Anti-discrimination laws ought to be put in place

By Ghui

The verdict is out on Amy Cheong – she is currently the most vilified woman on the World Wide Web. In 24 hours, she has lost her job and fled Singapore. It has even been unearthed by eager journalists and netizens alike that Cheong is “not even Singaporean”. She was born in Malaysia and is an Australian Permanent Resident.

I do not at all condone her comments. In fact, I am appalled by them. They are bigoted, elitist and misguided. In that regard, her sacking is, in my opinion at least, justified. However, a lingering question remains – Does her sacking really address the underlying issues?

Bubbling beneath the guise of multiracialism, there is much tension between Singaporeans. In fact, there are many layers to that simmering ill will. We have the “Singaporean versus foreigner” resentment, the “racial misunderstandings” and the “who is a foreigner” witch hunt. People are so angry that they don’t even know what they are angry about anymore and added to that is a lack of outlet with which to vent their spleen.

The far reaching effects of the internet exploded onto the scene and threw everyone including the government into a flux. It is fast, efficient and has no limit in terms of reach. However, for the user who is simply typing onto a keypad or phone in the comfort of his house, office or even the loo, it is hard to reconcile the massive reach of the internet with the relative seeming privacy of their PCs. People have to realise that what they say on the internet is akin to making a declaration of their feelings to a roomful of potentially thousands! Being written, it is also going to be recorded for posterity no matter how quickly you delete it thereafter!

Perhaps, people are just not used to the effects of social media or perhaps Singaporeans are still not used to the relative ease of airing their views freely. Having been restricted for so long, they have no filters to judge how much is too much.

This begs the question of whether we need to put in specific “discrimination laws” to regulate this dicey issue of race. As it stands, this is a very murky area indeed.

In an ideal world, racism would not exist but we do not live in utopia and much as I would love to believe that all my fellow Singaporeans do not possess racist thoughts, I am not so naïve. The state has no right to police the private thoughts of citizens. People are entitled to their private opinions no matter how wrong I may think these thoughts are. But, the perennial but is that citizens have to regulate what they say in public and the internet is public! Something only becomes offensive when it crosses the private domain and enters the public arena. To help people find their feet around this, clear laws and regulations should be in place. People need to know their boundaries and for that to happen, the boundaries have to be unambiguous. Instead of ad hoc prosecutions and trials by media, why not clear anti-discrimination laws?

This idea is not new, and there are various examples for Singapore to take a leaf from. The UK had the Race Relations Act since the 1960s. This was eventually consolidated with other acts targeting discrimination and became the Equality Act 2010, which encapsulates amongst other things, the illegality of race discrimination. For instance, "mandarin speaking preferred" ads like those prevalent in Singapore, would be scrutinised and most likely outlawed.

When John Galliano was inadvertently filmed making anti-Semitic remarks while drunk, he was sacked by Dior and tried in a French court when the video was made public online. By all mainstream accounts, these actions against him were applauded by the general public and Galliano's collection was not even permitted runway time at the Paris Fashion Week.

In Europe, it is illegal to publicly deny the holocaust as that is deemed offensive to Jews and the wider public alike. As a result, British writer David Irving has found himself at the receiving end of litigation.

Anti-racism laws are also found in Australia, and indeed any country that has ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination would have some form of anti-racism law. Oddly, for all its concerns about racism, Singapore is not a signatory to this Convention.

To be fair, it would be far-fetched to say countries that have implemented such laws are celebrating diversity in all its fullness and there are instances of its failure to deal with racial issues. Many of these countries have a longer history of racism than Singapore, which will take a long time to eradicate, if ever. But the Equality Act has certainly been successful in the UK in the protection of minorities, and claimants have been successful in defending their rights. At the very least, it goes a long way to ensure minorities that their interests are taken seriously by their country.

Least I be mistaken, I am not advocating an extension of the Internal Security Act for Singapore. If anything, ISA should be viewed as an extremely blunt, wide-casting– some political conspiracy pundits might even suggest deliberately so – and ambiguous instrument that is of limited use in managing what we have witnessed to be “grassroots racism”.

Race laws, on the other hand, are meant to be crafted to target specific public behaviour that the nation deems inappropriate. This means that offenders can be charged and tried by transparent laws. Such laws will also be a clear statement to the world that Singapore sees it as a national imperative to clamp down on undesirable behaviour that favours one group illegitimately over another.

I am not suggesting that putting laws in place will solve all the problems. I definitely believe in dialogue and on-going education as the genuine long-term solutions to bridge the racial divide. But racism is not likely to be something that can ever be completely stamped out. As such, the only way to deal with this unsavoury phenomenon is to bring in laws so that people know not to overstep socially-acceptable boundaries.

Continued education will no doubt go a long way to fostering respect between the races, and if respect is not possible, tolerance at the bare minimum. But for the incorrigible, they still need to know the boundaries and clear laws will “unmuddy” the waters in this regard. Most people will not overstep the line if they know where that line is drawn and if they do, we would then have proper legislation – transparent, executable and representative of our people – with which to prosecute them.