SINGAPORE, Aug 29 — To nudge Singaporeans, over time, to behave better and treat everyone equally regardless of race, a new Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act will be introduced to the law books soon, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced today in his English speech at the National Day Rally.
Lee noted that there has been a rise in racist incidents in Singapore as race relations have come under stress during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Though the real solution to racism lies in changing mindsets over time, he said: ”Laws may not by themselves make people get along with one another, or like one another. But laws can signal what our society considers right or wrong, and nudge people over time to behave better.”
He also called on Singaporeans to express clear disapproval of racist incidents when they happen and call out “deliberate racist agitation that masquerades as something else”.
He referred, in particular, to the movement against India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca), a free trade agreement between the two nations, which claims to be about putting Singaporeans first, but bears a “strong racial undertone”.
challenges but Chinese privilege claim ‘entirely baseless’, says PM Lee
Critics of Ceca argue that the deal allows India nationals unfettered access to jobs in Singapore, unfairly pushing out resident workers from the same roles, claims that the Government has rebutted.
New act against racism
The new laws that will be enacted will combine all of the Government’s existing powers that are related to race issues, which are now scattered across different laws such as the Penal Code and the Sedition Act, and also incorporate some “softer, gentler touches”, Lee said.
The existing laws “focus purely on crimes and punishments, rather than persuasion and rehabilitation”, he added.
For example, the new laws would give the Government power to 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.
“This softer approach will heal hurt, instead of leaving resentment,” Lee added. “If (the offender) complies and does it, that’s good, we move on. If he doesn’t comply or continues to do wrong things, of course, legal consequences follow.”
The new Act will signal the overriding importance of racial harmony to Singapore, he said, much like how the existing Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act did the same for religion. The latter was passed in 1990 and ensures that religion is not exploited for any political or subversive reasons.
He said that the Government has never needed to invoke any of the punishments under the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, but just the existence of the law has had a salutary effect.
“It has helped to restrain intolerance and promote religious harmony.”
Changing social attitudes
Lee is aware that the real solution to racism is to change social attitudes over time.
He observed that race relations have come under stress because of Covid-19 and that there have been more racist incidents, several of which were widely publicised on social media.
He cited two examples: The former polytechnic lecturer who berated an interracial couple and made racist remarks, and the racist comments directed at a National Day banner put up by Tanjong Pagar Town Council featuring an Indian family.
Several of these incidents targeted Indians specifically, both work pass holders and citizens alike, Lee noted.
One reason could be the large number of Indian work pass holders here, and another factor could be the Delta variant of Covid-19, which first emerged in India, he added.
“I understand people are frustrated the Delta variant managed to get into Singapore, 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.
“We must address the real issues — manage the work pass numbers and concentrations, and improve border health safeguards. But we should not let our frustrations spill over to affect our racial harmony.”
Through laws and policies enacted over the years, people of various races and faiths could live peacefully together in Singapore for more than half a century, Lee said.
“It is a rare and precious achievement, but it is also a delicate balance, because a harmonious, multiracial country is not a natural or stable state of affairs.”
He sounded caution about how race relations and politics have polarised people in other countries: The majority asserts its powers and sidelines minorities; and minorities, finding themselves with less and less space, retaliate by pursuing aggressive identity politics.
In turn, the majority group feels pressured and threatened, and rallies around hardline chauvinist leaders.
“Either way, the outcome is unhappy for both majority and minorities, and once a country has gone down that path, it is very difficult to turn back. Fortunately, right from the beginning, Singapore chose a different path,” he said.
Understanding concerns of minorities
In his English speech, Lee reiterated a call he had made earlier in the evening in his Chinese speech, for Chinese Singaporeans to be more accommodating and aware of the difficulties faced by ethnic minorities.
Lee said that it is natural for people to have racial or religious preferences when it comes to friends and life partners, but that sometimes, it goes beyond racial and cultural preferences to become biases and prejudices.
“Then it is a problem.”
He gave two examples of such biases, which he had mentioned in his Chinese speech: When employers seek to hire people who speak Mandarin even though it is unclear if this requirement is a genuine necessity for the role they are looking to fill, and homeowners who refuse to lease their flats to non-Chinese tenants.
“These things do happen here. The minorities experience it more acutely, because they are the ones most affected by such racial discrimination. They feel angry, hurt, disappointed that the words in our national pledge are still an aspiration, still not fully achieved,” he said.
“It is harder to belong to a minority race than to the majority. This is true in every multi-racial society. But it does not mean we have to accept this state of affairs in Singapore.”
Singaporeans must therefore call out racist behaviour when they happen and the majority must also be more sensitive to minority concerns, he said. — TODAY