Fostering dialogue about race and religion, responsible online behaviour, and more on Govt efforts to tackling racism: Edwin Tong

Singapore does not tolerate any form of racial discrimination, said the Minister of Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong in Parliament on Monday (5 July), adding, “racial discrimination sows discord amongst and between different communities and threatens the harmony that we’ve worked so hard over so many generations to build up.”

Acknowledging that Singapore’s multiculturalism “is not perfect” and that there is still much to improve, Mr Tong outlined the government’s multi-pronged approach to tackling racism and racial discrimination in Singapore.

He was responding to some parliamentary questions raised by MPs Ms Carrie Tan and Ms Cheng Li Hui on the government’s current efforts on building civic engagement, facilitating conversations on sensitive topics of race and religion, and how it intends to strengthen racial and religious harmony in Singapore.

Parliamentary Questions

Ms Carrie Tan: To ask the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth (a) what are the current efforts to build the civic engagement sector for skilled facilitators to lead conversations in the community on sensitive topics of race and religion; (b) how are suitable and effective facilitators sourced for, identified and trained; and (c) how will the tracking, evaluation and scaling of the positive effects of these conversations on social cohesion be made within the community.

Miss Cheng Li Hui: To ask the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth (a) how does the Government intend to address tensions on racial insensitivities and discrimination on social media platforms; and (b) how does the Government intend to strengthen racial and religious harmony in Singapore.

Broadly, the Minister responded by outlining Singapore’s multi-pronged approach to tackling racism and racial discrimination starting with the enforcement and legal framework implement to deal with “egregious cases: that undermine religious and racial harmony.

Mr Tong cited the example of a Twitter user who made racist remarks against Indian people with relation to the rising number of COVID-19 cases among migrant workers living in dormitories.

The man who ran the account was charged under the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA), noted the Minister. He added other laws such as the Broadcasting Act also allows the IMDA to compel internet content providers to remove material that could incite religious hatred, strife or intolerance.

Following that, the second prong to the multi-prong approach is in fostering social norms for respectful online behaviours and discourse, said Mr Tong.

“Recent events have highlighted the polarizing effect of online platforms and social media and we must guard against potential divisions,” he explained.

“This is especially important because we can only strengthen our multiculturalism if we treat fellow Singaporeans as partners instead of adversaries to be confronted.”

To achieve this, Mr Tong highlighted the Media Literacy Council (MLC)’s efforts in promoting responsible online behaviour. This includes supporting partners and projects in promoting civil, empathetic, and respectful online behaviour.

Mr Tong added: “MCCY also encourages, ground-up projects, that promote racial and religious harmony including those that leverage digital and online platforms.

“MCCY provides funding, funding support through its Harmony Fund and partners community organizations to organize initiatives such as the mission United Hackathon in December 2020.”

Thirdly, Mr Tong noted his Ministry’s efforts in fostering “open, meaningful and responsible conversation” on race and religion.

“These conversations bring Singaporeans together to discuss and find common ground on issues important to us as a people and in the process, build up mutual trust and respect and also understanding.”

Mr Tong went on, “To support such dialogues and civic engagements, we work with stakeholders in a public, private and also people sectors to identify and equip individuals with the relevant skills so that they can, in turn, create safe spaces for sensitive topics to be discussed.”

This includes training in the public service.

He also noted collaboration with community and religious groups to engage in construction discussions so as to clarify doubts and misconceptions and rally Singaporeans around shared values to “take a stand against divisive rhetoric on racial and religious issues.”

Finally, Mr Tong asserted his ministry’s commitment to “enlarging the commons spaces” in which all Singaporeans can live and play together and share their daily lived experiences.

He asserted, “Singapore’s approach to maintaining our common space has created room for every community to enjoy our diverse cultural heritage without asking any specific segment of the community to give up its rich inheritances, culture and heritage.”

“This approach remains fundamental to tackling racism and racial discrimination and strengthening racial and religious harmony in Singapore,” said Mr Tong, adding that everyone has a part to play.

Mr Tong mentioned the Character and Citizen Education (CCE), History and Social Studies taught in school as a way of nurturing respect and harmony in students, referencing the refreshed CCE curriculum in 2021.

He concluded, “Racial Harmony in Singapore is constant work in progress and our ambition is for the bonds that bind our different communities to grow from strength to strength in the common spaces that we provide.”

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