'Society must unite to condemn hate speech': Shanmugam
Shanmugam says 'debate and discussion' not enough to maintain social harmony
Sensible boundaries need to be drawn to prevent hate speech and protect social institutions and people from the harm it can cause, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday.
In a Facebook post where he cited the recent unrest in the American city of Charlottesville, Mr Shanmugam made the point that societies cannot just look to "debate and discussion" to build and maintain social harmony in the battle against hate speech.
Neo-Nazis and white supremacists had held a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug 12 to protest against the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
They paraded in the streets yelling Nazi slogans and clashed with counter-protesters.
The protests turned deadly when a white supremacist rammed his car into a crowd, killing one person and injuring 19 others.
"Charlottesville reminds us that when hate speech is allowed to be routinely uttered and its symbols are paraded openly, it pollutes the discourse and normalises extremist behaviour," said Mr Shanmugam.
Calling hate speech a "precursor to violence", he highlighted the importance of society coming together to condemn such rhetoric, instead of accepting it as part of free speech.
"If society prohibits open expressions of hate, then racists may still only be paying lip service to societal norms," he said.
"But they have no choice. They have to accept that certain behaviour has no place in the public sphere, and that creates a different dynamic in society."
The Government is looking at policies to tackle acts that denigrate other races or religions, preach intolerance, or sow religious discord.
Mr Shanmugam first spoke about these changes last year.
"There has to be sensible boundaries drawn to prevent hate speech and protect institutions, so that people can live free from harm and hate," Mr Shanmugam wrote.
At the moment, the Government can use the Sedition Act to take action against those who seek to sow discord.
In his Facebook post, Mr Shanmugam cited how Germany's school system, laws and social environment "send a clear message that some types of speech or conduct should not be tolerated".
These include certain historians' revisionist denials of the Holocaust massacre and pro-Nazi rhetoric.
In contrast, "open expressions of hate" are becoming normalised in the United States, said Mr Shanmugam.
For instance, white supremacists from the Ku Klux Klan were once shunned as fringe elements of society.
Today, they make up the "far right" and are unafraid to show their faces unmasked.
Just a decade ago, it would have seemed "far-fetched" to see people openly parade the language and insignia of the Nazis, he said.
"Norms take a generation or two to build up, but can be eroded in a relatively short time,"Mr Shanmugam said.