Shanmugam: Pragmatism towards offensive speech only tenable approach
Minister says Govt accommodates diverse groups and makes adjustments based on common sense
Pragmatism towards speech that is offensive to a race or religion is the only tenable approach for Singapore society, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam argued yesterday, as he kicked off a debate on hate speech in Parliament.
MPs took a minute of silence before the sitting to remember the victims of the terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, where a gunman killed 50 people in two mosques during Friday prayers on March 15.
Connecting the dots between that shooting and the cancellation of a concert by Swedish death metal band Watain here, as well as another shooting in Utrecht, Netherlands, and the fall of the last stronghold of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militant group, all of which happened last month, Mr Shanmguam said Singapore is in the positive part of the race and religious relations spectrum.
This is because of the way Singapore has structured its legal and social framework, which stands it apart from many other countries.
He said what is going on in Iraq and Syria, which are in the deeply negative part of the spectrum, is an example of what happens if things go badly.
Integration issues in advanced, prosperous societies in Europe are an amber flashing light, while the Christchurch attack is an alert that even a country described as "Heaven on Earth" can suffer a serious attack, Mr Shanmugam said.
Establishing that hate speech - defined as expressions which spread, incite, promote, or justify hatred based on intolerance - is unacceptable here, Mr Shanmugam said offensive speech leads to the same outcome of deep social divides, just at a slower pace.
"Speech does not fall into neat categories... It is a continuum, a spectrum... Offensive speech can segue into hate speech and they overlap," he added.
Offensive speech will make Singapore ripe for discrimination and eventual violence, which is why Singapore places restrictions on such speech, even when it is not, strictly speaking, hate speech.
Such speech, if normalised, can have a dehumanising effect in the long run, Mr Shanmugam said, adding: "How can we be one united people when, every day, it is accepted that one race or another, one religion or another, can be publicly insulted, ridiculed and attacked?"
Discussing how Singapore tackles this, Mr Shanmugam said an absolute, objective approach would mean either banning everything that is deemed insulting or offensive, or allowing everything.
"Members will see that either absolute approach is really not doable," he said.
Instead, the Government's position so far has been a practical and nuanced one.
"It can be a bit messy but it has worked so far with relative success and with a bit of give and take," Mr Shanmugam said.
When deciding what to ban, the Government looks at how offensive the materials or words are, and assesses its impact on the reaction of the different communities. The latter will differ depending on who says it, and in what context.
The Government also looks at the nature of the event where the speech is made and its reach, Mr Shanmugam said.
It is also important to look beyond the immediate reaction, and consider the security implications, both short and long-term, such as the deepening of fault lines, he added.
Guided by common sense, Mr Shanmugam said that the Government also assesses where the weight of mainstream opinions lie, and cannot be directed by the viewpoint of people who are extremely sensitive.
He said: "The Government is neutral. We proactively accommodate different groups, we recognise their different histories and traditions, and we make practical adjustments."
Explaining the reasons behind yesterday's parliamentary debate, Mr Shanmugam said: "Some people ask me what is the purpose of this motion because they think that at the end of it, we must have some legislation. No. This is a debate simpliciter. We set out our approach, we set out what has guided our approach.
"And if you want the approach to be changed then we should hear it in the House and that will educate the young people one way or the other."
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