NDR 2021: New racial harmony law planned, offenders can be ordered to learn about another race, says PM Lee
SINGAPORE: The Government intends to pass a new racial harmony law that consolidates its powers to deal with racial issues, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his National Day Rally speech on Sunday (Aug 29).
The Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act will include “softer” measures that can order someone who has caused offence to stop doing it, and to make amends by learning more about the other race and mending ties with them, Mr Lee said.
The intention to pass the new law comes after some racist incidents this year, as well as discussions on the ground about race relations in Singapore.
One of the incidents, Mr Lee said, happened just before National Day, when netizens picked on a town council celebratory banner showing an Indian family, even though other banners had featured other races.
“They made very nasty comments, accusing the Government of being pro-foreigner and pro-Indian,” Mr Lee said. “Actually, the family is Singaporean, and the son, Thiruben, is a national athlete.”
Mr Lee also mentioned the case of former polytechnic lecturer Tan Boon Lee, who berated an interracial couple at Orchard Road and asked them to date within their own races.
The Prime Minister said several of these racist incidents have specifically targeted Indians, both work pass holders and citizens, possibly due to the large number of Indian work pass holders here.
“Another factor could be the Delta variant of COVID-19, which first emerged in India. I understand people are frustrated the Delta variant managed to get into Singapore,” he said.
“But it is illogical to blame this on Indians. Just as it is illogical to blame the Alpha variant on the English, the KTV cluster on Vietnamese, or the initial outbreak in Wuhan on the Chinese.”
LAWS CAN NUDGE GOOD BEHAVIOUR
While laws might not by themselves make people get along with one another, they can signal what Singapore society considers right or wrong, and nudge people over time to behave better, Mr Lee said.
“Today, we have various laws dealing with serious racial offences, like hate crime or causing racial enmity,” he added.
“But these laws are scattered in different places, like the Penal Code and the Sedition Act. And they focus purely on crimes and punishments, rather than persuasion and rehabilitation.”
The Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act will “collect together in one place” the Government’s powers to deal with racial issues, and includes gentler measures to address offences.
“This softer approach will heal hurt, instead of leaving resentment,” he said. "And if he complies and does it, that's good, we move on. And if he doesn't comply ... legal consequences will follow."
Mr Lee said Singapore already has a similar law for religious harmony, the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, but has never needed to invoke any punishment under this Act.
Under the religious harmony law, those who cause ill-will between different religious groups can be issued with a restraining order.
The existence of this law has had a salutary effect, and has helped to restrain intolerance and promote religious harmony, said the Prime Minister.
“Similarly, a Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act will encourage moderation and tolerance between different racial groups,” he added. “It will signal the overriding importance of racial harmony to Singapore.”
“HARDER TO BELONG TO A MINORITY RACE”
The recent racist incidents are a reminder of how fragile racial harmony in Singapore is, Mr Lee said, highlighting that Singapore’s founding fathers made multiracial equality and harmony a fundamental principle of nation building.
“As a result, Singapore is one of the few countries in the world where people of different races and faiths live peacefully together, and have done so now for more than half a century.”
Nevertheless, Mr Lee said 56 years is a “very short time” in the history of nations, adding that Singapore’s racial harmony is still a “work in progress” and will be so for a long time.
Everyone still retains some racial or religious preferences, he said, and mostly chooses life partners who are of the same race, although this is changing.
“All this is human, and natural in every society,” he said. “But sometimes, it goes beyond racial and cultural preferences to become biases and prejudices. Then it is a problem.”
For instance, some job advertisements require people who speak Chinese, yet it might not always be clear if this is a genuine necessity for the job. Some non-Chinese tenants could also have difficulty renting a flat, Mr Lee said.
“The minorities experience it more acutely, because they are the ones most affected by such racial discrimination,” he said.
“I know it is harder to belong to a minority race than to the majority. This is true in every multiracial society. But it does not mean we have to accept this state of affairs in Singapore.
“We must keep on working at it, to become one people, regardless of race, language or religion.”
Mr Lee said the majority must be more sensitive to the concerns of the minorities, and people must have the moral courage to take a stand against racist behaviour.
This includes calling out deliberate racist agitation that masquerades as something else, he said, giving the example of the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA). Arguments against CECA claimed to be about putting Singaporeans first, but had a “strong racial undertone”.
“The real solution to racism is to change individual and social attitudes, and this takes time and effort.”
UPDATING POLICIES ON RACE AND RELIGION
Besides pushing against discrimination and racist attitudes, Mr Lee said Singapore needs to keep its policies on race and religion up to date, especially as each new generation has its own perspective on such issues.
Older Singaporeans, for instance, might think it is better not to talk about racial and religious issues to prevent disputes, he said, while younger Singaporeans might believe Singapore is more stable now and should talk about the issues more openly.
“These generational differences in views are perfectly understandable and should be accommodated.”
Mr Lee also pointed out that Singapore is “highly exposed” to external political developments, like the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, or the violence between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza.
He also spoke about people in Singapore being influenced by external religious trends, citing how many Christians think of themselves as part of a worldwide communion, and similarly, Muslims who see themselves as belonging to a global ummah.
“So when religious norms elsewhere shift, norms and practices in Singapore are also affected.”
This is why Singapore needs to adjust its policies on race and religion from time to time, Mr Lee said, although they should be updated “based on our own needs and circumstances, and not just because of trends abroad”.
“And we should do so with caution, because race and religion will always be highly sensitive issues,” he added.
“We have to take the time to discuss respectfully, make sure everybody understands, and build a consensus before we make any move.”