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.
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.
Mr Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth & Second Minister for Law:
- Sir, as a multiracial and multi-religious country, we do not tolerate any form of racial or religious discrimination. Racial discrimination sows discord amongst, and between, different communities, and threatens the harmony that we have worked so hard, over so many generations, to build up.
- Our multiracialism is not perfect, and there is still much that we can do to improve. Let me elaborate on our multi-pronged approach to tackle racism and racial discrimination.
Enforcement and legal framework
- First, we have an enforcement and legal framework to deal with egregious cases that undermine our racial and religious harmony. Under the Penal Code, it is an offence to commit acts that deliberately wound the racial and religious feelings of any person, that promote enmity between different racial and religious groups, or that are prejudicial to the maintenance of racial and religious harmony. The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA), as amended in 2019, allows the Government to respond more effectively to incidents of religious disharmony, and strengthens our safeguards against foreign influence that threaten our religious harmony.
- The Government does not tolerate hate speech, and will investigate anyone who sows enmity between races. Just last year, an individual used a Twitter account to make racist remarks against people of different races. This included comments against Indians whilst making reference to a news article on foreign workers living in dorms contributing to the apparent high COVID-19 infection rate in Singapore. He was charged for offences of promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion or race under Section 298A of the Penal Code.
- In addition, under the Broadcasting Act, IMDA can direct Internet Content Providers to take down broadcasting material that glorifies, incites or endorses ethnic, racial or religious hatred, strife or intolerance, which is prohibited under the Internet Code of Practice.
Encouraging respectful online behaviour
- Second, Sir, we foster social norms for respectful online behaviour and discourse. Recent events have highlighted the polarising effect of online platforms and social media, and we must guard against potential divisions. 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, we will require a whole-of-society partnership, with Government, Industry, and of course the Community, and each of us, collaborating.
- For example, the Media Literacy Council (MLC) promotes responsible online behaviour by working with partners to support projects by our youth promoting the shared values of respect, responsibility, empathy and integrity; and online behaviours that demonstrate safety, responsibility, and also civility.
- Social media companies also play a part in managing content hosted on their platforms, by constantly improving and enforcing their policies to remove content that promotes violence against people based on race or ethnicity. For example, Facebook has a set of Community Standards, which classifies “Hate Speech” as “objectionable content”. Twitter also has a similar set of policies on hateful conduct. And the Government works with these social media companies to promote healthy, online discourse.
- MCCY also encourages ground-up projects that promote racial and religious harmony, including those that leverage digital and online platforms. MCCY provides funding support through its Harmony Fund, and partners community organisations to organise initiatives such as the Mission:Unite Hackathon in December 2020.
Encouraging conversations on R&R topics
- Third, we foster open, meaningful and responsible conversations on race and religion. That is important. 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.
- To support such dialogues and civic engagements, we work with stakeholders in the public, private and 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.
- Within the public service, we have trained and developed a sizeable pool of facilitators who are able to design and lead engagements both within the public service and with the wider community. An example is the ongoing Emerging Stronger Conversations, which I’m sure many members have heard or participated in, which are mostly led by public officers across different government agencies who are trained in facilitation.
- Beyond the public service, community and religious groups also play a key role in engaging constructive discussions, clarifying doubts and misconceptions, and rallying Singaporeans around our shared values to take a stand against divisive rhetoric on racial and religious issues.
- Our religious and community leaders have amongst them, strong facilitation and convening capabilities. MCCY augments their efforts. For example in June, MCCY supported the Centre For Interfaith Understanding’s launch of a series of public workshops that aim to discover and develop and deepen interfaith facilitators’ roles, and expose them to cross-cutting issues such as interfaith marriages, economic inequality when discussing race and religion. So having other segments of society come together, discussing policies, economic policies, but having the undertone of racial and religious harmony as a backdrop.
- Last month, MCCY also launched the “Create and Connect” digital media workshops where 40 participants from religious and community organisations came together to learn from technology companies on how to impactfully engage audiences on sensitive race and religion issues, and also manage complex online discussions in a constructive manner.
- MCCY also supports community-driven dialogues that provide safe spaces and opportunities for open dialogue and mutual learning. MCCY’s BRIDGE programme was launched in 2017, and has to date supported over 120 such dialogues pertaining to race and religion. For instance, OnePeople.sg has been organising the “Regardless of Race” dialogue series since 2019, with its most recent sixth edition in April this year. These dialogues address salient issues on racial harmony, including the impact of social media on race and religious relations.
Enlarging the common space
- Fourth, sir, we are committed to enlarging the common spaces in which all Singaporeans can live, work and play together, and also share in the daily-lived experiences that bind us. 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 community to give up its rich inheritances, culture and heritage. Over time, we have achieved a balance that all communities can accept, and it has allowed us to live together in peace for more than half a century. This approach remains fundamental to tackling racism and racial discrimination, and strengthening racial and religious harmony in Singapore. And I must stress that we all have a part to play.
- MCCY also works with other Government agencies and community partners to provide opportunities for Singaporeans from diverse backgrounds to have meaningful interactions with one another. So it is not just between government and people, but also, crucially, between people to people, as well. These include events organised by arts, heritage and sports organisations, the People’s Association (PA) and the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCCs).
- We also nurture the values of respect and harmony in our students. Within the classroom, topics on multiculturalism and the importance of racial harmony are taught in subjects like Character and Citizenship Education (CCE), History and Social Studies. As part of the refreshed 2021 CCE curriculum, teachers in secondary schools and pre-university institutions will receive specialised training so that they can also facilitate conversations, discussions, dialogues, on contemporary issues, including race and religion, to hone students’ ability to understand different perspectives, and engender a sense of empathy and respect for one another.
- Through Co-Curricular Activities and other school experiences, students bond and interact with one another regardless of background. Learning journeys to cultural and heritage sites and the celebration of cultural festivals also help students to foster and develop a stronger sense of identity, learning, and also importantly, sensitivity on racial and religious issues.
- Sir, these are just some of the Government’s initiatives in the community and education domains to strengthen racial and religious harmony in Singapore. Racial harmony in Singapore is a 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. All of us have a part to play in building a united nation “regardless of race, language or religion”. Thank you, Sir.