It is time for Singapore to review its social harmony law, Section 298 of the Penal Code, says Professor Cherian George.
In a blog post on Tuesday (28 July) titled “Section 298 Is Ripe for Review”, the professor in the Department of Journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University started off by highlighting what makes Section 298 a “bad hate speech law”.
He noted that the law fails to distinguish between subjective harm caused by incitement of hate and works that cause subjective offence and disharmony. The latter, said Prof George, is “an allegation too hard to counter and too easily used to silence socially valuable speech”.
As such, he suggested that it should therefore be regulated by social norms instead of ‘hard law’.
The professor went on to say that this law, which is rooted in British colonial times, does not belong among Singaporeans many defences against chauvinism, communalism, and hate.
“It promotes offence-taking instead of live-and-let-live tolerance. It encourages citizens to demand action from above, instead of talking things through among themselves,” he remarked.
The Government may be ready to rethink Section 298
Prof George went on to say that the Government has signalled its readiness to rethink the issue of Singaporeans being allowed to discuss sensitive matters of race and religion.
He referred to an article which highlighted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong commenting on the issue of a political candidate, Workers’ Party’s (WP) Raeesah Khan, being thrust in the spotlight over a police report made against remarks she made two years ago. The report alleged that Ms Khan’s comments promoted “enmity” between racial and religious groups.
While there were those who agreed that Ms Khan’s old social media comments were racially charged, there were also many others who felt that she was merely highlighting incidents of racism that minority groups face daily in Singapore.
PM Lee said at an e-rally during the election that older Singaporeans have a “somewhat different take” on the matter than the younger generation.
“The world has changed, attitudes have changed, younger people have a different perspective … which we have to take into account because young people will one day inherit Singapore,” he added.
Another PAP candidate, now-MP Nadia Ahmad, chimed in to note that younger people want to move beyond “this concept of tolerance or racial harmony”.
“They are willing to have uncomfortable conversations, or conversations that may make some segment of the population feel uncomfortable, and they’re brave enough to do so and I think it’s good that this kind of new norm is being forged,” she said.
Prof George also expressed that he had felt before that it was “futile” to bring this up because Singaporeans are “wedded” to the idea of calling the police to solve social frictions. But now, he thinks the time might be right.
Singaporeans are becoming savvier about laws being weaponised for political ends
Moving on, Prof George highlighted the Ethos Books dialogue on Sunday (26 July) during which Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib made an observation that the Raeesah Khan case shows that people have a greater sensitivity about when race or religion is weaponised for political ends.
“There was a clear backfire over the police report on Raeesah Khan. … With the outpouring of support for Raeesah Khan, does is it mean that people are more accepting of divisive racial or religious remarks? I don’t think so,” said Mr Imran.
“What clearly happened is this – people now have greater sensitivity about when race or religion is weaponised for political ends,” he asserted, adding that it is a healthy development.
Prof George noted Mr Imran’s observation that people have “internalised the Government’s injunction against politicising race and religion” and that the same taboo should also be applied to those who are policing harmony.
Prof George went on to quote Mr Imran who said, “It cuts both ways. Saying something is divisive can itself be a divisive act with an intentional political end. This is something we have not seen before, which clearly speaks to greater civic political awareness.”
The professor then posited that if Mr Imran’s observations hold true, it means Singaporeans are now “savvy enough” to understand that laws made with good intentions can be hijacked for the opposite.
It is a non-partisan issue; requires political education
Prof George proceeded to highlight three things about Section 298 and Ms Khan’s case, firstly that it is not a partisan issue. Both sides of the political aisle have weaponise this particular law against their opponents before.
Secondly, Prof George said that it is “naïve” to think that Ms Khan and her team winning the Sengkang GRC seats despite the police report saga means that “playing the race or religious card” is no longer effective.
He noted that Ms Khan’s popularity remains low based on online sentiment analysis and that her team likely won due to their wildly popular teammate Jamus Lim.
“All we can say with certainty is that the anti-Raeesah smear campaign was not effective enough — not that it didn’t work at all,” added Prof George.
Next, he stated that “most Singaporeans who are rightly protective of racial and religious peace need to be convinced that reforms won’t generate unacceptable risks”.
Sharing an excerpt from his testimony during the Select Committee Hearing in 2018, Prof George suggested that political education is necessary to help people understand that while Section 298 is there to protect religious groups, it can be wielded by irresponsible actors as much as responsible ones.
“The conventional wisdom is that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And indeed if by “broken” we mean prone to communal violence, Singapore is in good shape,” he elaborated.
Nonetheless, Prof George hinted that this would be a long process of “weaning” Singaporeans off their dependence on the police.
On his final point, he said that if political leaders do not consider reviewing the racial harmony law, the status quo would be “vigorously defended by PAP Ultras”.
“They will be back, preying on ordinary Singaporeans’ fears of instability, spreading disinformation about anti-racism activists, and thus trying to paralyse any effort for progressive change,” Prof George predicted.