Parliamentary Speeches

Wrap-up Speech by Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law, on the Ministerial Statement on Restricting Hate Speech to Maintain Racial and Religious Harmony

Published: 01 April 2019

1. I thank the Members who have spoken. I think the collective position of this House is clear.


2. Hate speech impacts racial and religious harmony.


3. And members agree generally, in dealing with hate speech, we have to intervene early and decisively.


4. On offensive speech that may not be considered hate speech, Members agree that we need to have restrictions. Offensive speech can segue into hate speech, and can overlap. And if we allow offensive speech into religion, politics, media, entertainment, the tone and texture of public discourse will change. Giving offence will be normalised.


5. I think there is broad support based on the speeches for the approach that I had outlined. That is very heartening, that Government MPs, Opposition, NMPs broadly agree to these principles. Let me try and deal with the specific questions.


6. Mr Pritam Singh asked some questions - the processes between IMDA and MHA. I have explained that in some detail in my opening speech.


7. IMDA checked with MHA on security considerations. MHA withdrew its objections, as I have explained earlier. Two days later, MHA gave advice to cancel and I have explained that earlier also, at quite some length.


8. He also asked about the reasons for the cancellation of the concert. Then again, I do not think he wants me to go into the detail that I have given in my opening speech. I think the Member broadly agrees with the principles but he had a question on the cancellation of Watain specifically. He accepted that he was not aware of the opposition of the mainstream Christian viewpoint. That was an important point and now that I have explained that to him, I think he would appreciate that. In turn, that is relevant for the broader security considerations and assessment as well, in the way that I have explained in my opening speech. I think the Member will accept that it then becomes a question of judgement.


9. Mr Singh also made some comparisons to bands in the past. I think in all of these things, the population is dynamic and the reactions change over periods of time. We have to assess it with the facts we have and not be wishful about what it was and what it might be. So the population, reactions, specific bands, time, these are all relevant considerations. But you have to make an honest assessment based on all of those with the reactions that you have and how it will impact on specific security situations as well as the broader security considerations.


10. The Member asked about future applications in general. I have explained the framework. There is no change in IMDA’s framework on content regulation. It has worked very well so far. They have had to apply it and they have applied it in all these years.


11. There is also no change in MHA’s approach to these issues. IMDA in fact has to make a series of decisions, calls, tough calls on a broad variety of issues going well beyond the security issues. Every day they make these calls. In fact, I would say, security stricto sensu, is in fact the easier issue compared with the kind of issues that IMDA has got to deal with when faced with any kind of application. We, MHA, have a narrower focus. We give our views; we gave our views to MCI. We had not anticipated the subsequent developments and when we assessed them, I have explained, both ministries work together. That is how this Government works.


12. It is not as if MCI wanted to proceed in any event or that it was or is unaware of security considerations. Often, MCI itself makes that call. But here, understandably, MHA and our agencies - our primary job is that we keep in close touch with the religious communities, the leaders picked up on the mainstream Christian opinion within a day or so and made the security call and discussed it with MCI. I would add that it does not mean that there is any general ban on all black metal groups. I think that was a point that either the Member asked, or sort of implied.


13. Now let me turn to Mr Murali Pillai, he asked how to deprive commercial entities from making money and spreading hate speech. I think the points you made are valid. They need to be considered. I think there were specific points on MRHA and ISA, and the extent of Government policy. I would say it had worked well so far. The Government’s exercise of power, the constraints on the Government’s exercise of power and safeguards in the legislation as well as in the Constitution have been understood.


14. Ms Denise Phua asked what constitutes offensive speech. I have explained that earlier. Disagreements, arguments on public issues, we do not intervene. WhatsApp and other platforms – I think these are legitimate questions. I cannot tell you that I have all the answers on those issues. But we will have to deal with them.


15. Enforcement, existing legislation, and how we would fairly debate the approach - I think, as I explained, the purpose of this debate is not to enforce something specifically. It is to set out the approach, clarify the approach, hear MPs again, and have it debated. That is what this House is for. Then hopefully with that, the population will also understand what the people’s representatives are saying here and what kind of approach we take.


16. Mr De Souza, SPS Sun Xueling, Mr Saktiandi, Ms Pereira, Dr Lee, SPS Faishal, Mr Seah Kian Peng - we note that comments have been broadly supportive, they have talked about how hate speech travels and how it fuels violence. Dr Lee spoke about her personal experiences, likewise we heard from the perspective of the minority community MPs. And Mr Seah’s points on being conservative when it comes to this specifically. I think it accords with what our society believes in and heels to the kind of approach that we have set out.


17. I thank Professor Lim Sun Sun - very powerful examples, very vivid, and I thank her for the points that she made. We do need to tackle hate speech online. We are very far from tackling it today. I will say that.


18. NMP Terence made a number of points on the space for arts. I understand the points. I don’t think there is any disagreement on that, that there should be cultural vibrancy. Equally, I don’t think the Member disagrees that we cannot allow hate speech, and we must restrict offensive speech. Those are the questions I have raised for this debate. The points that he has raised more broadly on cultural vibrancy - I do not think they affect the narrower set of points, and I don’t think he disagrees with me.


19. Dr Theseira made a very thoughtful speech. He made the point, tracing through the history of Islam and Christianity that challenge is central to religion. He talked about Jesus, Martin Luther, the Prophet, who all led movements to change. Yes, no arguments on that. Insofar that that is relevant to today’s debate, I would say I cannot and will not argue that, but certainly I think the state has no role in either fomenting such change within religion or supporting one side or the other.


20. The second point he made, that religion should not impose its views on public policy and the third point he made that there has been a greater public assertion of faith - I think both those points are valid. In fact, the point that I think he is seeking to make but perhaps did not put quite so directly, is that if you give in to these greater public assertions of faith, and if people of religion become extremely sensitive, then there is a risk of cutting down public space. And that might then affect on the secularity of the government, not in the French sense, but in the sense that this government is secular.


21. Now, so if we were to look at today’s debate, I outlined one big risk in my opening speech which can arise from hate speech and offensive speech and the fault lines and the kind of violence that can arise from it, and the deep splits between communities and religions or religious groups.


22. Dr Theseira hinted at another big risk which is not within the frame of today’s debate but I accept it as a risk of religion either trying to influence public policy or narrowing public policy space; and also something that he didn’t quite mention but flows from it. A political leadership which is not strong enough to stand on its two feet and seeks favours from particular religious groups or specific religious groups, happens in many countries including in this region. That will lead to disaster; that will lead to a different type of government in public policy making and it would not be a secular government. The answer is you really need a strong political leadership which is fair between the different religions. People may be influenced by their religious outlook but you do not make public policy based on a particular religious outlook, or a particular standpoint of a particular religion. Then, you will lose the faith of everybody else in society of a different outlook. That has never been our position, and as long as the Government holds true to the values that have been set up, which I won’t go into, then I think we will avoid that risk. It is a risk. It is a risk because so many governments, both in this region and outside, have gone down that route. It’s one of the easiest ways to get votes.


23. So we have to make sure that we seek understanding between the religious groups, and mutual respect amongst the religious leaders in a multi-religious society. What I would suggest to Dr Theseira is that this is perhaps a topic for another debate on another day, another Ministerial Statement. The MP can move a motion.


24. Minister Grace Fu talked about not just rules, but also the need to make sure that we work very hard to make sure the multi-religious approach works.


25. Sir, let me end this wrap up by reading to this House, the moving words of Imam Gamal Fouda of the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch. On 22 March 2019, there was a Memorial Service at Christchurch, and this is what he said. And I’m not going to read all of it, just some passages.


“Brothers and Sisters in Islam, Brothers and Sisters in humanity, Brothers and Sisters in New Zealand. Last Friday I stood in this mosque and saw hatred and rage in the eyes of the terrorist who killed and martyred 50 people, wounded 42 and broke the hearts of millions around the world. Today from the same place I look out, and see the love and compassion in the eyes of thousands of fellow New Zealanders. Fellow human beings from across the globe have filled the hearts of millions more who are not with us physically but in spirit. This terrorist sought to tear our nation apart with evil ideology that has torn the world apart. But instead, we have shown that New Zealand is unbreakable, and that the world can see in us an example of love and unity. We are broken-hearted, but we are not broken. We are alive. We are together. We are determined not to let anyone divide us. The number of people killed is not extraordinary, but the solidarity of New Zealand is extraordinary. Families of victims, your loved ones did not die in vain. Through them, the world will see the beauty of Islam and the beauty of our unity. We are here in our hundreds and thousands unified for one purpose – that hate will be undone, and love will redeem us.

Islamophobia kills. Islamophobia is real. It is a targeted campaign to influence people to dehumanise and irrationally fear Muslims. To fear what we wear, to fear the choice of food we eat, to fear the way we pray, and fear the way we practice our faith. We call upon Governments around the world including New Zealand and the neighbouring countries, to bring an end to hate speech and the politics of fear. Last week’s event has proven as evidence to the entire world that terrorism has no colour, has no race, and has no religion.”


26. We need to step forward on hate speech, we need to deal decisively with offensive speech so that someone will not have to make this eulogy in Singapore. But if it happens, I hope that we will be able to respond in the same way that the New Zealanders have done.


27. Thank you, Sir.


Managing Security Threats