Amid racist incidents, new law to come up on racial harmony in Singapore

Singapore is taking a softer and persuasive approach to managing racial harmony among its multinational society after a number of race-linked cases in public recently raised concerns, according to a media report here.

An upcoming law on racial harmony will likely introduce new sanctions, including non-punitive ones, to try and shape social behaviour and norms, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam on Saturday.

The Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act was announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the National Day Rally on August 29, on the back of an increase in reported racist incidents and inter-ethnic relations coming under stress amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Singapore.

Shanmugam said the Home Affairs Ministry would introduce the legislation, which would first consolidate the different existing laws dealing with racial issues, such as the Penal Code.

Any additional measures would need to be carefully considered.

“Because for day-to-day interaction in the market or in the hawker centre (a common man’s food centre) or in the lift (of an apartment in public housing estate), you don’t want to bring all of them to court and then put them in jail, or impose a fine, or treat all of them as criminals,” The Straits Times quoted the Minister as saying.

“I think it will be an impossible situation. Instead of making things better, you’ll make them worse,” he said.

Instead, the government will work closely with the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth and agencies such as OnePeople.sg, the national body promoting racial harmony, to consider a significant framework of non-punitive sanctions.

“So that, when someone contravenes the norms, perhaps the person can be asked to go and do community service in the community that he has disparaged or hasn’t understood properly,” said Shanmugam.

“And that might help in the greater understanding – without being punitive, and without having criminal records, and without shaming people.

“The focus must really be to try and get people to understand each other better, and get on better,” the Minister was quoted as saying.

It is a similar approach as the Community Remedial Initiative under the 31-year-old Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA), on which the new racial harmony law will be modelled.

Under this remedial initiative, offenders are given the chance to mend ties through a public or private apology to the aggrieved parties, or by taking part in inter-religious events.

The Prime Minister had also announced at the rally last month that guidelines prohibiting employment discrimination – including along racial lines – would now be given legal force.

While laws can help address racism in both work and social settings, they would be meaningless if they stood on their own without support from the community, said Shanmugam.

“If people think, ‘I don’t do it simply because there is a law’, it’s not good enough… what you want is a social norm shaping, for people’s social norms to change and for them to genuinely understand and believe in multiracialism and multiculturalism,” he said, adding, “That’s the ultimate goal.”

“The law is just a guide rail, a way to get there. We have to continue to push for greater understanding, and greater tolerance, and the coming together of our own people through their efforts and the shaping, guiding hand of the government.”

Singapore has a population of 5.9 million people — predominantly Chinese followed by Malays, Indians and others composed of Asians and Caucasians.

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