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Govt could legislate against cancel culture if 'right solutions' can be found: Shanmugam

SINGAPORE — A law that prevents people from curtailing others' free speech through aggressive online attacks could be implemented should the "right solutions" be found, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said in an interview that aired on Thursday (Sept 15).

Law Minister K Shamugam gave a wide-ranging interview with Bloomberg Television on Sept 15, 2022, tackling questions about the repeal of Section 377A, drugs and the death penalty, the Foreign Interference Countermeasures Act, and the ruling People's Action Party's leadership transition.
Law Minister K Shamugam gave a wide-ranging interview with Bloomberg Television on Sept 15, 2022, tackling questions about the repeal of Section 377A, drugs and the death penalty, the Foreign Interference Countermeasures Act, and the ruling People's Action Party's leadership transition.
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  • Singapore may put in place laws to prevent aggressive attacking of individuals for expressing their views, Mr K Shanmugam said
  • This is provided the right solutions could be found to tackle the problem
  • The Law and Home Minister was interviewed by Bloomberg Television, where he spoke about the repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code, the death penalty and more 
  • He said the Government believes in encouraging people to express their views from all sides, as long as they are not offensive or descend to hate speech
  • The authorities have also been studying this issue for some time

SINGAPORE — A law that prevents people from curtailing others' free speech through aggressive online attacks could be implemented should the "right solutions" be found, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said in an interview that aired on Thursday (Sept 15).

He was responding to a question by Ms Haslinda Amin, Bloomberg Television's chief international correspondent for Southeast Asia, on whether Singapore would consider legislation to combat "cancel culture", after religious groups voiced their concerns about being attacked for their views on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) issues last month.

Cancel culture is a movement that leads to the removal of a person's status or esteem after their offensive behaviour or transgressions are called out publicly.

Mr Shanmugam said that such a phenomenon involves a wide variety of issues, and not just those surrounding the repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code that criminalises sex between men, or sexual mores.

"(When) the people’s freedom to express their views is curtailed in real life, in the physical world, we won’t allow five people to gang up and beat you up. That’s against the law," Mr Shanmugam said. But in the online space, such attacks do happen, he added.

People should be encouraged to express their viewpoints on all sides, as long as it is "not offensive and does not descend to hate speech", he stressed.

Repeating a point he made last month about how the Government is mulling ways to ensure that people will not be "cancelled" for stating their views, Mr Shanmugam said that the authorities need to find the right balance between a person's right to free speech and attacking another people's views by curtailing their free speech.

"These are not easy questions, but these are questions that we have been studying for some time. And if we find the right solutions, yes, that should be something that we could see in legislation," he said.

Stating that it is difficult to put a timeframe on when this could happen, he added that the Government has been gathering viewpoints, such as those from both religious and LGBT groups who feel attacked for expressing their views.

"Religious groups, in particular, feel very put upon, because they feel that whenever they express their views, they are attacked as homophobes," Mr Shanmugam said. 

"So, there is a line between expressing your view on religion and becoming homophobic, or engaging in hate speech against LGBT groups. We've got to agree on, you know, these sorts of lines."

The minister was speaking in a wide-ranging interview with Ms Haslinda, in which he answered queries about the repeal of Section 377A, drugs and the death penalty.

He also tackled questions about the Foreign Interference Countermeasures Act, and his role in the leadership transition of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP).

A transcript of the interview was provided to other media outlets. The following is an edited version of the transcript.


Ms Haslinda: Singapore is repealing 377A. The question is where are we on that, in terms of timing? Is Singapore in a hurry to repeal it? Are there issues still being discussed?

Mr Shanmugam: We have had discussions for several months. Prime Minister (Lee Hsien Loong) announced the decision during the National Day Rally. And the ideas have been crystallised. 

It’s now a question of getting the drafts ready. I don't think I'm at liberty to talk about precise timelines.

Ms Haslinda:  What is the end game, though? Presumably, repealing 377A is just the first step. Are we looking at perhaps marriage equality in the end? If not anytime soon, then somewhere down the line?

Mr Shanmugam: In an open society in a democracy, you have got to look at where your people are. And the Government has a duty both to lead, but also to understand the people’s wishes.

I think on (the repeal of) 377A... we are trying to forge as much of a consensus as possible and move forward with some social harmony on an issue that has torn asunder social fabrics in many countries — the culture wars and so on. Very few countries have been able to deal with this in a way that allows a country to move forward. So 377A is what we are looking at, and the repeal of it.

And as the prime minister pointed out, at the same time, Singaporeans don’t want to see a change in tone the very next day on a whole variety of things. And therefore, the Government would be amending the Constitution to make it clear that any debate on what a marriage is and — today marriage is defined in law as between a man and a woman — that any debate on this is in Parliament, and that it is not dealt with through the courts...

This Government and Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence (Wong), who has been chosen by his peers to be the next leader if he gets elected in the General Elections... also does not intend to change the policy on marriage. 

Ms Haslinda: Is civil union an option? Is it something that Singapore may consider?

Mr Shanmugam: I will keep telling you the current position. And the current position is that marriage is defined in the Women’s Charter, and it is something that we consider as part of the law, and we will amend the Constitution to make sure that it can only be dealt through Parliament.


Ms Haslinda: I want to touch on the death penalty. It is a sensitive topic and I guess a lot of different groups including the human rights groups, as well as people like Richard Branson have weighed in on it. We've seen five executions this year, 10 since the start of the pandemic, what would it take for Singapore to review its stance on a death penalty?

Mr Shanmugam: Haslinda, very often when journalists ask us these questions, it seems — I'm not saying this about you, but I think it seems to reflect their own biases and ideology. Because the series of assumptions in your question (is that) there's a lot of talk about this, that there is a significant discourse and that there is a groundswell against the death penalty. 

When activists who are against death penalty organise protest, they claim that 400 people turned up. Usually these numbers are exaggerated. But even if we assume it's (about) 400 people, what are the facts? 

More than 80 per cent of Singaporeans support the death penalty as of last year and that is current. More than 65 per cent support the mandatory death penalty. So the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans support the death penalty. 

What's the task of the Government? It is to do right by Singaporeans (and) what's in the best interest of society, if we believe, and we do, that the death penalty, in fact, saves thousands of lives because of its deterrent effect. And I can show you examples from all the other countries, which don't have the death penalty and lack enforcement on drug policy... thousands more people die. 

So, there are two questions. One, philosophical question, whether under any circumstances, even if thousands of lives can be saved, whether the state should execute anyone. That's a philosophical question, we can debate it. Second, whether it actually has that deterrent effect. We are convinced of it. We believe that it saves a lot of lives and it stops a lot of crimes. 

Now, therefore, if we believe that it is the best interest of society, Singapore, and if the vast majority of Singaporeans support it, as they do, then do you want us to change policy because four newspapers write about it, talking to the same three activists and quoting the same three activists? 

And I'm not saying these are precise numbers, but I'm giving you the picture. So, the government policy, if 400 people plus three newspaper articles can change government policy, or if Mr Richard Branson can change government policy, then Singapore would not be where it is today.

Ms Haslinda: So, are you concerned then, with the neighbouring countries allowing drugs to be legalised? Does it make it even more complicated for Singapore, for you to police?

Mr Shanmugam: Of course, it creates more challenges, because the more drugs (are available), the more challenging it is to deal with it. But by and large, a vast majority of Singaporeans understand that drugs are bad for society. 

There is a small group that thinks that it ought to be legalised. And because of the portrayal in popular media, younger people, not the majority, tend to have a slightly different view of cannabis and these are all challenges we have to deal with. 


Ms Haslinda: I want to touch on the non-interference law that has been passed in Singapore. Has it been successful, especially in light of recent developments, like the war in Ukraine, like issues regarding Taiwan?

Mr Shanmugam: I have to say the law was passed but it has not yet come fully into force because we said that we will work out various subsidiary legislation, which are somewhat technical. So the law will be fully brought into force once all that is in place.

But we are watching very closely, the developments in Australia, which has taken several steps to deal with this. There are a number of other countries — Israel, India and so on, which have also put in legislation. So, we are looking at their experience. We have a suite of tools to deal with some things, not all, which is why this law was necessary. We hope to bring it fully into force soon.

Ms Haslinda: But I'm curious to see, to know what Singapore sees as the biggest challenge that it is trying to address with this non-interference law, where it is concerned.

Mr Shanmugam: The problem is that the internet has allowed both state actors and non-state actors to intervene in your country and pretend to be somebody else… and say inflammatory things, which make people angry with each other and enhance what somebody called the "protest potential" and create trouble within the country… and weaken the country...

We have not yet seen substantial interference yet. But if it can happen to others, it can happen to us. So that's why we're taking steps before it happens.


Ms Haslinda: Minister. Singapore is looking at a new leadership. What role do you see yourself playing in this new leadership?

Mr Shanmugam: It's not something that I have given a great deal of thought. Nor do I spend a lot of time at night thinking about.

Ms Haslinda: How do you think you can contribute to the new leadership?

Mr Shanmugam: Well, the new leadership has got to settle among itself, who the ministers will be, and what roles (for) some people who are in between the third and fourth generation — and I'm one of the few ministers in between those generations — whether there is some role (to play). But it also depends on how much longer I want to be doing this.

Ms Haslinda: There are murmurings on the ground that you could be the next Deputy Prime Minister.

Mr Shanmugam: There are murmurings on the ground as to any number of people being prime minister, deputy prime minister. My advice is to ignore these murmurings, most of them come from people who don't know anything.

Ms Haslinda: What are the biggest challenges you think the new leadership faces?

Mr Shanmugam: There are some challenges that Singapore will always have, has always had and will always have. The fact that it is 760 square kilometres in size and therefore, it doesn't have a hinterland and doesn't have the size of a substantial country, will always impose very substantial challenges for its existence. 

Those existential questions... the new leadership will have to deal with them.

We will have to continue to see what relevance Singapore has. If Singapore is not relevant to the world, economically and politically, we will just be a piece of barren rock and how do we survive? We survive by being economically relevant, attracting investors, doing things that keep us going, that will always be a challenge as the economic competition heats up.

And there will be other challenges for the ageing society. There will be budgetary challenges because with an ageing society and healthcare costs going up, and a country with first-world healthcare and living standards, you will need to provide that, but with a reduced manpower base. Where do you get your doctors and your nurses and your allied healthcare workers? I'm just giving you one perspective. 

So, there are economic challenges, there will be significant social challenges all arising from a few factors really — size, the economic competition from outside, the ageing society. They have their work cut out.

Related topics

K Shanmugam cancel culture Section 377A death penalty

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