Managing racial and religious tensions


How are inter-racial and religious tensions managed by the Government in the Internet age?

THE short answer is: Very carefully.

For such a small country, Singapore is incredibly diverse. Maintaining peace among its various racial and religious communities will always be a work in progress, even in the best of times.

A raft of laws have evolved to ensure public order but, with the rise of social media, keeping tensions under control is becoming a lot tougher. No longer are off-colour remarks a case of “said and forgotten”. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, a private joke can turn public very quickly.

Of course, the same set of laws still apply. But deciding whether to throw the book at people who spout racial or religious abuse at others needs to be handled judiciously.

The strategy, put simply, is to treat each incident of conflict on a case-by-case basis. In the Internet age, the Government knows it cannot police every online exchange for insensitive comments and racist rants.

Using the law has proven to have only a limited effect. Over- reaction by the state may also pose questions regarding society’s right to freedom of expression. In other words, the Government’s role has evolved. It aims not only to enforce the laws of the land impartially, but also to actively shape and influence public sentiment.

Take, for comparison, what happened in 2005, when three young men were charged and convicted for posting racist remarks on the Internet. Two were jailed; the third was put on probation.

They were charged under the Sedition Act – the first time the Act was invoked since 1966.

The landmark rulings were meant to serve as a deterrent – a warning to others that such hate speech was viewed seriously by both the judicial and executive arms of the Government.

In sentencing, presiding judge Richard Magnus said the court would not hesitate to impose “stiffer sentences in future cases”.

Asked about the judgment, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said: “If you publish such stuff, anywhere you go, we will act.”

Since that incident, the Act has been used again only once – in 2009, after a Christian couple was exposed for mailing anti-Islamic tracts to households.

That so few have been prosecuted since 2005 for threatening the peace is not because of changed attitudes – similar incidents have, in fact, been on the rise.

Recall the 2010 incident when a pastor was hauled up by the Internal Security Department for insulting the Buddhist and Taoist faiths. Or more recently, last November, when a People’s Action Party youth activist described a school bus of Malay pupils as “terrorists in training”.

People with little regard for others’ religious beliefs will always exist. In the Internet age, the answer cannot be to put all of them in jail, as the Government realises. Calling the police should also not be an immediate reaction to hate speech online.

For one thing, over-reliance on the Government breeds distrust among citizens, who must learn to negotiate and settle conflict amicably among themselves.

Another reason the Government may not be the best party to act is that state intervention rarely changes perceptions. It may curb racial and religiously motivated hate speech, but the Government may not be as effective in explaining why such abuse is not acceptable in the first place. Such a role is better taken by community groups. Over the years, groups such as Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles have brought together community and religious leaders to act as advisers and arbitrators when conflict arises among residents of different races and religions.

More recently, some have suggested a legal Internet code of conduct, the argument being that this would spell out the rules of engagement in online speech about race and religion.

On this matter, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, the Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, said last week at a racial harmony forum that having a code was not about enforcement, but about recommending a set of rules that users should abide by.

When such a rule book will be put up is anyone’s guess.

The bottom line is that although the Internet has made it more difficult for the Government to police undesirable speech, society’s responsibility to defend itself against fanatical views remains the same. Hate speech is an internal problem, not an external one. The Internet is just one other platform – albeit a convenient one – that people use to communicate their views.

Getting netizens to self-regulate is helpful, but as New York Times writer David Brooks said in a recent column about the Colorado shooting, looking at the forms of violence – in this case, Internet speech – is starting from the wrong perspective.

As a society, we can call for codes of conduct, tougher laws, even stiffer sentences – but the best way to nurture tolerance is with something a little more old-fashioned: relationships.

People who hold extremist views are rarely unknown figures – at least, not to their family members and close friends.

If you notice someone in your circle (or Facebook feed) who falls into this group of people, do not wait to speak up. Do so – via a Facebook comment, a private message or a phone call.

People reform people. That’s something that won’t change – even with a 4G network. And it’s a thought you can re-post, and re-tweet, as often as you like.

What the law says…

IN SINGAPORE, there are three main legal avenues by which the Government can punish those whose words or actions threaten religious harmony.

They are applied in slightly different ways, but the underlying objective is the same: to maintain public order.

The first piece of legislation is the Sedition Act, enacted in 1948.

It prohibits, with regard to race and religion in particular, expressions that “promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races”. Repeat offenders can be jailed up to five years.

The second is the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, enacted in 1992.

It gives the Minister of Home Affairs the power to issue restraining orders to any religious leader or individual believed to be causing feelings of “enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility between different religious groups”.

Those issued the order are not allowed to address any members of any religious group. Breaching this order is a criminal offence that carries a maximum sentence of three years in jail and a $20,000 fine for repeat offenders.

Finally, the Government can look to a section in the Penal Code that came into force in 2008.

It increases by 1.5 times the punishment a person would otherwise be given if he commits “racially or religiously aggravated” offences.

For example, the maximum penalty for causing hurt is two years in jail and a $5,000 fine; for racially or religiously motivated crimes, the offender can be jailed for up to three years and fined up to $7,500.

There is actually a fourth piece of legislation – the Internal Security Act – that allows the Government to arrest and detain people on suspicion of threatening national security.

Although it does apply to issues of race and religion, it is more often used in areas concerning international terrorism, for example.

Legal experts note that it might seem unusual to have a slew of laws that all seem to do the same thing – guard and maintain religious harmony. Others argue that religion is a highly sensitive issue, so diverse legal options are needed to enable the Government to handle such matters deftly.

It is worth noting, however, that these laws are rarely invoked.

The Sedition Act, though it was enacted before independence, was used for the first time only in 2005, to convict some bloggers who had made racist remarks on the Internet. The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act has yet to be invoked.

Recent headlines

NEWS about people getting into trouble with the law for potentially inciting racial and religious hostility has been on the rise.

Here are five examples in the past year.


The police arrested two 17-year-old males for allegedly making racist remarks online.

Police said that the remarks “could promote ill will and hostility between the races”.

Two police reports were filed after screengrabs of the postings were shared on Twitter and Facebook. Investigations are ongoing.


An Easter weekend party that was advertised using photographs of women in nun costumes was cancelled after it sparked outrage among Catholics here.

The photos, which were circulated on Facebook, attracted widespread criticism for being insensitive to the Catholic community.

The Church’s Archbishop Nicholas Chia denounced the event’s publicity strategy and the organisers apologised.


A Nanyang Polytechnic student Shimun Lai, 21, apologised after a remark she posted online offended many netizens.

On her Facebook and Twitter profiles, the student said in an expletive-laden post that Indians need their own form of transport or to be in separate cabins from other people.

Police reports were made and she apologised for her comment.


The March issue of the popular FHM magazine was pulled from shelves after a Christian complained of two articles published in the magazine.

In one report headlined “Which of these celebs might secretly be Jesus?”, a number of well-known personalities including Oprah Winfrey and Justin Bieber were assessed for “evidence” that they may be Jesus.

The second report, Jesus 2.0, showed a photograph of a man dressed as Jesus, holding a gun and strapped with ammunition.


A People’s Action Party youth wing member was asked to resign after one of his Facebook posts sparked accusations of racism as it circulated online.

Mr Jason Neo, 30, had posted a photograph of Malay children on their schoolbus with the caption: “Bus filled with young terrorist trainees?”

At least three police reports were made against Mr Neo, who later apologised.

Published on Aug 03, 2012, StraitsTimes


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