S'pore's racial harmony not yet on 'knife's edge' despite spate of racist incidents: K Shanmugam

Shanmugam said that while legal provisions exist, this should not be the only solution.

Jason Fan | June 10, 2021, 11:12 PM

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Is Singapore's racial harmony on a "knife's edge", especially after the recent spate of high-profile racist incidents in Singapore?

Not yet, according to Minister for Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam, who said that claiming so would be "overdramatising" the issue, given that Singapore has made many positive steps towards being a multiracial society over the years.

Not surprised by recent racist incidents

In a 12-minute interview with CNA938 on Thursday (June 10), Shanmugam said that he was not surprised by the recent racist incidents in Singapore, and that they were "predictable" for those who have been following developments around the world.

He did not elaborate on those developments, but said that the recent incidents here were due to "external developments", as well as "some things that have been happening within Singapore".

When asked whether members of the public should always call out racism, he agreed, but added that it is important to do so "sensibly".

"When it's in the public square, I think you should call out, and you should frown against it, and you should take action where it breaches the law. Because it is cancerous, it is divisive, and it undermines the values of our society," said Shanmugam.

Should not always resort to legal system

While Singapore has a strict legal framework regarding racial harmony, Shanmugam also emphasised that Singaporeans cannot always look at the law as the solution in every situation.

He said that harmony and racial tolerance cannot be brought about "just by having laws and enforcing them", as there are many other factors in play.

Shanmugam said that while investigations have to be conducted in serious cases, the answer should not be resorting to the legal system all the time.

"Sometimes people are charged [with breaking the law], but you have to be careful in the way you exercise that power," he said.

Concerned whether Singaporeans progressing in right direction

Asked whether Singapore's racial harmony is on a "knife's edge" because of recent events, Shanmugam disagreed, saying that Singapore has already done better than most other multiracial societies, even though there is racism here.

In fact, most people in Singapore do accept the norms of a multiracial society, and Shanmugam said Singaporeans have made a lot of positive progress in this regard.

However, Shanmugam said the recent incidents have made him question whether Singapore is still progressing in the "right direction".

This was something he addressed in a previous Facebook post, where he said that more people are finding it acceptable to make "in your face" racist statements openly.

"I used to believe that Singapore was moving in the right direction on racial tolerance and harmony. Based on recent events, I am not so sure anymore," he wrote in the post.

Don't respond to racism by making racist remarks

Shanmugam also said that the government plays an important role in articulating its vision of building a system based on justice, equality and meritocracy, where everyone can feel equal and protected.

It was also important, Shanmugam said, for the government to be fair.

Elaborating on the idea of fairness, he brought up past incidents where members of the public responded to racist remarks made by another race by using racist remarks of their own, saying that it was "somewhat hypocritical".

"You don't respond to what you say is racism by your own racist remarks, by being racist yourself," he said.

Shanmugam said it is the government's role to call such individuals out on their hypocrisy, as not doing so would undermine the rule of law.

He questioned what would happen if the government did not take action against a member of the minority who made such racist remarks, asking:

"The next time, when someone from the majority community does it, has there been rule of law and can the government go and say 'no, we are going to take action?'"

"Rule of law means the law applies to all, majority and minority equally," he said.

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Top image via CNA938/FB and Dave Park Ash/FB.