Students stand against the Maintenance of Racial Harmony Bill

Students stand against the Maintenance of Racial Harmony Bill

7 June 2024: Today at 2.30pm, 40 students and alumni of Singaporean institutes of higher learning delivered 40 letters to the Ministry of Home Affairs opposing the newly proposed Maintenance of Racial Harmony Bill. We are made up of students and alumni of many different races from Nanyang Technological University (NTU), National University of Singapore (NUS), Singapore Management University (SMU), Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), Polytechnics and Institutes of Technical Education.

We peacefully walked towards the MHA building, many of us wearing shirts that said “There Are No Universities Left in Gaza”, where we gathered our letters and delivered them to the Ministry.

Together, we aimed to show the government that we strongly oppose this Bill’s ability to provide the Minister for Home Affairs, and his Ministry, with the power to indiscriminately clamp down on any acts that may be deemed to “threaten the racial harmony” of Singapore. We do not believe that the establishment of more laws and harsher punishments are effective in eliminating racism. 

On the contrary, similar laws such as s298 and s298a of the Penal Code, which the MRHB will subsume if it passes, have been used against people who wish to openly discuss, expose, and analyse racism as it exists. As students, we stand against the silencing of this discourse. We learn in our history classes that the struggle against racism does not happen in the courthouse or the jail cell, but in open dialogue and honest confrontations with racism in our society from an individual to a systemic level. 

As mentioned in the proposed Bill, we agree that it is important to ‘strike a balance between keeping public discourse free from hateful or offensive speech, and allowing space for legitimate discourse, private communications, and remarks made in good faith’. However, we are concerned that the vagueness of these definitions leaves the government with unlimited discretion to repress any discourse or actions which might be conveniently defined as “racial” in nature. On the government’s end, what provisions will be made to ensure that this does not happen? For instance, can the government specify what determines or defines remarks that are ‘in good faith’?  

There are several alarming aspects of this Bill which can easily be used against activists and independent voices, as has been proven before in applications of the Penal Code. We have seen that nearly all actions bringing light to the genocide in Gaza and calling on our government to take further actions against Israel are often treated as threats to Singapore’s racial and religious harmony. Participants in Steadfast for Palestine, an event held within a private space, were investigated under the Penal Code for eliciting “racial tensions” despite the racial diversity of the crowd and the lack of discrimination or elicitation of hate against any ethnic group. In fact, event attendees echoed calls against the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians – a clearly anti-racist stance. 

Some of the most concerning aspects of the proposed Bill include:

  1. Enhanced penalties against offenders who are deemed to have urged violence against other groups on the grounds of race. This is concerning because the definition of “urging violence” is unclear. For example, the police statement about Steadfast for Palestine had said that the phrase “from the river to the sea” is associated with calls for the destruction of the state of Israel.

  2. Providing the Minister of Home Affairs the power to make Restraining Orders (ROs) against the production or distribution of any content (publications, social media posts, pamphlets, etc) which he deems to destabilise racial harmony. These ROs can be made without having to establish criminal conduct, making it easier for MHA to take action against individuals. The ROs cannot be appealed against in a court of law, and are only subjected to review by a  Presidential Council composed of members selected by MHA itself. This is a clear conflict of interest and provides the Minister unilateral power in using this Bill to restrict freedom of expression.

Based on similar uses of existing laws to crack down on any expression of resistance, we believe that the introduction of the Bill will be detrimental to peaceful efforts by the people of Singapore to raise awareness on domestic and global issues of concern. Now more than ever, as students around the world are calling for the liberation of Palestinians from decades of occupation and violence, we, the students of Singapore, also rise up to reject censorship and state repression. 

In Singapore, students have organised teach-ins, demonstrations at graduation ceremonies, and sit-outs calling for our schools to cut all ties with Israel. In NTU, students organised a teach-in called Ponteng for Palestine, where students sat out of our classes and chose instead to give ourselves the education we needed during this genocide, and to learn about the history of Palestine and the settler-colonial state of Israel. Students have also put up posters within bathrooms, in a desperate attempt to reach fellow students and spread awareness of NTU’s ties with Israel. In NUS, students have conducted several Picnics for Palestine, where students read Palestinian poetry and wrote out our words of solidarity. During the Yale-NUS convocation, 43 students showed their support for Palestine by wearing wristbands, draping kuffiyahs over their gowns, and the class student speaker spoke in support of Palestine during her speech. 

With the passing of this Bill, even peaceful and educational actions like these, which earnestly call on our universities to cut ties with the genocidal state of Israel, will be threatened, alongside many other peaceful actions and educational campaigns by our fellow Singaporeans. 

Today, we came together to take a stand for past, present and future students of Singapore to be able to engage in critical and generative discussions on important social and political issues. Through coming together in numbers, we hope to show the government that our education has taught us not only to know right from wrong, but to struggle against censorship, and to stand for the open acknowledgement and discussion of the truth. 

Solidarity forever, 

Singaporean Campaign for the Academic Boycott of Israel
Students for Palestine (inter-university coalition of Pro-Palestine student groups)


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