NOTE (added 24th November): It has been brought to my attention that the offensive posts made recently were comments on religion, not race, and are therefore technically not racist. Race and religion are two different issues that should not be conflated, and I agree. It was a mistake on my part to have overlooked that while first writing this post. However, the discussion that sparked from the three posts have also somewhat expanded to include issues of racism, and I feel that public discourse on race is in a rather similar situation to discourse on religion. Also, the Sedition Act as discussed here applies to both comments on race and religion, so I think the points made here still stand.
I was born Chinese in a majority-Chinese country. Obviously, I didn’t ask for it to happen this way; it just did. Apart from three-and-a-half years overseas I’ve never actually had much experience of being part of a minority group, and even in New Zealand I was lucky enough to never have experienced racism*. Because of this (I guess you could call it) privileged position, I’ve always felt like I shouldn’t comment too much on issues of racism or discrimination, for fear of speaking out of ignorance.
But the recent spate of racist and insensitive postings that have surfaced online – and the subsequent outcry – has led me to begin thinking about my attitudes to race and religion in Singapore, and the Sedition Act.
Singapore is a multi-racial, multi-religious society. That much we know; it’s been relentlessly drummed into our heads since we were kids in school. It gets trotted out by the establishment at any opportunity – I even heard it at Alan Shadrake’s trial, which was completely unrelated to race or religion. I could recite this line in my sleep.
But as I look around, there is this sneaking suspicion that we might not actually be a real multi-cultural society. I’ve always had some inkling of this; I tried – quite inarticulately, I have to admit – to make this point in a Social Studies class when I was about 13 or 14, saying that Singaporeans seemed to be getting by in this multi-racial, multi-religious society by ignoring each other rather than truly understanding and embracing our different cultures, customs and practices. I didn’t mean “ignore” in that our society is segregated by race, with neither group acknowledging the existence of the other, but that we co-exist in a superficial way: smiling and nodding at each other, but without really going any deeper apart from costume-swapping on Racial Harmony Day. And below all this superficiality there simmers ignorance, misconceptions and bigotry.
I don’t think the sentiments** expressed by people like Jason Neo or Christian Eliab Ratnam are surprising. They’ve always been there, it’s just that now there are social media platforms for people like them to make their opinions known. And there are many more than just the two of them – just listen to how some Singaporeans speak about Bangladeshi workers, or their domestic helpers. (Oh yes, such talk is just as racist, insensitive and bigoted as racist comments against fellow citizens; xenophobia itself has roots in racism.)
Of course, this doesn’t mean that it becomes natural or the norm for people to make such comments – I’m just saying that we should be aware of their existence, and work as a society to try to solve this problem. And the solution certainly does not come in the form of police reports and investigations.
Subsection 3 of the Sedition Act of Singapore defines a seditious tendency as a tendency “to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore.” This Act has been used over the years, resulting in fines and jail terms for those convicted. But does this really curb racism?
I don’t believe that arrests, convictions and jail time combat racism – it just teaches racists not to get caught. They are then left to brood over their hatred and prejudices privately. This actually makes things worse, because there is then no way for us to identify those in need of counselling and education.
Furthermore, these cries for the Sedition Act to be used on the likes of Jason Neo and Christian Ratnam – some have even gone as far as suggesting the Internal Security Act – seriously undermine the fight for free speech and expression in Singapore. If we want free speech, we’re going to have to accept that there will be comments such as these from time to time, and that using the law to censor and muzzle them is just as wrong as the law being used to censor or muzzle any one else.
If we want to have the right to share our opinions in the marketplace of ideas, then we’re going to have to accept that people like Neo and Ratnam (and most recently Donaldson Tan, whose conduct has been argued to have been even more odious than the previous two) have the right to be jerks and idiots. We can engage them, educate them and counsel them, but we can’t gag them. And gagging people is exactly what the Sedition Act is doing.
Perhaps this gagging too has been a contributing factor towards the situation we find ourselves in today with regard to these racist comments. Intimidated by the possibility of being arrested, fined or jailed, it becomes much safer and easier to just shut up and keep our heads down. This doesn’t make us more accepting or tolerant; it just means that instead of facing issues head-on and tackling them, we look away and pretend they aren’t there. Thus, a whole society of Singaporeans unable to cope with race/religion controversies is formed. All that is left for us to do is to cry foul and run to the police.
Racism, bigotry and prejudice is present everywhere, in every society in every country in the world. No matter where we go we cannot escape the fact that there will be people whose minds are closed, people who leap to conclusions or people who are just plain mean. Locking them up is not the answer. Society would be far better served if we were to direct our efforts towards tackling the root of racist beliefs instead, be it ignorance or misinformation.
* There have been accounts of widespread racism in New Zealand, which have always puzzled me because I had never encountered any of it. I finally had to account for it as a combination between luck and spending most of my time hanging out with artsy types who don’t really care whether you’re white, black, yellow, green or purple.
** This used to read “racist sentiments”, but I’ve edited it out since it was rightly pointed out to me that I’ve made the mistake of conflating race and religion by calling the postings made by Neo and Ratnam “racist”. I can’t quite think of a word along the lines of “racist”, but referring to religion, though. (“Religionist”?) If you can think of this word, please let me know so I can make the necessary amendments! Thank you!
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