SINGAPORE – Singapore intends to pass legislation to maintain and promote racial harmony, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said.
In his National Day Rally speech on Sunday (29 August) evening, Lee said that it will be called the Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act and "will collect together in one place all the government’s powers to deal with racial issues".
Unlike the various laws dealing with serious racial offences, such as hate crime or causing racial enmity – scattered across different legislation like the Penal Code and Sedition Act – the Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act "will also incorporate some softer, gentler touches".
"For example, the 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," Lee said. "This softer approach will heal hurt, instead of leaving resentment."
PM Lee noted that Singapore has never invoked any of the punishments under a similar legislation, the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act. "But just the existence of the law has had a salutary effect."
Similarly, "a Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act will encourage moderation and tolerance between different racial groups; it will signal the overriding importance of racial harmony to Singapore," Lee said.
Increased racist incidents
Lee spoke about the new Act amid several racist incidents that happened during the COVID-19 pandemic.
One such incident cited by Lee involved National Day banners set up by the Tanjong Pagar Town Council. Online users picked on one banner showing an Indian family, with some making "very nasty comments, accusing the government of being pro-foreigner and pro-Indian". "Actually, the family is Singaporean, and the son, Thiruben, is a national athlete," Lee pointed out.
Lee also mentioned another incident where a Chinese-Singaporean polytechnic lecturer accosted an inter-racial Singaporean couple on Orchard Road. The lecturer berated them, saying that they should date people of their own races.
Noting that many of the incidents targetted Indians, Lee said that the "real issues" – such as work pass numbers and concentrations, and border health safeguards – must be addressed but society should not let their frustrations "spill over to affect our racial harmony".
'Harder to belong to a minority race'
Lee also acknowledged that racial biases and prejudices do happen in Singapore, such as in certain job ads or when properties are being rented out, and the minorities experience it more acutely. "I know it is harder to belong to a minority race than to the majority," Lee said. "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 keep on working together regardless of race, language or religion, he added.
"The majority must be more sensitive to the concerns of the minorities. We must also have the moral courage to take a stand against racist behaviour, to express clear disapproval of racist incidents when they happen," he said. "And what is harder: to call out deliberate racist agitation that masquerades as something else."
The solution to curb racism is to change individual and social attitudes, Lee said. "This takes time and effort."
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