SINGAPORE: The police received 60 reports on incidents involving racial or religious friction in 2020, almost double the 31 incidents it got the previous year, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said on Monday (Jul 5).
The reports were classified under Sections 298 and 298A of the Penal Code, which cover 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.
There were 18 of such reports in 2018, 11 in 2017 and 23 in 2016.
Mr Shanmugam was responding in a written reply to a parliamentary question by Member of Parliament (MP) Seah Kian Peng (PAP-Marine Parade), who had asked about the number of racially charged incidents reported to the police over the past five years.
Mr Seah also asked for the Government’s assessment of "Singaporeans’ readiness to navigate an increasingly polarised society".
These questions came amid a slew of incidents deemed racist, as well as discussions on the ground about race relations in Singapore.
In May, police arrested a man after he allegedly assaulted a woman as she was walking at Choa Chu Kang Drive and subjected her to racial slurs.
In July, police said a man was accused of shouting “racist remarks” against “two different groups of Chinese men” and assaulted one of the men, and was charged with public nuisance.
Mr Shanmugam acknowledged on Monday that the 2020 figures showed an increase, pointing out that the reports were filed during a period when COVID-19 was spreading and the General Election was taking place.
Providing further details of the 60 cases reported in 2020, Mr Shanmugam said on Tuesday that four of them resulted in a conviction in court.
Charges were brought in six cases, while warnings were issued in another 23 cases.
The figures for cases “warned” or “charged” does not include those where investigations are ongoing as of Tuesday, or where no further action was taken.
The numbers were provided in a written response to a parliamentary question by MP He Ting Ru (WP-Sengkang), who asked for the outcomes of the race-related incidents reported.
On Monday, Mr Shanmugam said that polarisation is a growing concern all over the world, although he highlighted one local survey that showed 97 per cent of respondents believed the level of racial and religious harmony in Singapore was either moderate, high or very high.
But the same survey also showed that about a third of minorities perceived discrimination at work at least sometimes.
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“That said, as the Government has repeatedly said, we must accept that there remain fault lines along race and religion,” Mr Shanmugam said. “And racism is also present.”
Mr Shanmugam said the Government will have to continue to be an “objective and neutral arbiter” and act against anyone, regardless of race, who commits acts that sow enmity and threaten racial harmony.
“This gives confidence to all communities that they can trust the Government to safeguard their interests and to hold the ring on our race relations,” he said.
Despite that, Mr Shanmugam said that not all allegations and accusations that surface in the public sphere cross the lines for prosecution or legal action.
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“If we prosecute every allegation, no matter how trivial, this could stoke people into making police reports for any perceived racial slight, real or misunderstood, or deliberately exaggerated,” he said.
“Over time, this could instead escalate tensions between races and undermine our hard-earned social harmony.”
Mr Shanmugam said the law cannot be the solution in every situation, and stressed the importance of coming together as a society to guard against social fractures and grow common space.
“While we should speak out against clear acts of racism, we should be judicious in how we raise issues, in ways that bridge differences and not deepen fault lines,” he added.
“If we do this, and continue to take action against discrimination wherever we see it, building on our already strong foundations, I am confident that we will become an even more cohesive and harmonious society.”