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I hate to say this…but we’re thin-skinned

I guess this is the time for an update of the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act  – even though its provisions for restraining orders have never been used since its introduction in 1992. In these past two years, we’ve had so many hints that a review was in the works.  In 2017, there was concern about the rise of religiosity in the region. Later, there were concerns that the specific law didn’t quite apply to extremist or deviant religious preachers talking to their own followers. Now there’s  this new phenomenon called  online radicalisation, which people here don’t seem to think of as very much of a big deal, according  to a survey.

And the biggie: hate speech.

According to media reports, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam will be speaking on the Government’s approach in restricting hate speech — or forms of expression which spread and incite racial hatred, xenophobia and other forms of intolerant views — so as to maintain racial and religious harmony here. He will do so tomorrow, after which a form of restricted speech in legislation to  be titled Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, will be introduced.

I don’t know if the minister’s speech is a prelude to the Bill. Or whether hate speech and fake speech will be differentiated. After all, “hate” is a feeling that could be based on rational grounds or just plain emotion – or based on made-up facts calculated to inflame, that is, fake news.

We have plenty of laws that curb hate speech, especially if it incites ill-will among communities and disaffection towards the G. There’s the Sedition Act, which has also been used on over-active evangelists despite the presence of the racial harmony law. There’s Section 298 of the Penal Code which criminalises the deliberate wounding of racial and religious feelings, and the all-encompassing Internal Security Act which has been responsible for the incarceration of radicalised Muslims here, both local and foreign.

Mr Shanmugam has said that the G makes no apologies for its tough approach to hate speech. I agree with this approach entirely. I wonder if this why the G resorts to these stronger laws which include fines and jail terms, rather than use the softer religious harmony laws which have to go through the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony and which require Presidential assent. Kinda makes it irrelevant…

So what is the G’s approach then to hate speech and its varied subjects that can include anything from inciting anti-Islam views, anti-Christian views, anti-feminist, anti-LGBT sentiments, anti-any CIMO, anti-foreigner or anti-anything? We’re a society criss-crossed with so many lines that I worry we might be making those lines more distinct by spelling them out than letting it blur over time.

I am not so much worried about people giving offence through what they say – the truly egregious the likes of Amos Yee would be smacked down. I am more worried about  those who take offence at every slight and demand protection for their sensitivities.

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Hong Kong-based academic Cherian George said as much during last year’s hearings of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods. Professor George said religious and racial insult laws tend to backfire, especially when used by political opportunists to demand State intervention.

It strikes me that intolerance is on the rise on several fronts, especially in the online sphere. How many police reports are filed a day that deal with acts or words that have hurt the feelings or the sensitivities of someone or some group? Are complaints of a racial and religious nature on the rise? Are we getting more and more thin-skinned ?

I recall that in 1989, to bolster the case for religious harmony laws, the Internal Security Department released information on religious activities that offended some groups, such as aggressive proselytisation and controversies over the burial of Muslim converts. Perhaps, we will hear more on this today, and not just exhortations, assertions and phrases like “we cannot take racial and religious harmony for granted”.

To me, the more interesting phenomenon is the increasing presence of organised religion in articulating their positions publicly, especially on moral issues. These groups have been criticised for trying to influence or undermine the secular State. What had been possible behind closed-doors are now publicised as online petitions and press statements, such as the banning of black metal group Watain, complaining about Mickey Mouse Christmas decorations on Orchard Road or rejecting video maestro Nas residency here because he was a former Muslim.

Then there is that all-time favourite bone of contention – the retention or abolition of Section 377A criminalising homosexual sex. While organised groups are more temperate in their public positions, people on both sides are not above name-calling and offensive remarks, whether under the label of defending moral values or secular ones.

Methinks we need to get a firmer fix on what exactly is this secularism we’re talking about. The current laws prohibit preachers from talking politics on the pulpit. We’ve accepted this for some time. I don’t think we’d like to hear a preacher call this or that politician the devil in disguise.

But does it mean that they cannot spell out the religion’s position on any policy for their own faithful, even those that are aligned with the State? Should they be constrained from trying to influence others to their religious cause, even if they do so in a moderate manner?

The survey gave some insights into what different religious groups feel about following the laws of Man and the laws of God. Asked what they would do if faced with a law that contradicted their religious principles, about 48 per cent of those surveyed said they would follow the law while 36 per cent would follow their religious principles. Broken down into religious groups, more than six in 10 of Catholics, Christians and Muslims said they would pick God over Government.

People with religious views have been tested on many fronts over the years. Think of abortion, Stop at Two birth policy, bio-ethics, casinos. My guess is most won’t break the law to make a religious point, picket in protest or prevent others from adhering to the “secular” approach. We’re a law-abiding people that way.

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So how will the G respond to the contrary demands of this multi-racial, multi-religious society? What is a neutral or even-handed approach? I ask this because I found Mr Shanmugam’s reason for banning the Watain concert interesting: the Christians felt that they were being taken for granted. So their feelings count for more than any argument about freedom of expression even if there were no law and order concerns?

It might be worthwhile for Singaporeans to recall our own religious roots in this secular country. I’ve read so much misinformation about the rights and privileges of different racial/religious groups that some repetition and clarification might be in order.

We may need, for example, to be reminded again about why Malay/Muslims here have a special status, including their own minister. Maybe we even need to tally all the give-and-take on the part of each religious group over the years which contributed to current stable religious climate.

Then we need to develop a thicker skin.






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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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