Singapore has range of laws to guard against racist comments: Lawyers

Lawyers say they can be invoked even if there was no intention to hurt racial or religious feelings

From the Penal Code to the Protection from Harassment Act, lawyers say Singapore has a range of laws to guard against racist comments.

They apply whether the comments were made online or involved a non-verbal gesture made in public.

The laws can also be invoked even if there was no intention to hurt racial or religious feelings.

Take the case of 35-year-old Zainal Abidin Shaiful Bahari.

On Tuesday, the Singaporean was sentenced to three weeks' jail for comments he made on Twitter, under what he claimed was a parody account satirising racially insensitive Singaporeans. Posing as "SharonLiew86", Zainal sent multiple racially offensive tweets in 2019 and last year.

Ms Diana Ngiam, one of his lawyers, told The Straits Times her client did not specifically direct the tweets at any individual. But he was still liable for committing acts against racial harmony - an offence under the Penal Code.

She noted that the offence merely requires that the offender be aware that his actions would promote enmity between different religious or racial groups, or that they are prejudicial to the maintenance of racial or religious harmony and is likely to disturb the public tranquillity.

The issue is in the spotlight after a number of incidents were recently highlighted on social media. They include the case of the Ngee Ann Polytechnic lecturer who allegedly directed racist remarks at a mixed-race couple while they were out in Orchard Road last Saturday.

Even if such comments are not intended to hurt racial sentiments, they can result in prosecution.

But the bar set for such scenarios is high, said Ms Christine Low, a partner at Peter Low & Choo, citing a 2007 Parliament debate.

The issue had an airing in Parliament last month when Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam pointed out that groups in Singapore have been fanning the flames of xenophobia and racism here.

He highlighted the incident where a 30-year-old Chinese man was arrested after he kicked a woman in her chest.

The man had earlier shouted racial slurs at the Indian Singaporean for lowering her mask below her nose even though she explained she was exercising.He was later arrested.

Lawyers pointed out that people who direct offensive comments at others of the same race can also breach the same laws.

On May 2, a local Indian man allegedly uttered offensive remarks towards an Indian family and confronted the male member of the family for not wearing his mask.

A video of the incident showed the Singaporean directing xenophobic comments at the man, telling him not to "come and spread the virus".The Singaporean was later arrested and investigations are ongoing.

Lawyers noted that other than racial enmity laws, the authorities can investigate such actions under the Protection from Harassment Act and the Sedition Act. There are also other provisions in the Penal Code that might apply, such as public nuisance.

After Mr Dave Parkash, the man who was confronted by the lecturer, shared the video on Facebook, some netizens asked if he was at risk of breaking laws himself.

Mr Shashi Nathan, a partner and who heads the dispute resolution department at law firm Withers KhattarWong, said: "If ultimately the intention (of Mr Parkash) was to raise awareness or to even show what happened, then I do not think it is a question of inciting any racial unhappiness... he is the victim."