01 Apr 2019

Restricting Hate Speech to Maintain Racial and Religous Harmony, Speech by Ms Sun Xueling, Senior Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of National Development

Mr Speaker Sir,

 

Last week, IPS released an important survey on the role of religion in the private and public space. Of the 1800 Singapore residents interviewed, one in four find it acceptable for religious extremists to publish their views on the internet or social media. A significantly higher proportion of younger people find the publication of extreme views acceptable, with almost half of those surveyed aged 18 to 25, saying they would allow publication.

 

This is similar to the feedback received from some younger members of the public who disagreed with the cancellation of the Watain concert. They raised questions about the government’s moral authority to police music, performances and artistic content.

I can understand this sentiment. Aspiring to have the freedom to express what one feels, the liberty to read and enjoy what one feels like, is seen to be a hallmark of a free and democratic society.

There are also other aspects of freedom that I think are important. The freedom to decide on one’s choice of religion and to practice it, the freedom to not be discriminated against because you are of a different race and religion.

 

I am sure we agree that we want all the above freedoms. But what happens when these two sets of freedom collide? Or are on a trajectory to collide?

 

Some may be sceptical about why these two sets of freedom can collide. They can. If one were to ridicule or taunt believers of another religion, he may feel he is entitled to his “freedom of speech”, but the recipient can feel that he is entitled to be offended and what about the recipient’s freedom of not being discriminated against?

These are difficult issues and each party is entitled to their own opinions and their rights. If we leave them to engage in a public disagreement – this could result in an escalating crescendo of extreme views against each other. And what if this spills into real action in the real world? So someone has to act. And oftentimes, this ends up being the government enforcement agency’s responsibility. If the enforcement agency does not act, the parties may take matters into their own hands.

 

The government’s overview on music, performances and art is based on classification ratings, tied to age-appropriateness and with consideration for public sensitivity. The IMDA regulates this. Not the MHA.  

 

The Ministry of Home Affairs is principally focused on public order issues and with that the maintenance of racial and religious harmony as it can impact public order.

So why did the MHA get involved in the ban on Watain? The MHA does not look at music and artistic content. The MHA took into consideration the lyrics, views espoused by the band, and whether this would be significantly disrespectful, in this case, to the mainstream Christian community.  In other cases it could touch significantly on the sensitivities of other groups in Singapore. So on religious harmony grounds, the MHA recommended that Watain not be allowed to perform in Singapore.

 

But I feel the whole episode provides a few learning points:

  1. Firstly, agencies need to explain to the public that they are not making a value judgement on the art form. In the ban on Watain, there is no value judgement on black metal music. The fact of the matter is that the MHA was principally concerned about the words and the message that was being put out by the band, and the feelings, in this case, from the mainstream Christian community. It was not a value judgement on the genre of music.
  2. Secondly, agencies need to be seen to be acting even-handedly towards different racial and religious groups. Minister Shanmugam has shared that bans on religious preachers in the past have been imposed on religious preachers across different religions. This even–handed approach is a point that is important to various racial and religious groups and needs to be repeated often.

     

  3. Thirdly, while a judgement call has to be made on whether music and performances harm racial and religious harmony, such judgement calls should take place as early as possible so as to minimise confusion to arts practitioners and also minimise misunderstanding from the public that the government makes decisions based on pressure from religious groups. So we should look at processes and see how we can avoid a repeat.

 

 

On hindsight, we are all omniscient and prescient. Enforcement agencies will always be the whipping boy because they have to make a judgement call. If there is no public disorder, they are deemed to have over-reacted. If there is public disorder, they are seen to be lacking in preparation. Government agencies get no bonus points for active intervention to create a harmonious society. And over time, a harmonious society is taken as a given. 

 

But really is it? Are we saying that society can magically chug along, and as active individuals in our society, we do not impact the course our society takes? I cannot believe that, and I do not think that our young will agree either. We are actually making a stand, taking action every day, in the words we speak, in what we do and what we do not do. Our actions or lack thereof have consequences.

 

So we need to ask ourselves how we want the tone and texture of discourse to be in our society. Do we want civility, respect, consideration in our general discourse and public expressions of speech? The trade-off may be some restraint and the inability to be “spontaneous”. Or do we want absolute freedom and anything goes – potentially insults, taunts, offensive speech, in the name of freedom of expression? Should different lines be drawn just because it is on social media, or in arts and entertainment?

 

We need to strike a balance. On the one hand, we cannot have a free for all situation so that one can step all over another and expect the other not to react or retaliate. On the other hand, we also do not want a situation where civil and considered discourse on all matters related to religion, race, or a group’s values and orientation be avoided or tip-toed around so as to avoid any possibility of causing offence. In fact this debate we are having in this House, in a considered way, shows that such issues can and should be discussed. As long as we understand what we are trying to achieve, and how we can work together to achieve them.

In the words of the great American singer and song-writer Bob Dylan, who won the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016, he once said “A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.” His songs gave a voice to his generation, mobilising them and motivating them. And he understood the balance that even artists have to strive to achieve.

 

As we aspire to greater freedoms, with the stability and prosperity our society affords us, let us also have a care for those who may be impacted by our decisions, impacted by our words, and also those who toil to safeguard what we have. Our pursuit for freedoms brings a lightness to our spirit, but let us not forget those who carry our burdens for us – anchoring our racial and religious harmony for the prosperity and stability of Singapore.

 

Mr Speaker in Chinese pls.

最近发生在新西兰的恐怖袭击中,枪手在回教堂屠杀了51名正在祈祷的、手无寸铁的穆斯林。据这个枪手说,是网络上的仇恨演说和内容,激起了他对穆斯林的种族歧视和暴力行为。

 

可见,我们不能低估演说和文艺作品的影响力。有的时候,演说和文艺作品能够提升人的精神,给人勇气,但有的时候,它们也能够催生仇恨和暴力。

 

特别是,当演说和文艺作品涉及种族宗教歧视的时候,我们更应该小心。因为种族和宗教是一个人的基本身份。如果一个人仅仅因为他的出身、肤色、或宗教信仰,被人歧视侮辱,这实际是在质疑他这个人存在的合理性。而这很容易引发种族间、宗教间的仇恨和冲突。

 

那么,面对这些带有种族和宗教歧视的演说和文艺作品,我们应该如何应对呢?

 

幸好,新加坡从建国初期,基于自己和其他国家的经验和教训、以及对人性的理解,很早就把种族和宗教和谐定为我们社会的支柱。对于那些有意煽动种族间、宗教间敌意的语言和行为,我们的法律严令禁止。

 

但是,除了法律条文外,我认为更重要的,是我们每一个新加坡人是否对种族歧视, 宗教歧视有足够的敏感度,能否在每天的生活中身体例行,履行我们对社会和谐的承诺,在个人自由与他人自由之间找到一个好的平衡。

 

有的人可能会问,我不是恐怖分子,我只是想听听音乐、看看视频。有的内容虽然涉及种族宗教歧视,但我可以分辨好坏,我不会变成恐怖分子。政府能不能对我有点信心呢?能不能不要干涉我的自由?

 

对于这个问题,我想说,当种族宗教歧视通过媒体走进公众视野的时候,你可能没有受到伤害,但是别人的尊严可能已经受到了伤害。

这就好比有人辱骂你、欺凌你,然后把辱骂你的视频放在网上,让所有人都能看到,你会有什么样的感受呢?

 

己所不欲,勿施于人。我们每个人都希望生活在一个仁爱礼让的社会里,而不是一个相互有仇恨,有冲突的社会里。

 

种族歧视、宗教歧视的语言和行为,即使没有伤害到你,它也可能伤害到其他的新加坡人。而当我们看到这种带着歧视的语言和行为的时候,我们不应该袖手旁观,而是应当挺身而出,表明立场,加以制止。

 

作为华族成员,今天如果我们不为基督徒的朋友们挺身而出,不为穆斯林的朋友们挺身而出,明天受伤害的可能是我们自己。

 

如果看一看周边国家曾经发生的惨剧,就知道种族屠杀离我们并不遥远。例如1998年印尼的黑色五月暴动,就是一场针对华族的暴动,仅仅是印尼首都雅加达,就有近1000个华人被屠杀,近500位华人妇女被强暴。还有1965年印尼发生的大清洗,约50万个华人被屠杀。

 

作为一个新加坡人,我感谢建国一代为我们创造的和谐社会。但种族和宗教和谐,需要我们的持续努力。虽然新加坡社会现在看似太平,但这不代表我们就可以在这个课题上掉以轻心、袖手旁观。而当我们其中一份子挺身而出,捍卫我们的社会和谐时,我们应该支持他,感谢他的勇气,感谢他的责任心。

作为一个母亲,我希望新加坡拥有一个和平的未来。我也希望新加坡的年轻人能和我一起,为我们的下一代创造一个没有种族歧视,没有宗教歧视,没有仇恨,没有暴力的美好世界!

谢谢!

 

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