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Singapore cannot deal with issues of race and religion with 'laissez-faire' approach, says senior minister

K Shanmugam, speaking at a forum on non-violent ethnic hostilities jointly organised by the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Institute of Policy Studies, said that Singapore has “a tough set of laws” to deal with the minority that chooses to be nasty towards people with different characteristics.
Last Updated : 01 July 2024, 14:35 IST

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Singapore: Singapore’s Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam on Monday said the issues of race and religion cannot be dealt with by taking a “laissez-faire” and “race-blind” approach, adding that the country intervenes to ensure social cohesion.

Shanmugam, speaking at a forum on non-violent ethnic hostilities jointly organised by the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Institute of Policy Studies under the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said that Singapore has “a tough set of laws” to deal with the minority that chooses to be nasty towards people with different characteristics.

“In a world fraught with racial and religious tensions, the Republic (of Singapore) – despite its status as one of the most religiously diverse places in the world – is an outlier not by chance, and the peace and harmony found here has to be attributed to its near-zero tolerance for hate and offensive speech”, the 65-year-old Indian-origin minister said.

“The majority of people in every society exercise restraint and treat those of other ethnicities and religions with civility”, he said. “But if the minority who do not, are not dealt with under the law, they will eventually set the tone for an increasing number in the population”, he added.

“While they might not move a majority in society, this is enough to polarise society and create enough hostility to incite violence,” The Straits Times newspaper cited him as saying.

Shanmugam said that to stop this from happening, Singapore has, among other laws, the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, which grants the authorities the power to issue a restraining order against clerics who engage in inflammatory speech.

“On top of the legal framework, the government heavily intervenes to promote social cohesion and ensure that government policy is not organised around ethnic lines,” Shanmugam said.

He cited the example of Singapore’s Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) in public housing, saying that allowing natural market forces to take hold would see neighbourhoods with more expensive flats, such as Ang Mo Kio and Bishan (state-building housing estates), populated with 90 per cent to 95 per cent Chinese.

Introduced in 1989, the EIP sets ethnic quotas on flat ownership within each Housing Board block and neighbourhood to prevent ethnic enclaves from forming.

About 75 per cent of the Singapore population are ethnic Chinese.

The government had swum against the natural current “at some political cost”, Shanmugam added, noting that many people mischaracterised the policy as being against minorities, as it means that minority ethnic groups cannot sell their flats to a larger segment of the population.

Beyond enclaves, the consequence of allowing segregation to take place along ethnic lines is schools becoming segregated over time as well, affecting integration, he said.

Shanmugam also argued that the Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others (CMIO) classification on identity cards should stay, although there had been calls to do away with it.

“Isn’t it better to understand that there are differences, and then deal with those differences... Capture the data and see the progress of the different communities, try and bring everybody up and, at the same time, overlay it with a Singaporean identity. Aren’t we stronger for that?” the Singapore broadsheet had the minister as saying.

The CMIO classification is not intended to create division, but to help the Republic build a stronger and more united society and to reduce ethnic tension, he added.

Shanmugam said that people in Singapore may be dismissive of cautionary tales from overseas, including Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis, which brewed over escalating tensions between Buddhist and Muslim communities in Rakhine state.

“But Singapore is not all that different,” the minister said.

“I would not be so dismissive. Because you have to ask – why are we different?... We could have been anywhere in the continuum,” he said.

“We’re different only because we understood the causes of these problems... and worked very hard to prevent those causes from arising,” the minister said.

Restraints on free speech are “also important”, Shanmugam said. Notwithstanding the right to free speech, the Singapore government draws the line firmly when it comes to words or actions deemed offensive to other races or religions, he added.

“This is not always the case overseas, where the prevailing argument is that speech attacking different ethnic groups should be allowed in the name of free speech,” he said.

Shanmugam also argued that debates will only spiral downwards if hate speech is allowed in the name of free speech, under the “great ideological belief that a lot of debate produces understanding and tolerance”.

Shanmugam went on to say that actors can take advantage of the situation for a variety of reasons – a common one being politics.

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Published 01 July 2024, 14:35 IST

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