would be: Do you agree with the evidence that hate speech and hate music can cause deep divisions within society, and that it can normalise hateful sentiments and allow discrimination?
254. Would those unhappy with the ban of Watain concert be willing to accept the following consequences of their position?
(a) I accept that, over time, the fault lines of race and religion will be greater.
(b) Hate speech could become normalised and I accept all those consequences.
(c) But I still think we should have the freedom to have hate speech, through entertainment, in Singapore, regardless of the consequences.
255. Would they be willing to say:
(a) I accept that, on the same logic, similar concerts and entertainment attacking Islam, Buddhism, and other religions should also be allowed.
256. And if we allowed Watain, do we also allow Malay Power music? Members will recall what I said earlier. These bands call for an end of immigration to Malaysia, for non-Malays to be expelled from the country, and say they draw inspiration from the Nazi approach.
257. Because if we allowed Watain, what grounds would we have to ban other groups with similar hate messages? Should we then allow Chinese Power music too? It doesn’t exist now. But if Malay Power is allowed to thrive, are you sure we won’t have Chinese Power music as well?
258. And why not go further – should we allow the kinds of cartoons that Charlie Hebdo published? Should we agree to the mass media reprinting the Danish cartoons?
259. Consider the Danish experience. In 2005, a Danish publication ran 12 editorial cartoons under the title “The Face of Muhammad”. One depicted the Prophet with a bomb in his turban. Another showed the Prophet in heaven, telling suicide bombers that heaven had run out of virgins. Ambassadors from Muslim countries petitioned the Danish government to condemn the cartoons and punish the responsible parties. The government said it had no right to interfere with the freedom of the press. In 2006, the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria were set on fire. A mob burned down the Danish embassy in Lebanon.
260. What do you think the consequences will be within Singapore if we allowed the same? On our Muslim population? Will it unite us, or divide us? And what would be the consequences within the region? Towards Singapore and Singaporeans?
261. I hope Members of this House will not flinch from these questions. One cannot avoid these questions, and seek refuge in generalities on free speech.
262. Let me explain by reference to some survey results.
2013 IPS Survey
263. A 2013 IPS survey showed that 95% of Malays felt race was important to identity, while 85% of Chinese and Indians felt the same.
264. For 97% of Muslims, religion was important to their identity. 91.4% of Christians and 89.5% of Catholics felt the same.
265. 85% of respondents felt that a report should be made when someone poked fun at racial, religious groups. 87% felt a report should be made when someone insulted another racial or religious group in a public setting. 86% also felt a report should be made when there was material criticising other religion or racial beliefs.
2019 IPS Study
266. The latest study released by IPS on 28 Mar 2019 – “Religion in Singapore: The Private and Public Spheres” – is worth looking at. Let me share some key findings from the study.
Table 7: Self-Identification of Religiosity
267. About 65 % identified themselves as at least somewhat religious.
Table 8: Frequency Of Praying And Taking Part In Activities Organised By Places Of Worship
268. 42 % said they prayed at least once a day. This is a very high level of religiosity. This ranges from 77% to 31%, for the different religions.
Table 9: Likelihood of Reading or Listening to Religious Scripture Outside of Places Of Worship
269. About 87% of Muslims and Christians read religious script outside of a worship service.
Table 10: Level of Confidence in Major Public Institutions
270. About 88% had at least some confidence in Parliament – I think that shows that the public believes Parliament and the legislative process has generally been fair.
Table 11: Views towards Religious Extremists
271. 77% said religious extremists should not be allowed to hold public meetings to express their views. And 73% said religious extremists should not be allowed to publish their views online. I should add that younger respondents (45% of those between 18-25) were more open to such views being published online. We have to have more discussions, to achieve broader consensus amongst the younger generation of Singaporeans.
Table 12: The role of religious leadership in influencing interreligious harmony
272. 97% said religious leaders should not make insensitive comments about another’s religion. 95% said a religious leader should not encourage his followers not to mix with members of another religion. And 88% thought a religious leader should not even point out flaws in another religion, to his congregants, even behind closed doors.
273. This is our society. It is religious, but Singaporeans believe in giving everyone their own religious space. Singaporeans frown upon conflicts, and do not approve of offensive religious speech or insults. They believe the Police should act when there are insults or criticisms directed at another religion, let alone hate speech.
274. These views are moulded by our own experiences and Singaporeans’ understanding of why we have racial and religious harmony in Singapore. These findings show their support for the approach we have taken so far.
275. Some other online commentators have also jumped in with dark suggestions of a Christian conspiracy. Christians are said to have a hold on the Government, the Government bows to their power, and that there is an over-representation of Christians in institutions of power.
276. To turn it into a “Christians versus Others” debate is nasty, opportunistic, and dangerous. I made the decision, in my capacity as Minister for Home Affairs, enshrined with the responsibility of guarding national security and religious harmony. No one – Christian or otherwise – influenced me. I am not a Christian. I also decided to ban two Christian preachers in 2017. So what does one make of that?
277. Mr Speaker, so long as the PAP government is in charge, no matter who the Minister of Home Affairs is – Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or agnostic – it would make such decisions on the basis of national interest.
278. Having initially made the decision to allow the concert, we had new information on how the community was reacting.
279. What do you do? If we were only interested in politics and tactical considerations, we would have let the concert proceed. But that is not the right thing to do. The right thing, which is more difficult to do, was to cancel the concert, and explain to the public why it was done.
280. I should caution however that it is not possible for the Government to accept any community’s viewpoint on all issues – on every performer, for every concert, in every art form. We will give due consideration to the views of all communities, but ultimately the Government will have to decide based on the principles I have set out.
281. I have no doubt, we will have to make many more such pragmatic decisions on concerts, books and materials which some will consider irreverent or even derogatory of religion. We can’t and won’t ban everything, however slight the offence. The Government will be fair, even-handed, and has to be practical.
282. But I reiterate: where hate speech is concerned, and where offensive speech that vast numbers of any community find deeply wounding, we will not hesitate to take action.
283. I cited a Reach survey earlier that showed a majority agreed with the Government’s cancellation of the Watain concert. But what if the majority did not feel something that was deeply offensive to a minority community should be banned? Should we therefore allow such an event?
284. The majority of Germans in the 1930s may not have objected to the vile anti-Semitism of the Nazis. But that doesn’t mean that the majority view was correct.
285. I hope we would always have a Government here that insists on doing the right thing to protect any community in Singapore, no matter how small, and no matter what the majority might feel.
XI. ROLE OF SOCIAL MEDIA
286. Social media has fundamentally changed the complexion of public discourse.
287. Hate and offensive speech can travel much faster and gain wider audiences than before.
288. I had earlier quoted a study in Germany. What was telling is that when there are internet outages or service disruptions to Facebook, incidences of anti-immigrant violence in Germany dipped.
289. Social media platforms have shown that they are unable and unwilling to deal with hate and offensive speech. They do not take responsibility for the content circulating on their platforms. They earn money by advertising – the more eyeballs, the better. Using algorithms, they can deliver news reports that are likely to elicit outrage, and responses.
290. See these pictures. A white woman being violated by immigrants; Muslims toting guns; someone killing her child. Twitter refused to take them down, as it was not in breach of Twitter’s hateful conduct policy.
291. In the case of the Christchurch shootings, Facebook failed to quickly shut down and remove the livestream video from its platform. The video was viewed 4,000 times before it was taken down.
292. And the views on Facebook were and are probably a small number compared with the circulation on WhatsApp. Facebook will say that it cannot do anything about that due to encryption.
293. The New Zealand Prime Minister, Ms Ardern, had called for social media companies to take responsibility for the contents they published. She said that it cannot be a case of “all profit, no responsibility”. And Australian PM Scott Morrison has talked about imposing criminal charges on social media companies that are not responsible.
294. The role of social media is something we will need to deal with. The Bill on Deliberate Online Falsehoods is one step. We have to take further steps.
295. Our approach to race and religion has largely been successful. The lived reality of Singaporeans is the test.
296. In a Gallup World Poll in 2016, Singapore ranked top out of 140 countries for tolerance of ethnic minorities. In the 2016 CNA – IPS survey on race relations which I referred to earlier, the respondents strongly endorsed issues relating to multiculturalism. 96% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “I have respect for people from all races”. In 2015, President Obama said that one of the reasons why Singapore had been so successful was because we “have been able to bring together people who may look different, but they all think of themselves as part of Singapore”. He said: “That has to be a strength, not a weakness, but that requires leadership and government being true to those principles.”
297. I started this speech by referring to four events in four countries, and asked if there might be a larger picture. What is the larger picture? My speech has attempted to sketch that picture.
298. We are in the positive part of the spectrum of racial and religious relations because of the way we have structured our legal and social frameworks and all the things we have done to maintain racial and religious harmony.
299. What has been happening in Iraq and Syria serves as an illustration of what can happen when things go badly wrong in terms of race and religion. It represents a deeply negative part of the spectrum.
300. The New Zealand attack represents a warning and alert to us that even a country – described as “Heaven on Earth” – can suffer a serious attack. It reminds us that hate speech can fuel crazy people. What happened in New Zealand can happen elsewhere. Though New Zealand is on the positive end of the spectrum, it shows how uninhibited hate speech can have terrible consequences.
301. The case of Utrecht highlights the problems that extremism poses, even in advanced and prosperous societies. Integration issues in Europe are also a flashing amber light. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in 2010 that “the multicultural concept is a failure, an absolute failure.” Then-British PM David Cameron said in 2011: “We have failed to provide a vision of society to which [different cultures] feel they want to belong. We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.”
302. The cancelling of the Watain concert was one discrete step. Why we did it can only be understood by understanding the larger picture of why we are in the positive part of the spectrum. And that is why we are different from many others.
303. Our current racial and religious harmony didn’t fall ready-made from the sky. It is not part of the “natural order” of things. There is nothing “natural” about it. We engineered this over many decades. People accuse us of “social engineering”. So what?
(a) We imposed ethnic quotas in housing, to prevent racial enclaves in our housing estates, possible ghettoes, or banlieus, as they are called in France.
(b) We have GRCs to ensure minority representation in Parliament. Look around this House: could we have guaranteed this number of Malay, Indian and Other members if not for GRCs?
(c) We have the Presidential Council for Minority Rights, which checks that Bills passed by Parliament do not discriminate against any racial or religious community.
(d) We have protection of minorities written into the Constitution.
(e) We have the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act.
(f) Everybody knows we will have no hesitation arresting any bigot of whatever persuasion. ISD will deal with anyone who burns the Bible or Quran or any Holy Book. We stopped Christians preachers from evangelizing insensitively among Muslims long ago. We had a recent case in Clementi, of an attempt to evangelise to Muslim boys; the police are investigating.
304. We have the current harmony because we did all this. Not despite, but because. We took no chances. We brooked no agitation on race and religion. We refused to let the State bow to any religious or racial group, minority or majority.
305. In Singapore, we organise ourselves horizontally. All races and religions are treated equally and on the same level. Most – if not all – other countries in Asia, either explicitly or implicitly, organise themselves vertically, on the basis of ethnic or religious hierarchy. This includes a liberal democracy like Japan. Our uniqueness should not be underestimated. Equality of races and religions is not the natural order of things; it has to be defended.
306. On the very first day of our existence as a sovereign, independent State, the founding PM said:
“This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation.”
307. From the beginning, the Government determined that it would base its legitimacy by appealing to all Singaporeans; not just the majority Chinese. That determination to be multi-racial, multi-religious; that determination that nobody will be squatted upon on account of his race or religion, the colour of his skin or the language he speaks – that’s why we became independent. And we mean to keep it that way.
308. If anything, we are prepared to err on the side of caution and risk over-reacting, to preserve harmony, rather than take chances and risk explosions.
309. In 2010, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, reflecting back in a New York Times interview, said:
“I’ve got to tell the next generation, please do not take for granted what’s been built…
I believe [our younger generation] have come to believe that this is a natural state of affairs… They think you can put it on auto-pilot. I know that this is never so.”
310. Let us heed his warning. What we have in Singapore is precious, hard fought. But we are only 54 years old, a multi-racial meritocracy that is unique, but not yet so deeply embedded to be unassailable.
311. Mr Speaker, I invite Members to consider the questions I have raised, and pursuant to Standing Order No. 44, I beg to move,
“That the Ministerial Statement on Restricting Hate Speech to Maintain Racial and Religious Harmony in Singapore be considered by Parliament”.