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Alleged racist attack: Racism, xenophobia will become normalised if Singapore is not careful, warns Shanmugam

SINGAPORE — Racism will become normalised if Singapore is not careful to address some dangerous racist comments, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said on Tuesday (May 11).

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam in Parliament on May 11, 2021,

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam in Parliament on May 11, 2021,

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  • Mr Shanmugam condemned an alleged racist attack on a woman near Choa Chu Kang stadium
  • He said “several highly racist comments” had been made about Indians
  • This sort of racism is “dangerous for Singapore”, he added


SINGAPORE — Racism will become normalised if Singapore is not careful to address some dangerous racist comments, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said on Tuesday (May 11).

Referring to websites that stoke racist and xenophobic sentiments, as well as people making racist remarks in coffee-shop conversations, Mr Shanmugam said in Parliament that such open expressions of racism should be condemned.

“There have been several canards about Ceca (Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement), promoted by a whispering campaign... And what's happening on the ground… several highly racist comments targeting Indians,” Mr Shanmugam said. “So it’s getting into the ground and being repeated. This will become normalised if we are not careful.”

He said that people here, as in the United States, had been “stoking the fears, encouraging racism and xenophobia, and dog whistling”.

“That is dangerous, and dangerous for Singapore.”

Mr Shanmugam also singled out Mr Leong Mun Wai by name, inviting the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament to table a parliamentary motion on Ceca, which is a free trade deal between Singapore and India signed in 2005.

Mr Leong, who is from the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), had previously filed several parliamentary questions about Ceca and the issue of foreign talent competing with Singaporeans for jobs.

Mr Shanmugam said: “If anyone here believes that Ceca is a problem, put it up for a Motion, debate it openly and let’s hear whether Singaporeans benefit or lose from it.” 

He was addressing the issue of racism and xenophobia after Murali Pillai, Member of Parliament for Bukit Batok, raised the incident of a woman who was allegedly assaulted and subjected to racist slurs near Choa Chu Kang Stadium.

“I hope responsible opposition parties will take a stand on this, notwithstanding that many of these sites that promote xenophobia support you,” he said.

Online users unhappy with the Government’s immigration policy on India nationals have often cast the blame on Ceca, with the term often used to refer to Indians in a derogatory manner.

In response to Mr Shanmugam’s invitation, Mr Leong said that PSP will bring up Ceca for debate in Parliament at an appropriate time in the future.

He categorically stated that the party he represents and he himself are not xenophobic or racist.

“We are definitely not xenophobic and definitely racism has no place in our overall thinking,” Mr Leong said.

He then explained that the party's criticism of Ceca, and other free trade agreements, stemmed from the economic effects on Singaporeans.

PSP emphasised again in a statement on Wednesday that it is "categorically against racism and does not stoke or incite racism to gain political mileage and advantage". The party added that the recent cases of hate crime and violence against Indians were unacceptable and deplorable.

Mr Shanmugam said that many of the websites that stir racism have carried comments calling Indians “cockroaches” and “rapists”.

“They are anti-government, and that is perfectly okay, but don’t play with race... We should be ashamed that in the name of free speech, we allow such comments,” he added.

Mr Shanmugam also said that online users cannot justify their racist behaviour by blaming it on government policies, Ceca and the behaviour of Indians, or that they are entitled to be racist and xenophobic for all the mentioned factors.

“Just ask whether racism and xenophobia can ever be justified on these grounds.”

Mr Shanmugam said that the incident involving the Indian woman is consistent with racist incidents involving Asians in other countries such as the US.

The US has reported an increasing number of hate crimes committed against Asian-Americans in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, upset that the coronavirus responsible for the disease originated from the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Mr Shanmugam said that populism has taken hold in many countries around the world, as economic pressures and fears over jobs have led many people to cast the blame on foreigners and immigrants.

“We have to condemn such behaviour in Singapore. I have said previously, there has always been racism in Singapore, like in other countries. But we have managed it, and over time, we have sought to reduce it. But, it has been stirred up recently.”

Mr Shanmugam noted that Singapore has avoided the worst of such populism so far. There are some legitimate concerns about foreigners taking over jobs, and these fears have been a result of unfair employment practices by a minority of companies, and the Ministry of Manpower has taken steps to deal with these practices, he added.

“But what has been happening also, is parties have been deliberating stoking the fears, encouraging racism and xenophobia, and dog whistling, much like what we have seen in the US. That is dangerous, and dangerous for Singapore.

“Because, first it will be the expat Indians. Then, it will come to Singaporean Indians. And anyway, not everyone can distinguish between foreign-born Indians and Singapore-born Indians... If we go down this route, eventually all Indians can be a target of hate, the so-called 'outgroup'.” 

While the situation in Singapore is far from the scenario he described above, he said that the expression of overt racism is still present though only among a minority here.

“The majority of Singaporeans are decent and not racist, but if we continue to fan the flames of racism, we will get to a more uncomfortable position.”

As for the Indian woman who was verbally and physically attacked, Mr Shanmugam said that the attacker is believed to be Chinese. But he said the matter is under investigation and any conclusions can only be drawn when investigations are completed.

The issue was briefly raised earlier when MacPherson MP Tin Pei Ling filed a parliamentary question on how Singaporeans here are responding to the anti-Asian hate crimes observed overseas and how the country would be guarding against such sentiments.

Mr Alvin Tan, Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth, said that the pandemic has exacerbated feelings of distrust and insecurity among different groups all over the world and Singaporeans are not immune to such sentiments.

However, Singapore must not allow such a mindset to take root.

“We denounce all forms of racism, irrespective of which ethnic community is being targeted and wherever in the world it may take place,” Mr Tan said, adding that there are laws here that prohibit and punish hate speech.

Related topics

Parliament K Shanmugam racism Ceca Indian hate crime

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