Published: 05 July 2021
Ms Raeesah Khan: To ask the Minister for Home Affairs in light of Singapore's ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (a) whether existing laws against racist hate speech are consistent with paragraph 20 of the General Recommendation No. 35 of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that measures to monitor and combat racist speech should not be used as a pretext to curtail expressions of protest at injustice, social discontent or opposition; and (b) what legislative and jurisprudential safeguards are in place to ensure that Singapore complies with this recommendation.
1. Our existing laws against racist hate and offensive speech are consistent with paragraph 20 of the General Recommendation No. 35 of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (“General Recommendation”).
2. Under the Penal Code, it is an offence to commit acts that deliberately wound the racial feelings of any person, promote enmity between different racial groups, or conduct acts that are prejudicial to the maintenance of racial harmony. These laws apply equally to everyone, regardless of race. A couple of relatively recent examples when these laws were used are as follows:
In January 2019, we charged a Chinese man under the Penal Code for deliberate intent to wound the racial feelings of the Malay population. The man had scrawled racist messages about Malays on walls in void decks and sheltered walkways in Geylang and Aljunied.
In June 2020, we charged a Malay man who used a Twitter account with a Chinese name “@sharonliew86” to make racist remarks against people of different races. Amongst others, he (prima facie pretending to be a Chinese lady) made racist comments against Indians.
3. As members know, there are other recent examples, and also situations where warnings have been given, instead of prosecutions in court.
4. The law does not prohibit speech on race which does not cross into hate speech, or racially derogatory speech. Neither does it prohibit commentary and sharing of opinions or experiences on race. Members will know that on racial issues, a significant amount of discussion, commentary, sharing of experiences, and more, takes place, regularly. But we take a strict approach to offensive speech and hate speech. The reasons for our approach were set out in a Ministerial Statement on Restricting Hate Speech to Maintain Racial and Religious Harmony in Singapore made by the Minister for Home Affairs, on 1 April 2019. [Please refer to “Restricting Hate Speech to Maintain Racial and Religious Harmony in Singapore”, Official Report, 1 April 2019, Volume 94, Issue No 102, Ministerial Statement section.] And we apply this approach equally to all, regardless of majority or minority. This approach affords greater protection for minorities, by making it safe for them to speak about their experiences, and their views. Otherwise, in a situation where racially offensive speech by all is tolerated or allowed, and both majority and minority communities engage in such speech, it can be expected that more of such speech will be directed towards minority communities. And it will be the minority communities who will then bear the brunt of such offensive speech. That will ironically reduce the safe space for discussion of such issues, and increase minority community concerns for safety and security. These are not hypotheticals. This is what has happened in several other countries. We need to be careful about changing what has worked reasonably well in Singapore (though it is not perfect), and replacing it with polices which have not worked so well, in other places.
5. Our laws are the subject of scrutiny in Parliament, and enforcement of the laws is done through the Courts.
6. I would add that the CERD Committee has similarly taken the view that the protection of persons from racist hate speech is not incompatible and is not “simply one of opposition” with the freedom of expression. In fact, the General Recommendation emphasises that legislation against racial discrimination is “indispensable” to combating hate speech effectively and that States Parties to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination must effectively sanction racist hate speech as offences. In the words of the Committee, “racist hate speech potentially silences the free speech of its victims”. These views of the CERD Committee are consistent with our approach.
7. It is not clear if the Member is suggesting that whenever anyone claims to be protesting at injustice, expressing social discontent, or speaking in opposition, then such a person should be exempted from the above cited Penal Code provisions and that such a person should be allowed to engage in hate or offensive speech?
8. We invite the Member to clarify.