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Rise in ethno-religious friction triggers alarm in Singapore

Authorities mull laws to curb offensive remarks and gestures without curtailing freedom of speech

Rise in ethno-religious friction triggers alarm in Singapore

People walk out of the SMRT subway station in the Chinatown district of Singapore on July 7. (Photo: AFP)

Rising cases involving racial or religious tension have triggered alarm in Singapore, with authorities mulling strong laws to curb ethno-religiously offensive remarks and gestures without curtailing freedom of speech.

Police registered 60 reports related to racial or religious frictions in 2020, nearly double the 31 cases of the previous year, Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said in a written reply to parliament on July 5, reports The Straits Times.

The reports were filed under sections 298 and 298A of the Penal Code, which cover acts that deliberately wound the racial and religious feelings of any person; promote enmity between different racial and religious groups; or are prejudicial to the maintenance of racial and religious harmony, the minister said.

From 2016 to 2018, Singapore reported 23, 11 and 18 similar cases respectively.

Regarding the question about how Singapore was navigating ethnic and religious polarization, Shanmugam noted that it is increasingly a global phenomenon.

In 2019, the Gallup World Poll found that 95 percent of respondents in Singapore said Singapore was “a good place to live” for racial and ethnic minorities.

Singaporean netizens reacted to the revelations about the rise in racial and religious frictions with shock and surprise

"The global average was about 70 percent. We were ranked first worldwide among 124 countries polled for this question," Shanmugam said, adding that the government will continue to be “an objective and neutral arbiter” and take action against anyone who commits acts that sow enmity and threaten racial harmony.

Singapore is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country with a population of about 5.6 million. Most Chinese are Buddhists and most Malays are Muslims. Christians comprise about 15 percent of the population.

The nation has several laws, including the Penal Code and the Protection from Harassment Act, that criminalize racially and religiously offensive public remarks and gestures.

Yet cases of racial abuse and religiously suggestive offenses have made headlines in recent times.

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On June 8, a court sentenced Zainal Abidin Shaiful Bahari, 35, a Singaporean Muslim, to three weeks in jail for sending multiple racially offensive tweets about Indian migrant workers in 2019.

In June, a Chinese man who was a lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic was suspended from his duties after he was caught on camera making racist remarks about an interracial couple.

Police have investigated the video, which went viral on social media, where the man told couple it was “a disgrace for a Chinese woman and an Indian man to be together.” Also, he allegedly said the Indian man was "preying on a Chinese girl."

Singaporean netizens reacted to the revelations about the rise in racial and religious frictions with shock and surprise, with some saying it was an adverse impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and others calling it a creeping influence of a global problem.

I believe Singaporeans are frustrated. Is it the lack of jobs for locals? How do we find our own identity as true blue Singaporeans? 

“We should take this statistic with a huge dollop of salt. Do bear in mind that we are in a pandemic situation and there are many strong feelings against and for masks, viruses and vaccines. When people are cooped up at home or can't satisfy their wanderlust or feel despondent because of the economic impact from the Covid-19 virus, they will look for their favorite bogeyman,” Clement Chan wrote on Facebook.

Another Facebook user noted how racism has affected countries around the world and threatens Singapore’s long-held pluralism.

“I believe Singaporeans are frustrated. Is it the lack of jobs for locals? How do we find our own identity as true blue Singaporeans? What advantages do locals have against foreign talents? This is our home and we should protect the harmony because that’s who Singaporeans are — we have been saying the pledge since our schooldays to instill those values of our Singapore culture,” commented Douglas S. Chapman.

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