(Delivered in Parliament on 1 April 2019)
1. Mr Speaker, social harmony, racial and religious tolerance, robust but reasoned and respectful debate on contentious issues, all create an environment for modern societies to flourish and thrive. Hate speech, regardless who it is directed against – be it fellow citizens of different races and religions or against other communities and groups such as immigrants, those of a different ethnic origin, new citizens or even against those who proscribe to different life choices, do not profess a faith, or are of a different sexual orientation – ought to have no place in Singapore society, either now or in the future.
2. Hate speech per se tends to exist at one end of the spectrum as it usually hosts extreme prejudice or calls for actionable violence against individuals. The Christchurch terrorist attack on a mosque by a white supremacist exposes the dangers of hate speech that is directed at people of a particular faith with the perpetrator making his views known publicly before carrying out his gruesome act that was roundly condemned by all Singaporeans. The WP too condemns this cowardly act. Nonetheless, it is telling how significant our own biases and perceptions determine attitudes towards people who are different from us. A fair number of people I spoke to were surprised that more than 70% of all terrorist attacks are carried out by far right, non-Muslim and often white attackers, a fact Minister shared during his recent speech to the Religious Rehabilitation Group.
3. Apart from hate speech however is a potentially larger category of offensive speech, not quite a call to arms and as extreme, but expression which is deeply abhorrent, insensitive and completely unnecessary nonetheless. This category can potentially be made even larger depending on how quickly certain individuals gets offended, making executive action open to politicisation. Given Singapore’s open economy and cosmopolitan society which is exposed to both Western and Eastern views, attitudes to what some regard as offensive speech can differ greatly amongst citizens and even those from the same religious group.
4. Most recently in 2017, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) released a statement on offensive speech and expression involving race or religion. It set out the Government’s position in managing issues and reiterated that Singapore’s approach to the matter sought to guarantee the safety, security and freedom of religion for all, with a view to create a common space for everyone. The annex to the MHA statement covered 14 incidents from 2005 to 2017 where the Government had to invoke the Sedition Act and Penal Code to deal with offensive speech, including the issuance of stern warnings and conditional warnings against various individuals. None of these interventions involved offensive speech in the performing arts or entertainment space. Unsurprisingly however, 11 out of the 14 cases involved comments made online, on Facebook, on blogs or in online chatrooms.
5. Sir, my generation has grown up with the internet being a large part of our lives. While the internet has been an incredible platform in democratizing information and has been a force for good in many aspects of our lives, from economics to entrepreneurship – the anonymity, immediacy, and ubiquitous nature of the internet has also given extremists and those who revel in offensive speech a powerful podium. Combined with political economy of social media revenue models and the unique heuristics of the internet ecosystem that highlights the sensational, hate speech is something all societies are affected by, with approaches to address it differing even amongst seemingly similar societies.
6. Going forward Mr Speaker and partly arising from the online space, my sense is that the Government and Singaporeans will have to come to terms with disagreement and contestation on a wide array of issues. Many societies around the world are getting more religious with many groups more strident in their advocacy. Separately, a recent IPS survey observed that young people take a more permissive attitude to offensive speech – a fact which does not necessarily suggest that they approve of it, but they are prepared for a discussion on such issues.
7. In such a context, the balance between respecting individual views of a very diverse society like ours that hosts different mores, thresholds and tastes on the one hand and the importance of a fair and even-handed approach in governing a multiracial and multi religious society on the other will become an important marker of a cohesive and united society. This cohesion and unity will be in danger if the Government is seen to be straying from its longstanding approach of strict secularism to preserve the common space that must be shared by all communities and individuals in Singapore – a common space that must ensure minorities continue to deserve protection and should not be subject to mob justice. Our people will also have a critical role in adopting an even-handed attitude in living in a society that seeks to preserve the common space, and respect the fact that one does not have a right to impose one’s beliefs on others.
8. The recent episode involving the black metal band Watain is a case in point. From public comments made by Minister and the Infocommunications and Media Development Authority (IMDA), there may be a conflation in the public mind of the regime MHA applies in deciding whether to approve or reject the entry of a religious preacher on the one hand, and the conditional approval by the IMDA of a black metal band which covers a genre of entertainment on the other. It would appear that different considerations should continue to apply in each respective case.
9. In the case of a preacher, it would appear that prior comments, particularly on inter-religious matters made by such a person would be relevant in deciding whether to grant such an individual entry into Singapore. Should a preacher have described those outside his faith or even within his faith in offensive terms, then a red flag ought to be raised as the Ministry has done in the past and the person prevented from entering Singapore for the purposes of addressing a congregation.
10. Unlike the assessment regime for entertainment however, it would not be reasonable or rational to impose conditions that require a preacher to avoid of speaking about race or religion. If anything, promising not to disparage others faiths in Singapore but to be able to do so in other jurisdictions would make a mockery of the entire belief system of such an individual.
11. In the case of entertainment or a band, the Government appears to have a variated regime in place, one which does not hesitate to prohibit, correctly I would add, music that denigrates other religions, peoples or faiths. My understanding is that this has been imposed in the past for concerts involving even mainstream singers like Eric Clapton and other black metal bands.
12. By its own admission, IMDA’s conditions in originally allowing Watain to perform in Singapore included the removal of songs which were religiously offensive, the band could not make references to religion or use religious symbols and that no ritualistic acts like the showering the audience in pig’s blood as had been done before in another jurisdiction, were to be performed on stage. Furthermore, given band’s history and concerns as expressed by MHA, IMDA allowed the Watain concert with a rating of Restricted 18 (R18) and on the condition that it would be a very small concert with only a maximum of 200 people allowed to attend. It would also appear that IMDA and MHA’s assessment included foreknowledge of Watain’s reputation, the use anti-Christian lyrics and references to Satanism in some of their music.
13. On the surface of things, these conditions should have addressed concerns about race and religion since the application essentially involved an established genre of entertainment. I should also add that I was not aware opposition to the Watain concert was prevalent amongst mainstream Christians until revealed by the Minister. In rationalising its decision, IMDA stated that in assessing and classifying content for arts performances and concerts, it aims to protect the young from unsuitable content, maintain community norms and values, and safeguard public interest, while enabling adults to make informed choices. Allowing adults to make informed choices is a clarion feature of a secular society that seeks to preserve the common space. It would appear that the originally approach taken by IMDA correctly sought to carefully balance the competing and legitimate concerns of various segments of society.
14. Two days before the band’s slated performance, a widely publicised online petition made its rounds seeking to I quote “ban satanic music groups Watain and Soilwork from performing in Singapore.” The Ministry of Home Affairs thereafter requested IMDA to cancel the concert on the day of the scheduled performance and at the eleventh hour. Ironically, the cancellation arguably brought far more attention to the band and their music than it would have had the concert gone ahead. In fact, for period of time on Spotify in the days following the ban, Watain had more listeners from Singapore compared to any other country in the world.
15. According to the IMDA’s letter to the Straits Times Forum, the cancellation of the concert was due to new and serious concerns about public order, and ground reactions relating to social and religious harmony. Mr Speaker, I accept that new considerations can present themselves after approval is granted for performances and the Government is not out of place to revisit the issue.
16. Interestingly, in the comment section of the online petition against Watain, more than a few interventions alluded to why the Government was suddenly allowing black metal bands – many of which regularly host Satanic themes into Singapore. From an online search, it would appear that even local black metal bands have been part of our of entertainment ecosystem for many years now and foreign black metal bands have been allowed into Singapore previously. For example, a band known as Mayhem are one of the founders of the Norwegian black metal scene from the 1980s, a forerunner of bands like Watain. They built on the extreme metal sound crafted by earlier groups such as Venom, Slayer and Bathory. Their early years were filled with notoriety – their singer committed suicide with a gun to his head, and a picture of his corpse was used as an album cover. The band was also tied to a string of church burnings in Norway. I do not know how many members are aware that Mayhem performed in Singapore in 2006. Deafheaven, a Grammy-nominated band, but derided by old metal heads as “hipster-metal” band also played in Singapore in 2014. To that end, how will the IMDA assess applications for black metal groups in future? Furthermore, which agency will compensate Watain’s promoters and what amount does the wasted expenditure come up to?
17. In conclusion Mr Speaker, it is the secular basis of our state which also allows for selective interventions which allows the government to accommodate totally different spiritual and moral beliefs hosted amongst different citizens. As the 1989 White Paper on the maintenance of religious harmony iterated, while the Government should not be antagonistic to the religious beliefs of the population, it must remain neutral in its relations with the different religious groups, not favouring any of them in preference to the others. I would add that this expectation of neutrality should not only apply to religious groups but other civic groups and citizens in general in their dealings with the Government as well.
18. Overall, the Government’s careful and balanced approach to uphold a strictly secular society so as to preserve a common public space, and its principles towards religious harmony as enunciated in the 1989 White Paper on the maintenance of religious harmony and separately the MHA’s 2017 statement are sound and should be supported. But the Government must be careful not to be perceived as taking sides but instead err on the side of wisdom, especially on matters that are expressions of free speech, particularly in the entertainment and performing arts space. Instead of a hard policy such as bans, a graduated approach establishing a range of conditions like that done by IMDA in its original assessment of the Watain concert would better reflect the compromises required to create and sustain as accommodating and robust a common public space as possible.
19. To that end, effective laws and an activist bureaucracy are only one aspect of the solution. A robust education system which continues beyond school – one that enjoins Singaporeans to ascribe to an attitude of live and let live, respect for both the religious and non-religious, and dealing with fellow citizens with tolerance and mutual respect with the knowledge that we only have each other to lean on in good times and bad, are equally, if not more important.
20. Ultimately, the Golden Rule – that we should not do unto others as we would not have done to us – must be the dictum all Singaporeans ascribe to, be it the online or real world. References to the Golden Rule are found in all the Abrahamic faiths including Christianity and Islam, and separately in other faiths and belief systems such as Confucianism, Buddhism and Hinduism amongst many others. And even for those who are atheist or agnostic and do not follow any religion, such a moral principle – underpinned by mutual respect and tolerance – is one they, like all Singaporeans I hazard, would generously support.